Cantigas De Santa Maria
Brigitte Lesne (voice, harp, percussion), Emmanuel Bonnardot (voice, vielle, rebec, cittern, psaltery), Pierre Hamon (recorders, flutes, double flute, pipe & tabor, bagpipes), Pierre Bourhis (voice), Florence Jacquemart (recorders, 3-hole flute, bagpipe, voice), Brigitte Le Baron (voice, 3-hole flute), Katarina Livjanic (voice, psaltery), Catherine Sergent (voice, psaltery)
Recording date: October 1999 (Paris)
A recording by the present ensemble of a smaller cycle of songs to the Virgin by Gautier de Coinci (1177-1236)
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Theology, from Bernard of Clairvaux onwards, conferred great importance on things feminine, as represented by the figure of the Virgin Mary. The latter was seen not only as the biological mother of God incarnate, but also as the epitome of a freely assumed life of commitment: with her fiat, Mary agreed to devote her life and will to higher causes. This explains the considerable growth of interest in new types of Marian worship in the present day, particularly amongst those Christians who are most closely involved with the realities of modern society - an interest which makes up for the oblivion to which modernity, with its rational, logocentric principles, had condemned things feminine in general, and woman in particular. To this day, the Virgin Mary is thus regarded as the embodiment of generosity, altruism, and a loving commitment to the cause of the weak and the needy.
In the Middle Ages, there were periods when this conception of the Virgin was very widespread, thus possibly making up for other aspects of religion that were too closely connected with dreadful ideas of strength and power. The thirteenth century was one of those periods: wherever written culture was sufficiently advanced, compilations of stories and poems appeared in praise of the Mother of God and her beneficial influence. At the same time, those principles were expressed in art through an ever-increasing number of representations of the Virgin Mary.
The Cantigas of Alfonso x el Sabio (the Learned, the Wise) are perfectly in keeping with that cultural context. The collection comprises over four hundred poems praising the generosity of the Virgin Mary, giving examples of her intervention to assist persons in diffi culty, and thereby advocating the Marian cult. Many works had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary since the eleventh century, especially hymns, conductus and prose pieces, which were written in Latin and were aimed at the narrow audience that was capable of understanding complex theological concepts and abstruse expressions. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, on the other hand, were written in the vernacular, using simple, straightforward language: they were intended to be readily understandable to all.
King Alfonso was the first to advocate the use of Castilian for official documents, and he also employed this language for his literary prose works. For his poems to the Virgin Mary, however, he used Galician-Portuguese, probably because Castilian did not have a sufficiently well-established poetic tradition and was therefore not strong enough for a large-scale undertaking such as the Cantigas. The choice of Galician-Portuguese may nevertheless seem surprising (and difficult) for a repertoire that is essentially narrative: it was generally used for writings on the subject of love. This leads us to believe that the desire to vulgarise Marian theology was not the author's only concern: he also wished to sublimate the figure of Mary as the epitome of femininity, as in courtly lyrical poetry. Mary is thus portrayed as a woman of the highest nobility, possessing all the finest qualities and situated well beyond the scope of human beings. Alfonso's words in the prologue to the Cantigas bear this out. 'Quero seer oy mais seu trobador' he says - 'I want to be her troubadour'.
These two lines of thought thus converge in this vast repertoire - the largest known collection of its type - several pieces from which are presented on this recording. The cantigas de loor or songs in praise of the Virgin Mary (Quen bona dona) present the most lyrical aspects of the subject, while the narrative songs (the other pieces) present a series of 'cases' or concrete examples of Mary as the ideal benefactress. Thus we hear the tales of a knight who, having lost all his fortune, forms a pact with the devil; a good woman who is the victim of a plot motivated by jealousy; another who is saved from drowning in the sea; a young woman who is forced to marry against her will; an abbess who finds herself with child... In relating these stories as if they were examples from everyday life, the collection presents - in an easy and entertaining form - not only the Marian doctrine of the time, but also a very lively picture of contemporary society.
Despite the richness of the codices into which these poems were copied, and the apparent clarity of the musical notation, practical interpretation of the music accompanying the singing poses many problems, because of insufficient sources of information. The public aspects of King Alfonso's life are well known (his battles to keep the Muslims out of Spain and confine them to Granada, his aspirations to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire), and we also know his literary works, which were produced in collaboration with a vast group of intellectuals 'from the three cultures' (Christian, Jewish and Muslim), thus aiming to unify a land that was divided into many historical and social units by providing a common corpus of knowledge. On the other hand, we know nothing about his private life and the part played in it by music.
Alfonso had his own chapel and his own minstrels, but apparently the Cantigas were intended for neither of those bodies of musicians. Furthermore, his chancellery provides no documents giving information on the musicians who might have performed this repertoire. The manuscripts containing the Cantigas were decorated with numerous miniatures, some of them illustrating the stories related in the poems, others showing various musicians with their instruments. We might therefore assume that the latter indicate the instrumental accompaniment of the voices, but these precious miniatures seem in fact to have a more allegorical role, presenting so to speak a 'graphical enumeration' of the instruments, rather than really telling us anything about interpretation.
This repertoire also poses other problems for modern interpreters: it is difficult to give an exact reading of the musical notation, particularly where rhythm is concerned; furthermore, there are discrepancies between the various manuscripts in which the songs appear. A stylistic analysis of the texts reveals that the Cantigas are a collective work (their literary quality is very uneven), and we may also hazard the same deduction (and for the same reason) where the music is concerned. Indeed, many of these pieces borrow melodic material from both the liturgical and the courtly tradition, while others are known to be original. This leads us to suppose that musical criteria from many different origins were adopted.
In his General Estoria - a world history, written in about 1270, shortly before the main body of his work on the Cantigas - the king informs the reader of his conception of his role as a writer: The king makes a book, not in that he writes it with his own hands, but in that he determines its foundations and the corrections to be made to it, and in that he shows those he commissions to write it how they should go about it and how it should be written.' This no doubt explains the existence of different versions, which also means that the pieces continue to evolve to this day. For interpreters have to complete the fragmental notation, select the variant they wish to perform, and decide on the sound that is appropriate to each piece.
Alfonso el Sabio's Cantigas de Santa Maria are still very much alive today. The wise and learned king left the world a work that continues to stimulate the imagination and the creativity of our musicians, and its symbolism still has much relevance in the modern age.
- Carmen Rodriguez Suso