The Average Nobleperson’s Guide to Early Music Recordings


Part I
The Cantigas de Santa Maria
– or –
It Has A Good Beat And I Can Genuflect To It

by Lord Samuel Piper

Gregorian Chant

After a dry spell of about 700 years, recordings of medieval and renaissance music are becoming plentiful. This may be due in part to the phenomenal success of Angel Records’ Chant compact disc. This CD, award-winner for best non-habit-forming sleep-inducer, is a recording of plainchant. These chants are also called “Gregorian Chants” because they were allegedly first collected by Pope Gregory I, patron saint of boredom. He recorded the chants during his reign from 590 to 604, which was era before music notation was invented, which puts doubt to the claim that Gregory had anything to do with these chants being recorded for posterity. The legend is probably only a product of the Papacy’s Medieval spin doctors.In this recording, the chants are performed in a genuinely monk-like fashion by — who else?– genuine monks. Sadly, the monks do not strike their heads with boards at the end of every phrase, which would give the chants something of a rhythmic vitality that is otherwise missing. The chants do sound properly religious, although as uninspired as if the monks realized they they would not receive individual royalty checks.
Pope Gregory dictates
music for the birds

So I am writing a series of discussions of medieval and renaissance music that I think may appeal to people who actually like music (defined by me to be “stuff I like to hear”). To begin, I wish to recommend recordings of certain works that are important and well-known representatives of their periods; the Medieval Top 40, if you will.

Las Cantigas de Santa Maria

Let us start with one of the most important works of medieval music, Las Cantigas de Santa Maria, or the Songs of Saint Mary.

The Cantigas de Santa Maria were commissioned by Alfonso X (1221-1284), king of Castile and Leon. Alfonso was a great lover of the arts, which eventually won him the title of El Sabio, or the Wise. Alfonso served as patron and protector of many Italian and Provencal troubadours visiting his court, who were avoiding persecution by the Inquisition (which nobody expected, after all).

Malcolm X,
Not actually related
to Alfonso X

King Alphonso’s court in Toledo, Spain, employed a number of poets and musicians, both Christian and Moor. Together they produced over 400 monophonic songs in praise of the Virgin Mary and the many miracles attributed to her.A monophonic song is a song consisting of only a melody with lyrics — as opposed to a monotonous song, from the Greek mono — “one,” and tonous — “tone,” combined together as monotonous meaning “like Gregorian chant.”

No accompaniment, harmonies or instructions on how to perform these songs were every written down so far as we know. In fact, the notation employed to transcribe the melodies, resembling flags and slanting lines, leaves them open to rhythmic interpretation as well. When modern musicians sing and play these pieces, they make assumptions based on the type of musical influences at work in Alfonso’s court: middle-eastern rhythms and modes as well as French and central European styles. Therefore different performances of the same piece may vary a lot.

Recordings angelbrd

My favorite recording of these cantigas is by the Waverly Consort, Las Cantigas de Santa Maria, Vanguard CD OVC 2013. In this recording, a troubadour narrates the music in English, pronouncing the prologue and an exposition for each cantiga before the song is performed. Since the songs are sung in their original Galician-Portugese, the expositions help you to understand the songs, such as explaining what happened to the ill-advised priest who made underwear out of an altar cloth dedicated to Mary. I warn you; don’t buy any boxers with halos on them. This CD is very theatrical and feels like a performance as it might have been before the court, except without the belly dancers. The Waverly Consort employs both female and male voices (which was probably authentic, as Alphonso did employ female musicians), as well as many of the instruments shown in the Cantigas manuscript. This is a mid-price CD; about $13.

A different approach to the cantigas is taken in the CD Visions and Miracles, by the Ensemble Alcatraz, Nonesuch CD 9 79180-2. They perform only 6 cantigas, as well as 2 songs from Las Huelgas Codex, another source of 13th century songs. They elaborate and expand on the original melodies, but only one of the cantigas is a skip-button-provoking 14 minutes long. The Ensemble Alcatraz uses a lovely female voice for all the solos, occasionally using male voices as well in chorus. They perform with mostly bowed string accompaniment, which gives the CD a lush, but sometimes restrained and homogenous sound. This is a full price CD, running about $16.

Yet another approach is taken by the Ensemble Unicorn, Vienna, on its CD Alfonso X: Cantigas de Santa Maria, Naxos CD 8.553133. Their approach is a little more Arabian – the instruments are varied more and they perform with more abandon, leading to some wild middle-eastern riffs reminiscent of drug-induced solos of any dead rock musician of your choice. Like the Waverly Consort, the Ensemble Unicorn performs the prologue, although they use the untranslated Galician-Portugese and do not read the expositions to the individual cantigas. The ensemble performs with a bevy of instruments and 2 male voices, although one is a counter-tenor, which is a man singing in the soprano range as if certain body parts are unnaturally constricted, but without the resultant cracked notes and tears. While the CD notes are good, there are no lyrics or translations printed, so you may not have any idea what each cantiga is about. But then, this is a budget CD, costing only $6.

All of these CDs are good and well worth owning. One of the nice things about the Cantigas de Santa Maria is that, with over 400 songs, you can buy a lot of recordings of them and never worry about getting all the same pieces again. Then again, some are duplicated even on these 3 CDs, as some cantigas are very popular and are frequently recorded – The Virgin’s Greatest Hits.