By Ken Keaton
There are few places on earth where an audience can enjoy a purely magical performance of Medieval song in a glorious hall. The Boston Early Music Festival is on that short list. The music: Cantigas de Santa Maria, by Alfonso X. The performers: the Newberry Consort with the vocal ensemble Exsultemus. The place: New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
The Cantigas de Santa Maria consists of 420 poems set to music, attributed to Alfonso X, King of Castile, Leon, and Galicia during the 13th century. Alfonso was known as El Sabio, “The Wise,” and was not only a great political leader but also one of the finest scholars of his age, learned in all aspects of his world including poetry and music. His treatise on law became one of the guides for our nation’s founders, and he wrote an extensive history of Spain. These works, and the Cantigas, were unique to the age as the first major scholarly works written in the vernacular, rather than Latin.
Whether he directly wrote all of these poems and set them to music, or whether he supervised their assembly, he very likely contributed a major amount. And that actually has little bearing on the fact that these are uncommonly beautiful works, particularly in the hands – and voices – of brilliant scholar/performers such as the Newberry Consort and Exsultemus.
What survives of the music is just the melody and text – set in an evolving notation in which it is not clear exactly how the rhythms should be interpreted, nor how the words line up with the music. Some scholars feel that the music should be presented without any instrumental accompaniment, but there are ample indications from that instruments were used. Indeed, some of theO illuminations in the manuscript for the Cantigas show instrumentalists playing with singers. That which is played, however, must be reconstructed (would conjured be a better word?), in this case by the scholars and players in the Newberry Consort, experts who have lived with this era’s music for a long time.
All the players doubled instruments, so the accompaniment varied from piece to piece. Ellen Hargis‘ clear, expressive soprano was the leading voice telling each story, with the singers of Exsultemus joining in at recurring choruses.
The language is medieval Portuguese; the performance was enhanced by projecting the English translations of the text, each –against a background of art of that time, whether illustrating the stories of each song, or perhaps showing musicians at work. That was frankly a touch of genius. Most of the settings are strophic, and many narrations were quite extensive. This way the audience could be fully involved and follow the nuances of the performers.
The performers chose sixteen of the Cantigas (all of which celebrate Mary, Mother of Jesus). Two were performed purely instrumentally. Others told mystical stories, like the saint who listened for 300 years to a bird song after he asked Mary to show him what the bliss of heaven would be like. Some were more earthy, like the tale of a pregnant abbess who was saved when Mary took her child far away, so there was no evidence that she had become pregnant. We also heard the tale of the visit of the three kings at Jesus’ birth, and that of his ascent into heaven.
But the final Cantiga, “Rosa das Rosas,” the most ethereally beautiful of all, was again in praise of the Virgin Mary, “Rose of Roses, Flower of Flowers, Lady of Ladies.” Each verse was sung with rapt devotion. For the final verse, the instrumentalists put down their instruments and joined in one final a cappella stanza. It would not have been surprising if halos of light had encircled each of their heads. It was a truly memorable, inspired ending.
For the record, here is the artist roster:
The Newberry Consort: David Douglass and Ellen Hargis, artistic directors; David Douglass, vielle and rebec; Ellen Hargis, soprano; Matthew Dean, tenor and recorder; Shira Kammen, vielle and harp; Mark Rimple, lute and citole, and Tom Zajac, flute, recorder, bagpipe, hammered dulcimer, and percussion.
Exsultemus: Shannon Kanavin, soprano and artistic director, with Shari Alise Wilson, soprano; Pamela Dellal, mezzo-soprano; Martin Near, counter-tenor, and Michael Barrett, tenor.
Ken Keaton is a professor of music at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of The Mystery of Music, published by Kendall Hunt. As a music critic, he writes for American Record Guide and the Palm Beach Daily News.