Cantigas De Santa Maria
In the second half of the thirteenth century, Alfonso X "El Sabio" (the Wise, the Learned), King of Castile and Leon, brought together almost four hundred cantigas (songs to the Virgin Mary), several of which he had composed himself. These are not liturgical pieces but songs of praise, with elements of popular song, plainchant and the art of the Troubadours. They include marching songs (Santa Maria, stela do dia), haunting prayers (Muito faz grand'error) and even exorcism (De toda chaga) and bellicose celebration (Pode por Santa Maria). With sensuousness still redolent of the perfumes of the Orient, they address the Virgin in various forms, the Star, the sorceress, the standard, the Mother.
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The Cantigas of Santa Maria of Alfonso X the Wise, or the sanctification of the troubadour
The word cantiga, as well as cantor or cantica, was widely used in the kingdom of Castile towards the middle of the XV century to describe a poetic-musical composition, whether religious or secular, in the Galician-Portuguese language; unlike the term decir which was used to refer to a poem not set to music. But of all the Galician-Portuguese cantigas conserved in various song books of the Late Middle Ages, which number more than 2000, only the six works attributed to the minstrel from Vigo Martin Codax and those belonging to the corpus known as the Cantigas of Santa Maria have come down to us with music. This collection, the Cantigas of Santa Maria, with more than four hundred works dedicated to the Virgin, must have been composed in the second half of the XIII century, around 1250-80, under the direction of Alfonso X, "the Wise", who was then King of Castile. On account of its internal coherence, both formal and thematic; its stylistic homogeneity; its number of songs, and the beauty of the manuscripts themselves, some of them filled with luxurious miniatures, this collection has become a particularly outstanding phenomenon in medieval music, and is the song book with the most varied themes about the Virgin Mary in all Europe.
Amidst the vast scientific and literary production that emerged under the patronage of the wise king, these songs to the Virgin are probably its most original achievement. For instance, it is the only work written in a language that is not Castilian (the official language in the country since Alfonso IX). The use of Galician-Portuguese was undoubtedly due to the fact that this was considered until that time, and almost until the XV century, the most courtly and aristocratic language, and thus the one most suited to lyric poetry. It is also one of the very few works not dedicated to legal, scientific or historical subjects (in this group must be mentioned the Libra de axedrez, dados y tablas, "Book of chess, dice and tables", various secular songs, and the translation of the Libro de Calila e Dimna, "Book of Calila and Dimna"). Finally, it is the work which contains most allusions to the king himself. Several of the poems present him as a troubadour, dedicated to his lady, the Virgin Mary, and in the first person he explains events in his life in which the intervention of the Virgin was providential (such as in the cantiga n° 209, Muito faz grand'-erro, "He lives in great error", in which he is cured of a serious illness because they bring near him a first edition of the book of the Cantigas); on other occasions his parents are mentioned, and so on. On the other hand, the great respect Alfonso X felt for this collection is well known, to the point of requesting in his will that "all the books of the Cantigas in praise of Santa Maria should be in the church where our body is buried".
In reality, only a small part of the more than four hundred works in the collection are attributed to the king himself as far as their composition is concerned. His was the important work of organization, direction and correction (as reflected in several miniatures illustrating the songs, in which the king appears among his clerk and minstrel collaborators), but the stylistic unity of the work is also to his merit. For all this, it does not seem an exaggeration to classify the Cantigas as his most personal work. As far as the "real" authors of each piece, we cannot forget that Alfonso not only took care to surround himself with the great men of science of the age, but also the great poets and musicians. His court was a natural refuge for troubadours who had fled from post-Albigensian Provence. For example Guiraut Riquer, who was extremely famous in his time, and who had already written various songs dedicated to the Virgin, was in Alfonso's court during the years the Cantigas were written, and could well have taken part in the work. The names of other less important troubadours from the south of France are also known, and they could have contributed various poems, as well as other musical-poets coming from Galicia, Portugal or from Castile itself, such as Joan Arias, Pero da Ponte or Joan Soares Coelho. Neither can the collaboration of artists of Islamic or Jewish origin be discounted.
The Cantigas of Santa Maria have come down to us in four manuscripts: one preserved in the National Library of Madrid (catalogue number 10069), two in the royal monastery of El Escorial (B.j.2 and T.j.1) and another in Florence (Central National Library, Banco rari 20). This last one is without music, although it does have the rulings for it. Only the volume found in El Escorial with the signature T.j.l contains the collection in its entirety. The one with the signature B.j.2 is outstanding for the abundance and beauty of its miniatures, as well as for the perfection of its musical notation, which have earned it the name Codex Princeps.
The general subject of the Cantigas is the narration of the miracles brought about by the intercession of the Virgin (called Cantigas de miragre). Throughout the collection, however, for every ten pieces there appears one which is not narrative, but which has a more lyrical purpose. These are known as the Cantigas de loor, in which the Virgin Mary is praised, her role as a mediator is appreciated, or her virtues are sung. In addition, their hymnal character is linked with other pious religious forms such as the trope, the sequence or the conductus. This is the case of the cantiga n° 100 Santa Maria, strela do dia "Santa Maria, star of the day", in which the Virgin is presented as the star which leads us towards God, and which is merely a gloss on the well-known hymn Ave maris Stella, "Hail star of Mary"; or the 400 Pero cantigas de loor, "Although I have written many kinds".
As a source for the compilation of the great number of subjects necessary for the "cantigas de milagro" Alfonso X and his collaborators used the legends popularized throughout the Christian west, and the histories related to the sanctuaries of the Penninsula, more than the literary antecedents which, undoubtedly, they also made use of. The cantiga n° 18 Por nos de dulta livrar, "To relieve us of doubts", which tells us how some silkworms span a veil for the Virgin which their owner had promised and then forgotten, undoubtedly comes from oral tradition. The story of an arrow wound in the face which is healed by the Virgin of Santa Maria of Helche, cantiga n° 126 De toda chaga ben pode guarir, "All wounds and pain can be cured", or the one in which a blasphemous gambler loses his speech, and repentent, recovers it in Santa Maria de Salas, Pode por Santa Maria, "For Santa Maria", cantiga n° 163, are examples of stories directly connected with a Spanish locality.
As far as the literary sources are concerned, there is no doubt that some of the collections of poems in honour of the Virgin, which already existed in large numbers both in Latin and in the vernacular languages, were known by the wise king, and were used not only for obtaining miracles to explain, but also as general models of the complete work. This is the case, for example, of Miracles de Notre Dame, "The miracles of Notre Dame" by Gautier of Coincy, from which the general plan of the Alfonsonian work could have emerged, as that was also constructed around the division of poems about miracles and poems of praise. Apart from Coincy's works, subjects for the Cantigas were taken from, among others, the similar Spanish work, Los milagros de Nuestra Senora, "The miracles of Our Lady" by Gonzalo de Berceo, from the Speculum historiale by Vicente de Beauvois, or the Liber Mariae by the theologian and musical theoretician who was a friend of Alfonso X, Gil de Zamora, all belonging to the XIII century. (From this last collection, for example, is taken the story of cantiga n° 37, Miragres fremosos faz por nos, "Beautiful miracles", about the man who recovered his leg which he himself had amputated, because he could not stand the pain).
There is an extraordinary variety of metre in the Cantigas, as regards the number of syllables per verse, or the number of verses per stanza; but on the other hand, there is a great uniformity as regards the general structure of each piece. More than ninety per cent of the compositions appear as legacies of the Arabic form known as Zejel, inasmuch as, like this form, they consist of the constant repetition of a chorus alternating with various stanzas, of which the last verse or verses rhyme with the chorus. This is the basic fact on which various studies to try to demonstrate the Arabic origin of this repertoire have been based. Musically these cantigas with a refrain (as Angles calls them) would fit into one of the fundamental fixed forms of the Lower Middle Ages: the virelay. The relation between the last verses of each stanza and the refrain is even greater owing to the fact that they take their music from it. Thus we have musical patterns like AA/bbaa (for example n° 181, n° 176 Soltar pode muit or n° 123 De Santa Maria sinal), AB/ccab (n° 181 or n° 119 Como somos per conssello), or AB/bbab (n° 142 En a gran coita), with a finale first open and then closed when a melody is repeated immediately. In this way the basis was being laid for a musical pattern which would become tremendously popular both in Spain and Portugal, and which from the XV century would start to be known as Villancico. Those Cantigas which cannot be associated with the virelay form tend to be compositions without refrain, as is the case of n° 400.
The motivations of the wise king to undertake the task of systematically assembling songs in honour of the Virgin must have been several: his taste for compiling things already reflected in other works, his liking for poetry and narration, but there is no doubt that pure devotion to the Virgin Mary was the most important. At a time when poetry of the troubadours was completely associated with the idea of "courtly love", it must not have been thought at all strange to see Alfonso X, the Wise as a troubadour singing to his ideal lady, who is none other than the Virgin Mary; indeed it is difficult not to fall into this parallelism. He saw himself in this light, as we have already said, and this is how he presents himself to us in the cantiga which serves as the prologue. The exalted concept of woman in Provencal poetry could have brought about the appearance of this type of Marian literature. If other poets in other lands sang the praises of other earthly women, why not sing to the one whose goodness and beauty cannot bear comparison to those? Seen in this light, the collection essentially implies giving a sacred character to the fin 'amor, or, to quote Fernandez de la Cuesta, the transference of the troubadour attitude to the divine.
- Jesus Martin Galan (translation: Angela Buxton)