Maiden, Mother, Muse   /   The New Orleans Musica da Camera

Women in the Cantigas
Centaur 2434

1. Porque trobar   [4:00]    Prologo    •   Thaïs St. Julien & instruments

2. Quena Virgen ben servir   [5:42]    CSM 59    •   ensemble

3. Fazer pode   [3:49]    CSM 118    •   instrumental · Michael Relland & Bryce Reveley

4. De vergonna nos guardar   [8:59]    CSM 94    •   ensemble

5. A madre de Deus   [1:54]    CSM 89    •   instrumental · Stuart LeBlanc

6. Santa Maria amar   [8:59]    CSM 7    •   Cheryl Dring & ensemble

7. Rosa das rosas   [5:56]    CSM 10    •   Vox Feminæ & bells

Cantiga Suite instrumental
8. Dized' ai, trobadores   [1:43]    CSM 260
9. O que en Santa Maria   [1:35]    CSM 216
10. Ben sab'   [1:51]    CSM 179

11. Quen na Virgen groriosa   [6:16]    CSM 256    •   ensemble

12. De muitas guisas   [2:20]    CSM 58    •   Milton Scheuermann & Michael Reiland

13. Por nos de dulta tirar   [9:10]    CSM 18    •   Thaïs St. Julien & ensemble

14. Ay, Santa Maria   [2:49]    CSM 79    •   instrumental

15. Muito deveria   [6:29]    CSM 300    •   ensemble

Milton G. Scheuermann, Jr. · Thaïs St. Julien

Milton G. Scheuermann, Jr. · recorders, gemshorn, kortholt, symphonia, bells
Stuart LeBlanc · citole, lute
Bryce Reveley · harp
Michael Reiland · vielle
James Clark · percussion

Thaïs St. Julien, director
Cheryl Dring, assistant director

Cheryl Dring
Jodie Dunnick McWilliams
Linda Ruth Park
Carla Pendergrass
Thaïs St. Julien
Elizabeth Schneller
Missy Crane Worden

recorded on January 20 and 22, 1998, at De La Ronde Hall, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
produced and Engineered by Victor E. Sachse and Daniel Cassin.
edited by Daniel Cassin. Executive Producer: Victor E. Sachse.
© 2001 Centaur Records, Inc. /    •  


The Cantigas de Santa Maria of Alfonso X, the Wise, a Brief Introduction

"Don Alfonso of Castile, of Toledo, of León is king from Compostela as far as the kingdom of Aragón". So does Alfonso X (1221-1284) present himself in the introductory poem of his collection of songs in honor of the Virgin Mary, the Cantigas de Santa Maria. He became king in 1252 upon the death of his father, Fernando III, the Saintly. Warrior as well as statesman, he continued the conquest and colonization of territories belonging to Islamic kingdoms, engaged in political struggles with powerful nobles of the various kingdoms and counties of the Iberian Peninsula and with other European powers, vied unsuccessfully for the title of Holy Roman Emperor, endured strife and betrayal within his own family, and suffered periods of bad health and a long final illness. He experienced both triumphs and defeats, and history gives his reign mixed reviews.

Alfonso is best remembered and acclaimed for his intellectual and artistic pursuits, which earned him the sobriquet "el Sabio" ("wise" or "learned"). Possessed of curiosity, vision, and zest for life (a sort of Renaissance man ahead of his time), and having the royal means to support his projects, he strove to gather, preserve, and divulge the learning and esthetic achievements of his known world. He exploited the cultural diversity of his domain and employed scholars and translators knowledgeable in Latin, Hebrew and Arabic. Works produced in his studios include scientific treatises, prose fiction, histories, and codes of law. The language he used for his learned production was the vernacular of Castile, thus transforming one of the regional Romance spoken dialects into a literary and scientific language and laying the groundwork for the development of Castilian as a national and international language, what we know as modern Spanish.

Alfonso was also interested in poetry, music, and visual arts, and was himself a poet and musician. The favored language of poetry on the Iberian Peninsula at that time (and well into the fifteenth century) was Galician-Portuguese, the Romance dialect of the northwestern region, instrument of a flourishing poetic tradition influenced by the Provençal troubadours as well as indigenous currents. Alfonso wrote secular poetry in the amorous and satirical veins then in vogue (cantigas d'amigo, cantigas d'amor, and cantigas de escarnho e de maldizer). Poets, musicians, and performers from many parts came together in his court.

The Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM), King Alfonso's most lavish, beloved, and personal work (also in Galician-Portuguese) is a long, illustrated song book dedicated to the Virgin Mary. He calls the book his own, and while he is probably not the only author, he certainly contributed some of the poems and closely oversaw all aspects of the book's production. It combines his personal devotion, the popular cult of Mary, the aristocratic courtly love conventions, and the belief that the purpose of art was to instruct as well as delight. As an offering to his fair and holy Lady, a token of his love, and a plea for mercy and salvation, and as inspiration and object lesson to the populace, he composed, collected, and compiled hymns and miracle tales in verse, all set to music, which ultimately contained 420 songs. Three of the four extant manuscripts are exquisitely illustrated.

The poems in the CSM employ all of the poetic forms in use in the thirteenth century, from the traditional indigenous meters to the complex styles adopted from the Provençal school. Because of the range of styles and subjects, the vocabulary of the CSM is extremely rich. The language contains elements of the cultured and conventional poetic diction, but for the most part it is simple and straightforward with an authentically colloquial flavor — medieval Galician-Portuguese captured in its living forms.

In content, the poems are amazingly varied. The frame is Alfonso's devotion to the Virgin Mary translated to the courtly-love conceit with the king as troubadour suing for the favors of a heavenly rather than mortal mistress. Every tenth poem is a hymn in her praise, extolling her virtues and attributes, expressing gratitude for her benevolence, or appealing to her infinite mercy. The remaining, more numerous compositions are accounts of her miracles, a repository of many of the world's greatest brief narratives. Some are well-known and widely diffused legends from the general European store, others are peculiar to certain localities, and a number deal with the direct experience of Alfonso.

In these (some 360) narratives, the cast of characters represents all walks of life, from beggars to princes, and the reader witnesses affairs of state as well as intimate domestic scenes. A colorful panorama of medieval life unfolds, rendered especially vivid by insertion of homely detail and snatches of dialogue. It is an overwhelming abundance. Many ailments are cured, battles won, crimes punished, dead persons revived, storms calmed, treasures found, and sins forgiven, all narrated with sprightly animation and disarming frankness.

Furthermore, to many of these stories we have the video. Three of the codices are illustrated. The famous "Códice Rico," or Escorial Codex T.I.1, contains 195 compositions, with full page illustrations of typically six individual frames — each an exquisite and detailed miniature in its own right — which depict key scenes from the poem. The artwork of the later Florence Codex, planned as a continuation, was also to be illustrated but was left to a great extent unfinished. However, those finished pages are of exquisite detail and quality and the various stages of the unfinished illustrations reveal much about their conception and execution. The longest manuscript, Escorial Codex J.b.2, has forty beautifully rendered miniatures of musicians and instruments.

Because of their verbal and visual realism, the CSM provide rich sources of information on medieval medicine, commerce, agriculture, religious practices, folk customs, home and family life, warfare, and many other subjects. Characters and events, no matter what their source, were interpreted in a contemporary setting and the insistence on detail was scrupulous, lending credibility to the story. Thus we see in great detail how people lived in thirteenth-century Iberia: dress, houses, plants, animals, work, travel, battles, games, and much more. Supernatural beings were envisioned in terms of the real. Christ, Mary, the saints, and the angels are depicted in idealized human form, and mingle quite comfortably with mortals. The devils are anthropomorphic, albeit monstrous and grotesque. Heaven is a beautiful garden, hell is a stinking pit with boiling caldrons.

The CSM are songs and can be enjoyed for their music alone, a universal idiom which transcends space and time. The musical scores for the poems, deciphered and transcribed to modern notation in the twentieth century, represent a repertory as vast, rich, and eclectic as the society from which it sprang. Along with many other influences, the popular current runs strong. The miniatures show musicians and their instruments in vivid detail. King Alfonso willed the books of the Songs of Praise of Holy Mary to the church where he would be buried (the cathedral of Seville), instructing that they be sung on the Virgin's feast days, as they are to this day.

Holy Mary is the inspiration and protagonist of the book, the muse who also plays a central role. She has many attributes: "Old Woman and Girl Child, / Mother and Maiden, Pauper and Queen, / Mistress and Handmaiden" (CSM 180). Her oneness is multiple and her multiplicity unique. She is the maiden conceived without sin, the innocent girl chosen to be mother of God and retain her purity. She is the joyful and youthful madonna with her beautiful Son in her arms or the mater dolorosa who mourns Him in death. She is the merciful mother whose virtue and mercy embrace all God's creatures. She is Queen of Heaven, taken body and soul to reign with God on high and be intercessor for her faithful. As muse, she has inspired countless works of literature, music, and art down through the centuries. In the CSM she inspires not only king Alfonso but also artists and poets among the characters, for example: the painter of Cantiga 74, who depicts her as beautiful; the friar who paints her name in three colors (385); the priest who composes a hymn for her (202); the innocent student condemned to death who dedicates a song to her (291).

Holy Mary's activities range the gamut of society. No one social group is particularly emphasized, since Her mercy is egalitarian. In view of her pervasive feminine presence, the treatment of women is of interest. Women characters figure prominently in the collection — playing a principal part in approximately one fourth of the narrative poems (90 out of 360), and are depicted with somewhat greater frequency in the miniatures, either as a main character or as parts of groups. The intent is not portraiture or character development, although they are true to life. They are treated frankly and dispassionately, neither idealized nor denigrated as a sex; they form a significant component of the population and miracles happen to them. All classes of women are found, from the noble donas — countesses, queens, empresses — to hardworking housewives, businesswomen, nuns, paupers, beggars and prostitutes. The Islamic and Jewish faiths are represented. The most noble callings for a woman are mother and nun, and Holy Mary has particular sympathy for these. In the family context there are also many touching portrayals of children and devoted husbands and fathers.

While Mary is accessible and familiar, her divinity and power command awed respect. The book is reverent, but down to earth, and the line between the miraculous and the ordinary, the supernatural and the natural, is blurred. The miracles are accepted unquestioningly, but the focus is on the human and a joy of life pervades all, for Mary represents life — here and hereafter. We may find certain incidents and customs quaint and curious that the medieval audience took seriously, or at least for granted, but the writers and artists were not insensitive to humor. In many cases we are probably amused by the very same things — the perennial comedy of human foibles. The humor is not satirical or scurrilous, and the cruder forms of entertainment are reprehended. Any mockery of Holy Mary meets with swift and severe punishment, as in the case of the minstrel who mimics the statue of Our Lady and is struck to the ground paralyzed (293). The language is rich in witty figures of speech and colloquial turns of phrase. The artists had their fun, too. The drunk monk of no. 47 staggers tipsily. The lustful knight of no. 137 embraces two courtesans, whose hands creep toward his purse. It is all right to make fun of the devils and imps, who are sometimes depicted as ridiculous and cowardly bogies up to all kinds of antics. Here humor serves to take the edge off the terrible, and after all, evil is no match for Holy Mary's power.

Each medium of the CSM — words, pictures, and melodies — can be studied and enjoyed on its own, but for fullest appreciation of the work it must be experienced in its multimedia splendor. This was possible to only a privileged few in Alfonso's time. For centuries thereafter the work was virtually inaccessible, the rare manuscripts guarded in libraries, the musical scores unintelligible. From the late 19th century to the present, scholars, artists, and musicians have applied their knowledge and talents to the understanding and dissemination of the various aspects of the CSM. These ongoing endeavors, allied with technological advances in areas such as photography, printing, cinema, sound recording, and communications, now enable a vast and far-flung public to experience in an immediate way the wonders of this remarkable book. Alfonso, with his intellectual curiosity, love of knowledge and beauty, and spiritual fervor, would certainly approve and rejoice that more than seven centuries later the treasured songs and stories of his beloved Lady can instruct, entertain, and inspire an audience far wider than he could ever have imagined.

—Kathleen Kulp-Hill
Professor of Spanish and Portuguese
Eastern Kentucky University

Rhythm and Accompaniment of the Cantigas de Santa Maria

Duration of individual syllables and pitches is one of the most elusive aspects of the music of the thirteenth and preceding centuries. The notation of the earliest music manuscripts has no special marks for long and short notes, other than a double, triple, or quadruple note, i.e., two or more consecutive notes at the same pitch level over one syllable. Such configurations almost certainly mean that the pitch concerned was held longer than other pitches, but we have no certainty that single notes represent pitches that were of precisely equal duration. In many cases, it seems safe to hold that single notes represent pitches of more or less equal duration, as long as we keep in mind that we do not know the degree of "more or less" equal. Thus, the notation does not distinguish between songs with a precisely measured meter and those that were in a not-so-precisely measured or a (somewhat) freely moving rhythm.

Some experts think that things changed dramatically in the middle of the thirteenth century when music scribes developed a complex system for distinguishing between long
and short notes. Alas, this innovation did not immediately solve all problems for pieces preserved in this modernized notation. The melodic style of the Cantigas ranges from syllabic (one pitch per syllable) to quite ornate. Most of the former seem to be in a regular alternation of long and short syllables, but most of the latter are problematic. It is generally assumed that one of two reasons caused the problems; either the scribes did not well enough know how to write down a melody in the new form of notation, or the melody did not fit the durational patterns that theorists tell us were used at that time. We probably must add a third reason because it is not impossible, it even seems likely, that melodies in free rhythm were written down in what then was modern notation because the scribes wanted the melodies concerned, perhaps even the entire manuscript, to look modern.

Whatever may have been the reason, the ornate melodies warn us that the notation of the Cantigas, in general, may not have been as reliable as it seems. This conclusion is troublesome for some experts on medieval music, perhaps because they do not like to admit that they know little or nothing about such an important aspect as the rhythm of a given song. Some performers are at a loss when scholars cannot tell them exactly how to perform a given piece, but others are adventurous and enjoy experimenting with the rhythm of songs that may have been performed (somewhat) freely. The members of the ensemble Musica da Camera have played both sides of the record; for some melodies they followed the highly acclaimed edition by Higinio Anglés which prescribed the same rhythm for all strophes of a given song, regardless of the meaning and the distribution of word accents. For other Cantigas, the singers followed their own instinct or taste by applying a somewhat free rhythm that could do justice to the text and the melody.

Instrumental accompaniment is another elusive aspect of medieval song. Probably influenced by current practice, many of us are inclined to believe that medieval singers and audiences wanted songs to be accompanied and that, throughout the evolution of Western culture, accompaniment was normal for poetry performed to a melody. For the thirteenth and preceding centuries, this preconceived notion is weakened considerably by the absence of unequivocal evidence for such tradition. We know that instruments existed, but we have no indications that they normally were used to accompany songs of troubadours, trouvères, Minnesänger and the like.

Early in each of the three Cantiga manuscripts stands a "portrait" of king Alfonso, who seems to have been the instigator of the big Cantiga project. The king is surrounded by several persons, some of whom hold musical instruments, but these illustrations may have been inspired by depictions of King David in medieval psalm collections, many of which date from well before the time of Alfonso. David often is portrayed playing an instrument or surrounded by persons holding or playing instruments. This, in turn may well have been influenced by the 150th psalm in which the faithful are exhorted to praise the Lord on specifically named instruments. In medieval psalm exegesis, however, these instruments are given symbolic meaning, so that the verses concerned are interpreted as exhortations to praise the Lord with a mental attitude that, itself, is worthy of praise. The majority of the Cantigas tells of miracles and the like wrought by the Virgin Mary, but every tenth entry is a lyrical expression honoring Mary. In one of the Cantiga manuscripts, exactly these songs of praise are preceded by miniatures comprising musical instruments. We do not know, but we must reckon with the distinct possibility that they represent the positive thoughts with which one should praise Mary. Thus the beautiful and sometimes remarkably precise depictions of instruments in this manuscript do not constitute unequivocal evidence that they were used for the accompaniment of Cantigas of praise. And the instruments in Alfonso's portrait may well have been intended to emphasize the exalted position of the king, personally.

The situation is made even more elusive by the Cantiga that tells of a man who plays his fiddle in a church for a statue of Mary. The fiddler's attempt at thus honoring Christ's mother is twice interrupted by an angry member of the clergy. On the fiddler's third attempt, Mary intervened and indicated that she was pleased with the unusual honor bestowed on her. The clergy man stopped his protest, but his initial reaction is important for the issue at hand, because it may represent a then widely accepted opinion that a real instrument was not to be used to honor a saint. All in all, we have no evidence that, in the thirteenth century, songs such as the Cantigas de Santa Maria were normally accompanied; at the same time, nothing proves unambiguously that musical instruments were barred from the performance of serious poems. Music historians thus must admit that they know next to nothing about this issue, while performers enjoy great freedom. The latter can do almost anything to enhance the beauty of the songs as long as they do not use instruments and forms of harmony that had not yet been born when the Cantigas were composed. The wide ranging differences of opinion on the two points discussed above explain why recordings of a given piece differ from one another as much as they do.

—Hendrik van der Werf
Professor of Musicology Emeritus

Singing the Cantigas

We can never know for certain how the Cantigas de Santa Maria were performed in Alfonso's time. Were all questions of rhythm and instrumentation resolved, we can't possibly know what the actual sounds of performance were. The texts of the Cantigas present a slightly different problem: the content seems clear enough, but we can't be certain of the emotional or intellectual reaction of the medieval singers and audiences. We can only take historical information available and use it to inform performance choices made in the context of present time and experience. The context provided by New Orleans is unique: time and experience are fluid, past exists in present. Life here takes on the feeling of a Cantiga illumination.

The city is filled with historic churches patterned after European models: incense scented interiors are lit by arched, stained glass windows; walls and ceilings frescoed with angels playing harps and lutes and fiddles. Mary's statue, crowned with gold and precious jewels, stands behind a bank of flickering candles; light reflects from the gilding of reliquaries to the ancient, brittle bones within them; marble and wood seem to reverberate voices endlessly. Streets here, named after saints as well as muses, are filled with faces reflecting the ethnic diversity seen in the Cantiga illuminations. In the Vieux Carré street corners belong to musicians, mimes and magicians; further uptown, the sidewalks are home to sales of vintage clothing, antique furniture and books, to tables of coffee-drinkers. Girls still chant "St. Ann, St. Ann, send me a man" regardless of their religious persuasion; Catholic, Protestant and non-Christian alike remember their dead on All Saints Day.

As a child, I played with friends in St. Roch Cemetery, on Music Street. We would stand on piled up bricks (stamped with the words "St. Joe") to peer in the window of the tiny chapel, to see plaster casts of hands and arms and hearts left by the faithful, hoping for a miracle. In my family, tales of saints and miracles were as much an oral tradition to be passed along to children as were family legends of ghosts and werewolves and broken hearts. And we children ecumenically passed the stories along to all of our friends, regardless of creed, along with the admonition to pray to St. Jude for impossible causes and Sr. Anthony for lost items. The singers of Vox Feminæ (most of whom were not born in New Orleans and none of whom were educated by nuns) found no difficultly in connecting with the medieval narratives; they had heard my stories and others. Belief was irrelevant. Living in New Orleans had granted them suspension of disbelief

—Thais St. Julien
Co-director New Orleans Musica da Camera

The Musical Instruments on this Recording

A wide variety of musical instruments are found in the illuminations of the Cantiga manuscripts. One manuscript in particular, Escorial J.b.2, offers a wealth of information. It contains forty miniatures, each depicting musicians playing different instruments of 13th century Spain. There is one miniature for every tenth song, the songs of praise to the Virgin Mary. Shown are bowed strings, plucked strings, flutes of various types, reed instruments, drums, tambourines and more. Some are folk instruments, still in use today; some are instruments brought from the culture of the Muslim world; while others almost defy description of their origin and seemingly have no descendents today. In this recording, Musica da Camera uses a number of instruments shown in these illuminations. Three, the oval vielle, the citole (waisted guitar), and symphonia (hurdy-gurdy) are copies based on these illuminations of the Escorial manuscript, made by me. Others used that are found in the illuminations include lute, harp, gemshorn, recorder, a capped reed (kortholt), both tuned bells and random bells, and percussion instruments. The choice of instruments was based on the mood and text of each Cantiga. Various combinations are possible. Indeed, there is an endless variety of sounds from which to choose. It is this variety that makes this music, conceived over seven hundred years ago, so interesting to perform today.

—Milton G. Scheuermann, Jr.
Co-director New Orleans Musica da Camera