Las Cantigas de Santa Maria del Rey Alfonso el Sabio
Russell Oberlin
Lyrichord Expériences Anonymes EAS-0023 (LP)
, 1958
. . .
Musical Heritage Society MHS 677S (LP)
. . .
Lyrichord Early Music Series LEMS 8003 (CD)
, 1994

1. Porque trobar   [2:37]   Prologo

2. Santa Maria amar   [5:25]   CSM 7

3. A Virgen sempr' accorer   [2:44]   CSM 97

4. Muit' amar devemos   [1:12]   CSM 36

5. Quen Jesu-Christ'e ssa Madre veer   [4:56]   CSM 261

6. Madre de Deus Nostro Sennor   [1:39]   CSM 330

7. Quen bõa dona querrá loar   [1:36]   CSM 160

8. Fazer pode d'outri vive-los seus fillos   [2:55]   CSM 118

9. Oraçón con piedade   [1:30]   CSM 205

10. Quem por serviço da Virgen   [3:51]   CSM 364

11. En todo tempo faz ben   [1:46]   CSM 111

12.   Virgen Madre groriosa   [7:10]   CSM 340

Russell Oberlin, Countertenor · Joseph Iadone, Lute

Recorded: Esoteric Sound Studios, New-York City

Music of the Middle Ages - Volume 3
Las Cantigas de Santa Maria
del Rey Alfonso El Sabio, 1221 -1284

Alfonso's court was the center of much intellectual and artistic activity throughout his reign. The works produced there include many translations from the Arabic - treatises on astronomy, on chess, and a translation of the legend of Mahomet's journey to the other world - legal works, such as Las Siete Partidas, historical works, such as the Estoria de España and the General Estoria (an uncompleted history of the world), and religious works, such as the Cantigas de Santa Maria. These works all bear Alfonso's name, though it is doubtful that all of them were written by him personally. We know that Alfonso kept a large number of Arab, Jewish and Christian scholars, as well as artists, working at his court; and it seems more likely that in many cases, though certainly not all, he acted as a sort of editor and compiler. As far as the Cantigas are concerned, it is not possible to say how much of the work is his own, though no doubt a good deal of it is.

The texts of the Cantigas de Santa Maria are in Galician, a language much used in Spain for literary purposes during the Middle Ages. Their subject matter deals almost exclusively with the miracles of the Virgin Mary. In the original manuscripts, the songs are arranged in groups of ten, nine relating miracles of the virgin followed by a tenth in praise of the Virgin. The stories of these miracles were well known all over Europe at the time, and versions of them in verse and prose were written down in many countries. Some, however, seem to have been popular only in Spain, and deal with local matters. There are 403 Cantigas de Santa Maria preserved, and two smaller collections - 13 Cantigas de Fiestas de Santa Maria and 10 Cantigas de Fiestas de Nuestro Senor y Otras de Santa Maria, making a total of 426. All but three have music.

There has been a great deal of controversy among literary historians and musicologists concerning the origins of medieval song. Much of this controversy, particularly among musicologists, has centered around the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The principal question has been the one of Arab influence. There are musicologists who deny any such influence whatsoever, or refuse to accept a theory of Arab origin until some "proof" is offered - a safe statement, since the Arabs did not write down their music. In the meanwhile, these men point to what they believe is evidence of the origin of these melodies in Gregorian chant and other western liturgical music. On the other hand, some writers on the subject have gone so far as to say that the Cantigas are Arab melodies, composed by the Arabs in Spain, and used by Spanish poets.

Of course the Cantigas use many different kinds of melody, as any examination of the collection must show. It would seem some - a very small number - derive directly from western chant; a large number seem to have an indirect relation to chant but have been transformed by a uniquely Spanish kind of lyricism; a few clearly derive from popular song; but a large group, perhaps the largest of all, have no relation to chant whatsoever, nor can they be analyzed according to the western modal system. It would seem reasonable to assume that these melodies were composed with Arab models in mind, and that some of them may even be Arab melodies; further, that what we hear as uniquely Spanish lyricism is due, at least in part, to the presence of Arabs in Spain for over 500 years before these songs were written.

The songs on this recording were selected with the idea of representing the different types of melodies contained in the Cantigas. It should, however, be clearly understood that any such classification according to 'type' of melody is a very general one. Actually, every song in this collection (discounting the few instances where an entire melody is used a second time) is remarkably different from every other. Nevertheless, some broad basis for selection was necessary. Number 160, and to a lesser degree number 340, are of the "type" that derive directly from Gregorian chant; numbers 36, 205, and perhaps 111 are based oil popular song; numbers 118, 330, and 364 seem to be based more directly on possible Arab models.

The Cantigas are strophic songs - that is to say the melody is repeated with each verse. It has not been possible, however, for reasons of space, to record all the verses of any cantiga, since the number of verses can be anywhere from five to thirty. But rather than record only one verse of each cantiga, two and occasionally three have been recorded, for, in order to understand the principles of strophic song, it is necessary to hear different sets of words to a repeated melody.

The texts with music of the Cantigas are preserved in three manuscripts written in the 13th and 14th centuries. The edition of the music and its transcription into modern notation here used is that of Higinio Anglés, and it should be noted that Anglés differs with the opinions stated in this article and feels that any Arab influence on the Cantigas is negligible. There is no indication in the original manuscripts as to how these songs were
accompanied, through it is probable that they were performed in a variety of ways, The accompaniments for lute used on this record are by myself, and the use of finger cymbals in cantigas 36 and 205 is the suggestion of Mr. Russell Oberlin.


Musical and Literary Background of Cantigas by Ernesto G. Da Cal

Alfonso X, King of Castile (1221-84), better know as "Alfonso el Sabio", the "Learned", was, politically speaking, a most unfortunate and unwise monarch. His reign was marked by strife, dissension and war - with his brothers, with his son, with his people and with the Pope - though he won some victories against the Moors. His failures as a statesman, however, were amply offset by his achievements as an astonishingly active intellectual leader of his times and of his people. His pet, ambitious dream of becoming Holy Roman Emperor ended miserably in sadness and frustration, but as a compensation, History has bestowed upon him the greater title of "Emperor of Culture". His encyclopedic interests encompassed the sky and the stars, law, science and the arts, education, chronology, games and sports, gems, the Koran, the Talmud and the Caballa [sic]  . Around him he gathered the best minds he could find among Christian, Moorish, and Jewish scholars as well as musicians, poets and craftsmen.

Alfonso's native tongue was Castilian, the central Romance dialect of the Iberian Peninsula, known today as Spanish. He not only had its spelling systematized but also laid the foundations of Spanish prose in his writings. As a poet, however, we must assume that he did not find entirely to his liking the strong, epic and still rough-hewn sonorities of the idiom of the Castilian plains, for he rejected it, as an instrument of subjective expression, in favor of the softer, more melodic and more delicate rhythms of Galician, the Neo-Latin dialectal of Northwestern Spain. It is possible that he knew this tongue from childhood, for it has been said that he grew up in Galicia, but there are other factors explaining Alfonso's choice.

About the end of the 12th century Galician had become the vehicle of a vigorous lyrical movement, the first in the Peninsula. The pilgrimages to St. James of Compostela, the greatest shrine of Christendom after Rome and Jerusalem, had exposed Galicia, more than the Castilian lands, to foreign influences. The pilgrims brought with them the elaborate amatory poetry of the troubadours of Provence which mixed with a native Celtic vein of folk lyricism produced a poetic flowering of remarkable quality and proportions. From the 13th century on, this current of poetry was abundantly cultivated. Princes, nobles, merchants, soldiers, priests and jongleurs, all contributed. Galician, which was already the language of the new kingdom of Portugal, became also the medium of lyrical expression of Castile. Until we reach the threshold of the Renaissance, it was the accepted practice among the Castilian poets not only to compose their love and satirical lyrics in the manner of their Galician-Portuguese neighbors but in their tongue as well. Then the imperial role assumed by Castile in the 15th century, and the resulting literary ascendancy of its language, pushed this poetry first into rhetorical decadence and then into oblivion. It remained forgotten and unknown to later generations until the end of the 19th century, when the Cancioneiros (or Song Books) in which it was preserved were exhumed from dusty archives. These Song-books revealed a treasure of lyricism which lovers of poetry "can as ill afford to ignore as the poems of Chaucer or any other priceless heritage of song" (Aubrey Bell).

King Alfonso, therefore, was not alone in his preference for Galaician as the instrument for his verse, both profane - and indeed it was at times! - and religious, as in the charming collection of songs to the Virgin, known as the Cantigas de Santa María.

The Cantigas belong to the medieval current of the Marian cult which became more marked in the 12th and 13th century mainly due to the influence of St. Bernard and the Cistercian Order, In the worship of "Our Lady" men saw the worship of all womanhood. The troubadour doctrine of "amour courtois" evolved mystically, finding in the Virgin Mary a symbol of absolute love and immaculate service to a feminine idea, devoid of all sin and carnality. Mariolatry had always been particularly intense in the Iberian lands. Alfonso became the most distinguished "troubadour of the Virgin" - as he calls himself in the Cantigas.

The Cantigas are a vast compilation of Marian lore and the compositions it contains span a long period of Alfonso's life. Four manuscripts survive: one in the National Library at Madrid, two in El Escorial, and another in the National Library in Florence. They apparently represent at least two, if not three, distinct editions of the collection. The King kept enlarging the scope of his initial plan, adding new miracles as he netted them from many sources, national and foreign, oral and written. One of the Escorial manuscripts (written after 1279) represents the most complete version and it is profusely illustrated with illuminated miniatures.

Scholars have questioned whether the authorship of the whole book should be credited to Alfonso. Internal evidence indicates a likelihood that he may have commissioned to jongleurs in his service the miracles that held a lesser appeal for him; he may have found other miracles already versified; but it is generally accepted that he composed the major part of them. His main written sources were two famous medieval compilations of Marian miracles: one in Latin (Speculum Historale, by Vincent de Beauvais), the other in Romance (Les Miracles de la Sainte Vierge, by Gautier de Coincy). Naturally he disclaimed all originality of theme but he shows quite a flair for variety of selection. The range of these miracles is a wide one -  from the delicate and heavenly to the earthy an racy - in true medieval fashion. A profound and delightfully naive confidence in the boundless compassion, or rather in the infinite tolerance of the Mother of God towards the sins of man, pervades all these songs. Through them we get a glimpse of the medieval soul, with its solid faith, its crude beliefs and simple notions of the supernatural, its charming and unbridled fantasy, its unconscious irreverence, and its innocent mixture of the human and the divine.

The metrical, rhyme and stanzaic patterns of the Cantigas offer an extraordinary variety, and point to the "learned" character of Alfonso's art. The theory has been propounded that not only the music but also the meter of the lyrics was of Arabic origin - a thesis that has not gone unchallenged. It is evident that the poet-King strove for virtuosity of form, and for that he had at his command all the complicated metrical devices of the troubadour technique of Galician-Portuguese poetry. His was frequently carried away by this technique. Some of his best verse is not to be found in the narrative part of the miracles but rather in the essentially lyrical "Loores" in praise of the Queen of Heaven, which were inspired both by Church hymns and by the simpler folk vein of Galician love lyrics. While it may be said that Alfonso was not a first rate poet, it is also true that on numerous occasions he rose above rhetoric and proved that he could clothe in real lyric grace the simple beauty contained, in these legends and traditions.

Aside from their musical and literary value the Cantigas constitute a colourful tapestry of the Middle Ages, a variegated parade of social types - kings, knights, nuns, monks, sailors, pilgrims, merchants, peasants, vagabonds - all of them candidly portrayed in their daily lives.

The texts are given as established by the Marquis of Valmar in his edition of the Cantigas published by the Royal Spanish Academy in 1889. Summaries are provided for the omitted parts of the miracles.

The court of Del Rey Alfonso El Sabio (a.k.a: "El Sabio the Wise"), ruler of Spain from 1252 until 1284, was the center of a great output of intellectual and artistic activity. The twelve songs on this recording are some of the fruits of that activity, and certainly must rank among the most beautiful melodies ever written for voice. These works, sung in the original Galician language in which they were written, are exquisitely performed by the legendary countertenor Russell Oberlin, possibly the greatest countertenor of our century, with Joseph Iadone, lute, under the direction of Saville Clark.

These original stereo, 30 i.p.s. studio masters have been in the Lyrichord vaults for over 30 years. Now available for the first time in stunning digital sound on compact disc, they are likely to achieve a new standard by which today's Early Music performances can be measured. Including extensive liner notes by Saville Clark, Ernesto G. Da Cal, with translations from Galician by Murrey Hargrove with Aurelio M. Espinosa.