Huelgas Ensemble was founded by Paul Van Nevel in 1971 at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Basle; it was named after a Cistercian monastery near Burgos.
Initially it specialized in contemporary music but soon concentrated on the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, drawing closely on primary sources and making a vital contribution to the study of early music through its published research. The ensemble presents a surprising programme, with often unknown works from composers like Nicolas Gombert, Claude Le jeune, Johannes Ciconia, Pierre de Manchicourt...
The Ensemble’s performances are informed by a profound understanding of medieval and Renaissance vocal techniques and practices.It has made more than 50 recordings for a.o. Sony and Harmonia Mundi and its many awards include the Belgian music press’s Caecilia Price, Le Monde de la Musique’s Choc de l’Année, an Edison Award, the Cannes Classical Award and the ‘Prix in honorem’ of the Académie Charles Cros.
Huelgas Ensemble is subsidised by the Flemish Government and the city of Louvain.
Geert van Istendael | Belgian writer, essayist and lover of music | writes about Huelgas Ensemble:
Anyone, who in the seventies had the privilege to have attended one of the first concerts of Paul Van
Nevel with the fledgling group Huelgas Ensemble, is still talking about it today. Two words spring to mind: awe and ecstasy.
The ecstasy has remained, even after more than three decades. The awe at listening to the unfamiliar, new sounds of this ancient music, an echo from many hundreds of years ago, should normally ebb away with time.
But it does not. The reason being Huelgas Ensemble does not want to leave the public stage. Time and again, it rejuvenates the works of those previously unheard of masters. Never are Paul or his vocalists fed up, never is their audience bored and any new audience is always over the moon.
A few years ago, during their first concert in New York, the prominent newspaper Newsday wrote of a finely tuned instrument and also mentioned how New York finally understood what it had been missing out on for all these years. The New York Times labeled the ensemble simply as superb. From the United States to Japan, similar words of praise are heard as well and, of course, through the whole of Europe too: in Saintes, Brussels, Rijsel, Klagenfurt, Evora and elsewhere.
Occasionally, Paul Van Nevel is likened to a detective of music, a Hercules Poirot or a Morse, whoever you prefer. And it is true, half of his time is spent scouring libraries. As the poem dedicated to this Illustrimus magister polyphoniae explains:
You break into paper dungeons,
you practice the patience of a key
and from the cages of the stave
you set Europe’s voices free
Paul Van Nevel’s ploughing through centuries old manuscripts has released names such as Nicolas Gombert, Claude Le Jeune, Johannes Ciconia, Pierre de Manchicourt and many others from the close circle of a few specialized musicologists. His research has also contributed to the incisive erudite precision with which Huelgas interpret their music.
This interpretation embodies a broad understanding of the predominant views of music produced during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Needless to say, Paul Van Nevel is familiar with the old notation of music and text. But it does not stop there. The music is also placed within the intellectual and cultural time frame of the period it was created in. Classic rhetoric and the four humours are investigated, amongst others. The latter, for example, is considered in the case of the great medieval scholastic Albertus Magnus and the former with the teatro della memoria of the Italian humanist Giulio Camillo Delmimio. Also taken into account are the canons that were prevailing in literature while the selected composers were alive.
What is very distinctive about the sound of Huelgas Ensemble, is their extraordinary purity of sound. Each of the twelve voices manifests itself clearly and in doing so, simultaneously, contributes to a harmonic symphony, which is at times powerful, at other times delicate and often passionate. Huelgas Ensemble sounds like heaven and earth combined.
Not surprisingly, Paul Van Nevel and Huelgas are overloaded with awards. The Ceciliaprijs of the Belgian music press, the Choc de l’Année of Le Monde de la Musique, the Edison, the Cannes Classical Award for ancient music, the Prix in honorem of the Académie Charles Cros, an honorary award of both the European Radio Union and one from the Canadian Radio to mention but a few; this list is far from complete. It is also almost a certain guarantee for the music connoisseur to contain dozens of Huelgas Ensemble records in their collection. Huelgas record under the label Sony Classics (in the Vivarte-collection) and Harmonia Mundi France with great regularity.
Something is stirred within every time Huelgas Ensemble break the silence. It is by no means shocking or sensational, but it evokes profound humbleness, nostalgia and without doubt a deep respect and admiration for the strangely familiar beauty of the musical treasures Europe has to offer. This music comes to life from the moment the creative soul, that is Paul Van Nevel, is willing to discover them and for as long as he masterfully fine-tunes them.