“I wish from this day forth to be her troubadour”: the composition of the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 2/6)

King Alfonso instructs his musicians and dancers to praise the Virgin and Child, an illustration for Cantiga de Santa Maria 120.

This is the second of six articles about the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Songs of Holy Mary, composed by the King of Castile, Alfonso X, and his assistants between 1257 and 1283. In the first article, we traced the development of troubadour courtly love from the late 11th century to the end of the 13th century. The Roman Catholic Church’s response to the influence of what they perceived as troubadour immorality was to promote the Virgin Mary as the central figure of Christian chaste devotion. This was the faith that Alfonso X of Castile inherited.

Alfonso’s love of music meant that he was keen to have troubadours in his court, while also criticising them and describing himself as one. This second article explains why. First, an outline of Alfonso’s literary life before the Cantigas, illustrating that he was already steeped in troubadour literary forms prior to declaring himself Mary’s troubadour; then an exploration of Alfonso’s absorbing and adapting of courtly love themes for his religious and political ends in his songs of the Virgin.

We begin with a performance (in English) of Cantiga 363, the song-story of a troubadour in trouble and in prison, who only escapes by dedicating himself to the Virgin.

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“Why do you not praise her?”: the Virgin Mary and the troubadours (Cantigas de Santa Maria article 1/6)

Troubadour Jaufré Rudel dying in the arms of the countess of Tripoli, from a 13th century French manuscript (BnF ms. 854, folio 121v).

This is the first of six articles about the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Songs of Holy Mary, composed by the King of Castile, Alfonso X, and unnamed assistants between 1257 and 1283. Most medieval music enthusiasts will be familiar with the manuscripts’ many depictions of medieval musicians and their instruments, and with some of its 420 songs. These six articles focus on the influences behind the compositions and the contents of the songs, and will be followed by two stand-alone articles about the historical principles upon which a medieval musical arrangement may be made, focussing primarily on the Cantigas.

In order to understand the background to the Cantigas de Santa Maria, we must first appreciate a medieval musical movement which may at first appear unrelated, but which is fundamental to both the music and theology of Alfonso’s compositions: the troubadour tradition. In this article, we see that troubadour influence not only spread well beyond its home in Occitania (southern France), it had a profound effect upon the Catholic faith Alfonso inherited. The Catholic response to troubadour songs, which the church perceived as spiritually corrupt, was to develop a new Mariology, a major shift at the heart of Catholic worship. It was within this context that Alfonso composed the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

We begin with a performance (in English) of Cantiga 260, which praises the Virgin in terms that exactly mirror troubadour courtly love, while also criticising troubadours for not praising her.

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The rebec: a short history from court to street

The rebec is a medieval gut-strung bowed instrument with 3 strings, its body carved from a solid piece of wood. Its sound has a nasal quality, unlike the more full-sounding modern violin, which shares some of the rebec’s characteristics: strings played with a bow, a fretless neck, a curved bridge to allow strings to be bowed singly, and a soundboard carved to have a gentle upward curve. Like so many medieval musical instruments, the origins of the rebec are in Arabia and north Africa, the region of so much cultural exchange, trade and crusading in the middle ages. Perhaps surprisingly, it was still being played beyond the renaissance and to the end of the baroque period in western Europe, by now having fallen from grace from a regal courtly instrument to one of lowly street entertainment. In south-east Europe, the rebec continues to be played to this day, playing vigorous and exciting traditional music.

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The Psilvery Psound of the Psaltery: a brief history

Psaltery played by a cat in a Belgian Book of Hours, c. 1470.
Psaltery played by a cat in a Belgian Book of Hours, c. 1470.

There is something quite enchanting about the silvery sound of the psaltery. Its name probably originates in religious use, as an accompaniment to singing songs from the psalms, known as psalmody and sung from a psalter, thus the psaltery. The word is from the Old English psealm or salm and Old French psaume or saume, derived from Church Latin psalmus, which itself comes ultimately from the Greek psalmos, a song sung to a harp, and psallein, to pluck on a stringed instrument. Appearing in Europe from the 11th century, the psaltery’s wire strings rang out in religious and secular contexts until around 1500, with a little evidence of a pocket of survival for a few decades after that. Its regular appearance in manuscript iconography, church iconography and in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are evidence of its wide use and appeal. Its influence and evolution is surprisingly widespread, giving rise to the hammer dulcimer, the harpsichord family and ultimately the piano.

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The oud: a short guide to a long history

Ouds from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, 1260–80.
Ouds from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c. 1260–80.

The Arabian oud, or al ‘ud, is probably best known in the west for being the predecessor of the European lute; but it does have an independent life of its own in the history of early music, rooted in medieval cultural exchange between east and west. We know, for example, that ouds played an important part in the musical life of the royal court of Castile (in modern Spain) in the 13th century and, by extension, almost certainly Iberian musical life in general. But was the oud fretted, unfretted, or both? How did western musicians come to play an eastern instrument? And did the oud really originate in desiccated human remains?

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Medieval music: a quick guide to the middle ages

medievaldancers110r_0The middle ages covers a period of a thousand years – and yet much of its music-making is a mystery to us. We’re not completely in the dark, though, so the aim of this article is to give a broad beginner’s guide to the principles of secular medieval music. When were the middle ages? How do we know what the music sounded like? What were the earliest surviving songs? What was its dance music like? Why does medieval music sound so different to today’s? How did medieval musicians harmonise?

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