Sunday, September 14, 2008
Listening Journal 1a- Cantigas de Santa Maria
King Alfonso X, also known as Alfonso el Sabio (the Wise or the Learned), is not remembered for his military conquests or his great acquisitions of land, but instead for the historical impact he had on Spanish music (Sage, “Cantiga”). Alfonso was a great patron of science, art and culture. He supervised the compilation of the Cantigas of Santa Maria. As Jack Sage writes, the Cantigas de Santa Maria is “one of the great artistic achievements of the Middle Ages.” This set of 420 songs is not merely a group of pretty tunes; it reveals many aspects of medieval life to listeners today.
The CD, Alfonso X: Cantigas De Santa Maria, recorded by the Unicorn Ensemble, includes ten of the cantigas and lasts about one hour. The instruments, language, modes, meter, and monophony all define this work as from the Medieval period. The listener hears instruments that were used during this era such as percussion instruments, recorders, flutes, bagpipes, harps, the shawm, the hurdy-gurdy, the rebec and finally the human voice. The Unicorn Ensemble decided to use these instruments not through guessing, but based on the four beautifully illustrated manuscripts of the "Cantigas" that are extant. Three manuscripts even include musical notation. The ensemble, along with many other musicians, was able to see the instruments used in performing these songs. The language of the cantigas is Portuguese-Galician, a fascinating use for two reasons: First, the songs are sacred in subject manner, but they are not in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church. Secondly, Portuguese-Galician was not the vernacular of the people in Alfonso's kingdom; the language was Castilian. Poets preferred to write in Portuguese-Galician because they found it more lyrical.
In addition to the oddity of language, there are also musical ones. Many of these pieces are in the Dorian or Mixolydian modes. [watch that you always transition smoothly between subjects and that new subjects are given new paragraphs] Modes are scales with varying arrangements of half and whole steps and both sacred and secular music from the Medieval period use four (the Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Phrygian). The meter of these songs varies; at times it is in duple, other times it is in triple, and some songs even use both. Because Alfonso X compiled this set of cantigas during the Medieval era, it is worthy of note that songs about Mary, the Mother of God, use the duple meter. Musicians thought that triple meter was perfect, because it was like the Trinity, and duple meter was imperfect because it was not like the Trinity. Because of this way of thinking, one would assume that Mary would only receive songs in triple meter. She doesn’t, however, which leads us to believe that at this point in the 13th century, not everyone followed the strict mindset of the Church. During this time, life revolved around the Church. There was a lot of disease, suffering, and death, so the Church's views on eternal life were sometimes all that common people had to offer hope. This is why even their meter related to God. The monophonic or single line of music is also a common musical characteristic of the Medieval period. Instead of being polyphonic or having many independent voices, this music has one melodic line. It can be doubled in unison or at octaves and sometimes, because of instruments like the bagpipe, it can have a drone. Finally, the form of most of these pieces are virelais. Virelai form is ABBA and is one of the three formes fixes, the other two being the ballade and the rondeau. These forms became extremely popular in 14th and 15th century France, so these Spanish 13th century virelais are a predecessor of what was to come. Most of the songs have a clear refrain or “A” section which repeats after contrasting sections.
Before this history class, I had never heard of Alfonso X or this collection. Initially, I chose this album because it grabbed my attention. I am Catholic and the Virgin Mary therefore is someone I admire, much as Alfonso and the writers of the Cantigas venerated her. Not all tracks on this CD are songs. Some are instrumental and others are poems that are recited while music is playing. Reading the liner notes and a few of the translations, I came to enjoy the texts that these songs use, especially as they are not the same that we would sing today about Mary. Some, like track five, are similar to modern-day hymns about Mary, but others, like, “Quen serve Santa Maria” surprise me. This is nothing like what I would imagine hearing in church today. In this song, a man kills his unfaithful wife and asks Mary for help. I know Mary is merciful, but this is extreme.
Overall, I was glad that I chose Cantigas de Santa Maria for my listening journal because I was able to learn a lot about one of the most historically important pieces for Spanish Medieval music. Not only this, but I track enjoyed most of the tracks, especially 3, “Instrumental CSM 259.” The constant drone of the hurdy-gurdy is haunting and beautiful. This music makes me feel many things, and makes me able to relate with the Greeks on their theory of ethos. Also, listening to track 4, I can picture myself dancing in King Alfonso’s court. The meter is strong in this piece, but it also has slower sections, which makes me imagine the people stopping and listening to the poem of Mary’s miracle. Some of the melodies used here may have been taken from secular songs and applied to these texts (Sage, “Cantiga”). In this, I imagine Alfonso X was trying to make these cantigas more popular, an endeavor in which he succeeded as I find them melodic and catchy and their repetitiveness makes them easy to remember. Had I been living in the 13th century near the Iberian Peninsula, I’m sure they would’ve caught my fancy.
Jack Sage. "Cantiga." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.ezproxy.mnl.umkc.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/04772 (accessed September 10, 2008).
Nigel Wilkins. “Virelai.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.ezproxy.mnl.umkc.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/29490 (accessed September 10, 2008).
Latham, Alison. "Cantigas de Santa Maria." In The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.ezproxy.mnl.umkc.edu/subscriber/article/opr/t114/e1132 (accessed September 10, 2008).