At the end of last week, the ALIA VOX label used its Heritage series to reissue a recording of some of the earliest documented music from the Iberian peninsula. The music comes from a volume known as the Cantigas de Santa Maria (canticles of Holy Mary). These are 420 poems written in the medieval Galician-Portuguese language, each of which includes a line of monophonic music notation. These were written during the reign of Alfonso X of Castile, between 1221 and 1284. Known as “El Sabio” (the wise), he is often taken to be both author and composer.
The collection is framed by an introduction and two prologues. 356 of the poems are narrative accounts of miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary. Every tenth poem is a hymn. The remaining poems refer to Marian or Christological feasts. To say that the narratives tend to be on the longish side would probably invite accusations of understatement. Presumably those at Alfonso’s court had time for such extended expressions of Christian devotion. There are also narratives that clearly appeal to the baser instincts of Alfonso’s courtiers, such as the one about the nun whose pregnancy “vanished” after she appealed to the Virgin Mary.
One of the surviving codices includes miniatures showing musicians playing instruments:
photographic reproduction from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
It would be reasonable to assume that the melodic lines of the songs had instrumental accompaniment. It would also be reasonable to assume that the accompaniment did not necessarily reproduce the notated line. For that matter one may also assume that multiple voices would perform the songs in some form of harmony. The marks in the codex do not constitute the alpha and the omega of how the music should be made.
The performances on the Alia Vox release were prepared and led by Jordi Savall. The performers were the vocalists of La Capella Reial de Catalunya and the musicians of Hespèrion XX. The recordings were made in February of 1993 in the Colegiata romana de Cardona in Catalonia. One of the tracks was recorded much later, in April of 2008.
Savall has a consistent reputation for taking imaginative approaches to early music, recognizing that, even in the thirteenth century, listeners (and probably performers as well) had better things to do than play the same music over and over with only the words changing. Whatever the narrative accounts of the Virgin Mary may have been, these were probably familiar stories that would require a bit of individual panache to keep the listening experience from getting tedious. Savall thus deserves credit for recognizing that innovative arrangement needs to be part of performance.
The good news is that the inside cover of the album provides a convenient listing of which instruments are played by which members of Hespèrion XX. The not-so-good news is that there is not a track listing that accounts for which instruments are performed for which selections. In that respect the earlier release, at the beginning of this year, of the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat is likely to be more informative for those unfamiliar with early music practices.
This earlier recording was made from a concert performance, in which instrumental improvisations were interleaved with the vocal selections. The track listing specifies which instruments are involved on which tracks. In addition this recording was packaged with a “bonus” DVD of the concert performance itself. As a result, one has the benefits of not only knowing which instruments are in play but also seeing how they are played. The Llibre Vermell album thus provides excellent “prerequisite listening” for those whose interests then take them to Alfonso’s Cantigas.