I’ve been reveling in visual and aural beauty while transcribing the music for our upcoming concert “Celestial Sirens II” from the original manuscripts at the Newberry Library. Every page of the vellum tells a story. There are lovingly repaired rips on some pages, graffiti on others, and corrections to the music written into the spaces between staves. These choir books were for daily use, not for show, and it was a privilege to hold them in my hands as so many 17th-century women must have done, as I chose the music for this concert. Of course now I’m working from microfilm here in my home studio – one computer screen showing the original, the other, the new edition being made with music software. We are so lucky to be in a digital age!
Probably because these manuscripts were used for daily devotion by the sisters of the Convent of the Encarnación, there are very few errors, omissions, or illegible blotches to be sorted out. However, one very tempting-looking piece turned out to be incomplete. The top choir of a three-choir piece was missing from the six volumes of music at the Newberry. The two choirs for which we had music were intact, and hinted at a very good piece. Plus, I had just enough singers in this concert to do this 11-voice setting of Psalm 112, “Beatus Vir”, and I was determined to program it. I just had to find another source for the missing choir. After all, concordances (as we call duplicate copies found in other sources) are common enough, and I was sure I could track it down.
I contacted all the singers and scholars I knew who worked on New World music to see what they knew about this composer “Fray Jacinto/Jasinto/Xacinto” (“Brother Jacinto”, with all his variant spellings) and his 11-voice setting of Beatus vir. I came up empty. Then, my colleague Craig Russell in Los Angeles wrote to say that he had found an anonymous Beatus vir à 11 listed in a catalog. Might that be the same piece, just unattributed?
We went looking for a microfilm. The original manuscript is in an archive in Puebla, Mexico – and colleagues all over the States and Mexico were offering their contacts to go look at the film there or wherever we might find one, and send me news… then we found a copy right here in the University of Chicago music library! Professor Drew Davies, Northwestern University, a top scholar of Mexican baroque music, found the film in the Regenstein Library, and sent us the catalog listing. Co-director David Douglass got the film, photographed the necessary pages (the computer was down, so he used his iPhone to take pictures of the microfilm reader screen), and sure enough – we had a match! It took a village, but we have the Beatus Vir a 11 of Fray Jacinto, and I believe we will be presenting the modern-day premier of this fantastic piece – at least, the premier of the piece correctly attributed to Fray Jacinto!
Ellen Hargis, Director, Celestial Sirens II