Cantigas: Voices of Spain

Ivan Moody


"All things in life fatigue the body with the exception of music…" [the songbook of Al-Haik]


Recent recordings of early music – and more specifically mediaeval music – from Spain are emblematic of a phenomenon which has come to be of great significance in the performance of such repertoire: that of the increasingly creative input of the performer. While in the case of the Spanish groups which are so active at the moment this is not a question of "crossover" in the mould of, say, the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek, there has been a real trend towards making the music live for the modern audience, whether by reconstructing some hypothetical manner of performance (as in the case of Jordi Savall’s work on the Cant de la or by drawing on other traditions (such as Eduardo Paniagua’s series of recordings of the Cantigas de Santa Maria), or by mixing these two approaches (for example, Alia Musica’s disc El Canto de los Auroros).

As with the recent reclaiming by the Italians of their vernacular (and, increasingly, Latin sacred) repertories from the renaissance, in Spain, the rich heritage of music from the middle ages is now a normal part of the concert repertoire of native performers and is to be heard on a substantial number of recordings. No longer do we have to have recourse to northern European groups to hear the Cantigas de Santa Maria, or the polyphony of Las Huelgas, or even Iberian plainchant. Spanish music-making (Portugal requires a separate article!) has, in the last few years, undergone a dramatic renacimiento which means that Spanish artists are to be found at international festivals and recording for international companies on a scale unimaginable some twenty years ago.

Luis Lozano Virumbrales, with his Grupo de Música Alfonso X El Sabio, has been exploring Spanish mediaeval plainchant and early polyphony in a series of recordings for Sony Hispánica. His discs of music from the Codex Calixtinus or the Las Huelgas manuscript are noticeably different in sound from those by a group such as Sequentia, though it is difficult to put one’s finger on exactly what it is that makes that difference. Does he think that there is a specifically Iberian sound? "I shouldn’t dare say that there was a Spanish or Iberian sound; each region of Spain has quite different phonetics; what does exist in the work of the group is Castilian phonetics, as theoretically described by Enrique de Villena in his Arte de Trovar". Such an adoption of "vernacular" Latin is common practice among early music performers nowadays, of course: what about Lozano’s approach to vocal timbre in both chant and polyphony? "Faced with the impossibility of knowing how a mediaeval monk sang, in current performing practice there exist two different, contradictory, approaches, one based on a lack of vocal technique, the other on a lack of documentation concerning vocal technique in the Middle Ages." Harsh words, indeed, and Lozano takes Harnoncourt to task for subscribing to a pseudo-orientalizing approach in his book Musical Dialogue. "Between these two options", he says, "I believe there is a third: the application of current vocal technique to mediaeval norms", and cites as an example the opinions of the theorist Conrad von Zabern on "modo bene cantandi". So fascinated is Lozano by this subject that he now compiling a book on vocal technique in the Middle Ages.

Another subject concerning which he is much questioned is the use of instruments: once again, theoretical justification is not lacking; what is interesting in the work of the Grupo Alfonso X El Sabio is the diversity of colours obtained by the mixture of voices with strings, harps, organ or percussion. "I look, in music, for the multicoloured prism of St Isidore of León", says Lozano. "For him, the art is in knowing how to fit each tessera into the liturgico-musical mosaic."

The Cantigas de Santa Maria, over 400 of them, form another aspect of this mosaic, a para-liturgical one, the word ‘cantiga’ meaning a poetical composition for a song. They represent a cultural synthesis only possible in mediaeval Spain. The court of Don Alfonso X El Sabio – "The Wise" – was one in which the various strands that made up Spanish culture of the time, Moorish, Jewish and European (in musical terms in the case of the Cantigas, this means the French troubadours), came together in an unprecedented way. Many recordings have been made of selections from the Cantigas, including Jordi Savall’s "Strela do dia", a fine anthology released in 1993 on Auvidis E 8508. Eduardo Paniagua’s project, with his group Música Antigua, for Sony Hispánica, however, is rather different, for his original vision was record the entire collection. There are currently nine recordings available, two of them double albums, but the future of the project is now sadly in doubt, owing to Sony’s termination of the Hispánica series. Any performance of this repertoire is bound to be highly speculative, both in terms of rhythmic approach and instrumentation. I asked Eduardo Paniagua about his approach to this complex repertoire. "The texts", he said "are fundamental, and in the narratives there appear – in inverted commas - different characters, protagonists who together with a narrator favour division among the various singers. When the text is very long and the melody very obsessive, we make use of recited text. We never depart from or cut the original text. Only on occasion will we omit the estribillo, when it interrupts the flow of the narration."

In discussing his approach to the matter of instruments, Paniagua points out that the percussion employed by Música Antigua is "not always of Arab influence, as many reviews and commentaries say, but from Spanish folk music, which is enormously rich and suggestive", and he further observes "as you can hear, I attribute great importance to the instruments (perhaps a legacy or apprenticeship from Atrium Musicae), on occasion to the detriment of the voices (that would be a real criticism), but it is a question of discovering a balance between the narration and the beauty of the melodies themselves. The instrumentation is not academic, because there exist no academies or conservatories that indicate what is correct…". For Paniagua this is not just a question of aesthetic detail; he is very conscious of the religious function of this music: "through singing and through procession is created the atmosphere of ‘surrendering’, ‘identification with the religious group’ and with the deeds which the Cantigas recount. One can even arrive at ecstasy or trance through song and rhythm: I have as a ‘challenge’ in some of the Cantigas the achievement of a ‘mystical effusiveness’ rather than just an ‘intimate and evanescent mysticism."

Such an ideal is clearly related to certain kinds of Arab religious music, and it is precisely this repertory which forms the other part of Eduardo Paniagua’s work. Andalusi music (or Arab-Andalusian: it goes under a variety of names) is the music of the "lost paradise" of the Muslim West, and will be even less familiar to most listeners than the substantially under-recorded Cantigas. Some years ago a fine recording was issued by the Moroccan Ensemble Fez under Hagg Abdelkarim Rais on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, and there is also a beautiful disc devoted to the muwashshah by the Syrian Al Turath Ensemble on Almaviva, dating from 1997. Now, with the Hispánica project, there are three further discs available (though it should be said that Paniagua has also issued a series of recordings on his own label, Pneuma, not widely available outside Spain). Paniagua says that his interest in this repertoire "arose from the realization that during the 10th-13th centuries, half of Spain was Hispano-Muslim, and that its scientific, musical and poetic culture was dominant until Christian culture later became predominant. Over the course of the years, I have noticed that the ‘reviled oral tradition’ (the 1950s and 60s) is a living source of the Andalusi tradition. The nubas, and above all Andalusi religious music, remain archaic but are still living today. We have moved on from an attempt to "mediaevalize" the living Andalusi music from the countries of the Maghreb, through contact with Arab musicians, searching for the "essence" of this music in the teachings of the great masters of the beginning of this century, before ‘contamination’ by radio and television, western as well as that of the powerful Egyptian world and of modern music." The "mixed" ensemble Ibn Ba’ya is living proof of the viability of these concerns; with two directors (Paniagua and the Moroccan Omar Metioui): they have so far produced three discs (the Hispánica series also includes a magnificent solo ‘ud recording by Metioui and a remarkable disc entitled Ritual Sufi-Andalusi, also under Metioui’s musical direction), and there are two more to appear. As Paniagua says, working in the group promotes "a real encounter" of cultures, and its success in Arab countries has been notable.

If these new recordings of Iberian music have revealed new aspects of various repertories, the involvement of popular traditions has raised other questions. Jordi Savall’s stunning 1996 disc of music for the mediaeval fiddle (La Lira d’Espéria, Auvidis E 8547) brings popular Arab and Sephardic music into the mediaeval context, and his recent disc of El Cant de la, the third in a series, contains reconstructions of the Sybilline Prophecy as sung in Mallorca and Valencia. The first two, containing versions in Latin, Provencal and Catalan (recorded in 1988) and Galician-Portuguese and Castilian Spanish (recorded in 1996), are available on Auvidis E 8705 and ES9900 respectively). The tradition of the Sibylline Prophecies is a very ancient one, whose origins are to be found in the pagan world: its presence at the dawn of the Christian world is a sign of the continuity and power of the tradition; the Emperor (Saint) Constantine the Great is said to have pronounced the original Greek text, an acrostic on the words "Jesus Christ the Son and God the Saviour" at the First Council of Nicaea in 325.AD. It was subsequently seen as a metaphor for the second coming of Christ and the judgement of the world, and remained as a popular para-liturgical element in the liturgy of the Western Church in various countries until renaissance times and – more extraordinary still – as an uninterrupted tradition in the Balearic Islands and Corsica. It was sung during the course of Matins of Christmas Eve, and in certain places (the cathedrals of Barcelona, Tarragona and Toledo, for example) was dramatized. According to the musicologist Maricarmen Gómez, by the fifteenth century, the role of the sibyl, originally taken by the priest, had been given to a choirboy dressed as a soothsayer. In Toledo, he was accompanied by four altar boys dressed as angels, two with candelabras and two with swords, which were frequently clashed together!

All three recordings have involved substantial reconstruction, in the guise of musicologically informed performance decisions on the basis of research, in the case of the second two recordings, by Maricarmen Gómez. A careful piecing together of sources has brought to life, in all, five distinct versions of the Song of the Sybil as it might have been sung in these various places. Its sound world is distinctively Savall, the dark-hued voices of the Capella Reial de Catalunya blending with his usual rich variety of instrumental colours. Food for thought is provided, indeed, by the fact that the textural and harmonic result of Savall’s work on this repertoire is often not far removed from music by contemporary composers such as Arvo Pärt. When does the creative intervention of performers in early music in this speculative fashion become composition? As Savall observes, "realizing today an historical version of the Sibyl’s Chant supposes that we are in a dynamic perspective in time, as if we were trying to grasp its coming into being at one moment without interrupting the source of its essence and its mystery." What certainly comes across in all three recordings is a feeling of hieratic serenity, matching well the rich liturgical symbolism of the Iberian plastic arts of the time - in this particular case, one can almost hear the trumpet-playing angels of the fresco of the Last Judgement from the church of St Paul at Casserres, painted in around 1200.

Miguel Sánchez’s group Alia Música has also concerned itself with oral traditions not only from Spain but from the Mediterranean area as a whole: their first Harmonia Mundi disc, Celi Domina: El canto espiritual judeoespañol, an anthology of songs from the Sephardic liturgy, mystical poems and paraliturgical compositions, was a tremendous success, and their second promises to be so too. Entitled El Canto de los Auroros, it brings together music from various Mediterranean traditions, using as a link the "Aurora" office, celebrated at dawn, as its name would suggest, a tradition which has continued down to the present day in the Hermandades de Auroros of Murcia, whose astonishing and beautiful polyphonic chants are at the heart of this recording. The very first track, a Salve a la Virgen de la Fuensanta is not only surpassingly lovely, but surprises one in its extraordinary resemblance to early Russian repertoire. The Padre nuestro and Correlativa also suggest this rather distant connection. I asked Miguel Sánchez if he were aware of this: "I know the Russian mediaeval repertoire very little, but I find this connection you mention surprising and of the greatest interest; until now I have only found these melodic coincidences in the Mediterranean region."

Asked about his vision of the relation between written music and the music of oral tradition, Sánchez says "we look to oral tradition for the substrata or oldest elements of origin than can be given by staves for performance practice. Unfortunately these sources have become increasingly rare, and so it is important to preserve what has been maintained until recently, since this can help us to learn the meaning, the character and the performance practice of a given repertoire." The Miserere from Castilla-León, a popular adaptation of chant, is a good example of this, and the resonance of this approach is amplified by another Miserere, from Sardinia, and a Corsican Agnus Dei. Both of these islands still have living popular traditions, and the Holy Week repertoires are especially rich; by performing such pieces alongside Spanish music, Alia Musica brings both into a new perspective which is mutually enriching. Jewish music features on this disc too. I asked Miguel Sánchez about his interest in this repertoire: "I came across Jewish-Spanish music some 20 years ago, initially by chance, and then I became much more deeply interested, on the one hand because of its particular musical beauty (especially the liturgical repertoire), and on the other because it came from a tradition of Hispanic origins." Sánchez subsequently worked with this material, consulting with specialists in history, linguistics and philology, at the sound archive of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas in Madrid.

Alia Musica’s next recording will be of music from the "unica"` preserved in 13th century Spanish manuscripts: it will be a selection of works which appear exclusively in these codices (Las Huelgas Codex, Madrid BN Ms. 20486 and Barcelona Orfeo Català Ms. I), and are unrepresented in other European sources. If it is as revelatory – and as beautiful - as their two previous Harmonia Mundi discs, it will be worth waiting for.



© 1999, 2002 Ivan Moody


This article was originally written for publication in 1999 for Gramophone Early Music Quarterly. The cessation of that journal meant that it was never published, and in spite of the time lapse, I believe that current interest in the material discussed here means that it is worthwhile making available in electronic form.


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