Cantigas of Santa María of Alfonso X
The Martin Best Ensemble
Nimbus 5081


1. Santa Maria, Strella do dia  [2:40]   CSM 100   Holy Mary, Star of the Day

2. Non sofre Santa Maria  [2:58]   CSM 159   THE LOST STEAK

3. Non e mui gran maravilla  [2:35]   CSM 294   THE GERMAN GAMBLER

4. Santa Maria amar  [2:54]   CSM 7   THE BABY RESCUE

5. A Santa Maria dadas sejan loores  [0:49]   CSM 140   To Holy Mary praise be given

6. Quen boa dona querra loar  [3:01]   CSM 160   He who wishes to praise a good lady

7. Muit e mais a piadade  [2:57]   CSM 201   THE GIRL WHO ATE SPIDERS

8. A Virgen, que Deus Madre  est  [1:25]   CSM 322   A MAN SWALLOWS A RABBIT BONE

9. Virgen, Madre Gloriosa  [2:36]   CSM 340   Glorious Virgin Mother

10. Porque ben Santa Maria  [2:24]   CSM 327   A PRIEST STEALS AN ALTAR-CLOTH

11. Entre Av'e Eva  [1:13]   CSM 60   Between Ave and Eve

12. Se ome fezer de grado  [1:20]   CSM 207   A KNIGHT'S FORGIVENESS

13. Fremosos miragres  [4:51]   CSM 352   A KNIGHT'S HAWK

14. Por nos, Virgen Madre  [2:32]   CSM 250   Implore God for us, Virgin Mother

15. Ben pode Santa Maria  [1:36]   CSM 189   A DRAGON-SLAYING

16. O que en Santa Maria  [2:56]   CSM 216   A KNIGHT BARGAINS WITH THE DEVIL

17. Ay Santa Maria  [3:00]   CSM 79   MUSA GOES TO HEAVEN

18. Santa Maria loei  [0:52]   CSM 200   Holy Mary have I praised

19. Muito, foi noss' amigo  [2:09]   CSM 210   Gabriel was our friend

20. Rosa das Rosas  [3:29]   CSM 10   Rose of all Roses

21. Santa Maria, strella do dia  [1:38]   CSM 100   Holy Mary, Star of the Day

22. Entre Av'e Eva  [1:39]   CSM 60   Between Ave and Eve

Martin Best, voice, lute, oud, psaltery, baldozo
Jeremy Barlow, recorders, pipes, medieval flute
David Corkhill, drums, bells, nakers, dulcimer
Alastair McLachlan, rebecs and fiddle
Lucie Skeaping, voice, rebecs
Olivia Blackburn, Jennifer Quigley, Margaret Cameron, Simon Colston, Graham Dalby, Andrew Buscher

Continuous Playing Time: 51:30
Recorded at All Saints' Church, Tooting 10th-12th June 1984
A Digital Recording

Recorded, Mastered and Manufactured in the United Kingdom by Nimbus Records Limited.
Cover picture: The Court of Alfonso X el Sabio / copyright Urquía Latorre.
Design by Barron Hatchett, Manchester

℗ 1984 © 1987 Nimbus Records Limited.

THE SONGS and poems of the 13th century and before have only recently begun to receive the attention which, as vibrant representatives of their age, is their due. Yet we take for granted their legacy of thought, of feeling, of exquisite melody and verse. In particular, we take for granted the presence of Love in the lives of the Troubadours—a legacy bequeathed to them by Dante, who turned it from a languishing potion into a moral force in turn wrought by Renaissance poets, playwrights and composers into the individual passion we revere today.

In this developing realisation of Love's power the cult of the Virgin Mary played a central role. And nowhere is the cult displayed with greater vividness and sympathy than in the collection of Cantigas, or songs, compiled and written by Alfonxo X, the learned, of Castille.

Within the Cantigas lies a panoply of medieval life rivalled only by the Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio's Decameron. Here we see a losing gambler chucking her dice angrily at God (who promptly chucks it back); or a cleric stealing an altar cloth to make new undewear. But it is the miracles of Mary which are the centre piece: over a bewildering range of human folly and predicament, her benificent eye holds sway. With compassion and delicacy her miracles solve every conceivable crisis, and eloquently suggest that while it may have been a masculine God who dispensed justice and mercy to the medieval faithful, it was she (as a heavenly vision of the Domina of the Troubadours) who softened the blow.

Alfonso X of Castille was by any account a remarkable figure. Like his grandfather Alfonso VIII, he was a brilliant intellectual. His capacity for deep and sustained study bore honour to his times and to his country. As a scientist, he investigated the discoveries of Jewish researchers in Toledo; as a linguist, he translated them, and the works of Arabic and classical writers into Castillian; and later he extended the same service to philosophers. By this process the Castillian tongue was refined, taking on the shape of today's Spanish language.

As practical administrator he also served his kingdom. In Seville he established an equitable distribution of housing, and reorganised its water supply. He also recognised the rights of migrating shepherds, making it possible for wool to become Castille's major export. And his work on the legal system replaced many injustices with the Roman concept of public good.

This diversity of achievement had political expression in his dream of a united Spain. Problems of finance and distance defeated it. But the vision itself remained, and Spain eventually became unified.

The Cantigas manuscripts comprise a total of 400 songs mainly in virelai (refrain/verse/refrain) form. Every tenth song is a loor, or praise song, in which Alfonso personally contemplates the Virgin as an object of adoration. The language is Gallo-Portuguese, a dialect familiar to Alfonso and used as a literary language in the same way as 13th century Italian poets used the Provençal of the Troubadours. As a piece of pictorial art the manuscripts are peerless, and notable for their illustrations of the performers of Alfonso's court. All the instruments used on this record could have been found there.

In the High Middle Ages, melody was the means by which poetry—that is, literature—was transmitted, performed and kept alive.

Later in the 13th century, Dante began to observe the tendency of later troubadours to embellish their love-songs with tantalising autobiographies (vidas), and to create stories (razos) around them. The Cantigas also display this tendency, with their regulated mixture of tales and praises.

Yet they do more: they forsake the Lady of the Troubadours and focus specifically on Mary, the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, who herself chooses to become identified with life on earth below.

Dante, who was much admired by Alfonso, doubtless drew on this central aspect of the Cantigas for his depiction of Beatrice, who was not only the flesh and blood object of his adoration, but also the goal of his moral journey towards Paradise in which Love itself is identified as the grounds of his individuality.

In this performance of the Cantigas an attempt is made to emulate this process. It begins with a pilgrim song (Santa María, Strella do Dia) to which the pilgrims process and enter (Alfonso specified a Church as the performing space, and of all the venues Salisbury Cathedral has been the most outstandingly effective setting). Stories of low life are swapped. Later, the preoccupations of knights and countries take over, and these yield in turn at Alfonso's final concentration on the qualities of the Virgin herself. This structure reflects the medieval belief in hierarchy. Seen today as inflexible and class-ridden in medieval times it was a means whereby the lowest creature was joined in clear stages of connection, to the highest reaches of Heaven.

© Martin Best 1986

[liner notes from

The Cantigas of Santa María

Alfonso el Sabio (the learned) (1221 - 1284) became king of Castile and León in 1252. His court was an artistic and scholarly centre, where Jewish, Islamic and Christian met. As a patron of the arts and of learning he was responsible for a number of important publications. This disc features a selection of works from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a varied collection of 400 songs, largely written in virelai (refrain/verse/refrain) form, that celebrate the Blessed Virgin, whether in songs of praise or in anecdotal accounts of the miracles she was said to have performed. Alfonso had a team of musicians working for him who would frequently adopt melodies from popular songs of the day. The texts frequently incorporated titillating 'real-life', often bawdy stories (razos) depicting mundane predicaments, crimes and misfortunes. This use of familiar material served the dual purpose of making the songs accessible, by encouraging the listener to identify with the situation depicted in the text, whilst at the same time reinforcing the relevance of religion in every day life. The poetic nature of the works however, was reflected by the fact that they were inscribed upon beautifully ornate rnanuscripts, and the texts were written in a literary language, Gallo-Portugese.

The first song, entitled Santa María, Strella do dia, extols Mary as 'a star of the day', and asks her to show the way to God. On a less elevated level, the song, Non sofre Santa María, relates how Mary helped to retrieve a stolen steak which was subsequently suspended on a silken thread before her holy alter as a symbol of gratitude. The next two songs are examples of those that appeared as every tenth song - a personal expression of Alfonso's veneration of the Virgin Mary. It is not known for certain whether Alfonso himself contributed his own work to the collection although it is thought that he would certainly have had the ability to do so. Muit é mais a pidade tells how Mary miraculously resolved a particularly torrid state of affairs in which a girl kills her three illegitimate children and then attempts to take her own life by eating a poisonous spider. ln the next song, A Virgen que Deus Madre est, the Virgin rescues a man who is choking on a rabbit bone. A priest steals an alter cloth in Porque ben Santa María, a song in which the moral is firmly reiterated in the refrain: 'Since Holy Mary knows full well how to give her gifts to us, he who sets out to steal from her does a very stupid thing'.

Entre Av'e Eva a short song of praise, without refrain, draws the perceived difference between Eve and Ave, who are rather tentatively connected by their names. Eve is said to have divided man from Paradise and God, whereas 'Ave' is considered to have united them. The diverse nature of the Virgin's miracles is dearly shown in Se ome fezer de grado and Fremosos miragres, both of which are examples of scenarios where a Knight is the protagonist. In the first, the Virgin is responsible for preventing a father whose son has been murdered from exacting revenge upon his killer. The second song relates how a knight's declining hawk is miraculously restored to its former glory. The 'moral' of this particular tale is questionable since the Virgin's miracle in this instance was prompted by little more than the material desire of a person of elevated social status.

Por nos, Virgen Madre is another example of Alfonso's dedications to Mary, and on this occasion, the Virgin is asked to 'implore' God on man's behalf. The instrumental Cantiga that follows originally told a tale that would appear to belong to the realms of folklore rather than that of every day experience. A pilgrim loses his way and is met by a dragon whom he slays but whose breath is so poisonous that he is made grievously ill. He manages to reach Mary's alter at Salas, where he is immediately cured.

It would seem that on the whole, the injured party in each case must believe in Mary in order to receive her assistance. The Knight of the next song, O que en Santa María, however, cannot take his religion too seriously if he is willing to make a pact with the Devil for the sake of material gain. It is interesting to note that when Mary saves that day she does not issue reprimands as one might expect. Any moralizing, which is usually no more than a gentle reminder than a treacherous threat, is frequently left to the repetitive refrains. This seems to correspond with the mild aspect of religion that Mary symbolises in this collection.

The refrain in Ay Santa María declares that followers of Mary are freed from folly. The verses go on to relate the story of Musa, an attractive but 'senseless' girl who is prevented from living a a frivolous life by being taken into Heaven. We might regard this as a slightly harsh and prematune end to an earthly life, if Musa's greatest crime was 'frivolousness'. This is followed by two praise songs, the second of which expresses gratitude towards Gabriel for bringing the tidings of God's arrival on earth. Rosa das Rosas hails Mary in an almost romantic manner, in which the author professes to have given himself to the Virgin 'over all other loves' illustrating the close link between the earthly object of the troubadours' affections and her development into the divine, as embodied by the Virgin Mary.

© 1999 Martin Best / NIMBUS Records