I didn’t expect a period-immaculate concert of Spanish High Medieval songs to induce me to ruminate on some of today’s great social debates, but that was the effect of the Newberry Consort and members of Exsultemus in a performance of the Cantigas de Santa Maria for Boston Early Music Festival on Friday. The result was not only rich in musical artistry, but also a validation of one of early music’s loftier goals: to bring modern ears and hearts closer to their long-ago counterparts in celebrating the common threads of humanity that never change.
To take a step back in my somewhat convoluted premise, and to explore why the warm and festive atmosphere in First Church in Cambridge’s lofty sanctuary was more than mere reverence for music history, let me admit that I did not, in fact, sit down with the determination to imagine myself a courtier in a 13th-century Spanish castle, but rather with my own modern sensibilities intact. I place myself squarely in two growing 21st-century camps: feminists (broadly defined as those who operate on the default assumption that women have as much to offer society as men and deserve equal opportunities—nothing radical here) and the secular (not counting myself as a member of any religion). This makes me pretty normal in my cohort,but leaves me ambivalent about a lot of our Western cultural legacy. Case in point: the Virgin Mary. On one hand, she is amazingly awesome—upholding her corner of female divinity in a male-dominated religion; quietly, unflashily exerting her restorative power over a sea of believers for centuries. On the other hand, there’s the weird fixation on that virginity element—which lingers on the debate about suppressing women’s sexuality. She’s the Queen of Heaven, for God’s sake, why do we need to dwell on her sex life or lack thereof? Yes, it’s a metaphor, but why? (And I won’t dwell on the hows and whys of her doctrinal vanishing act when the Protestants came along.)
The Cantigas, of course, are a Marian tribute: a huge compendium of over 400 vocal and instrumental songs attributed to King Alfonso X of Spain (1221-1284), known as el Sabio for his voracious intellectual and artistic appetite. This larger-than-life figure (who, seeing that he had a full-time job of ruling, likely had ghostwriters to help him) was the narrative spirit behind the Newberrys’ selection of 14 cantigas. One of the pleasures of Friday’s concert was hearing his voice fade in and out of the storytelling texture, a subtle touch attributable equally to songwriter and to the artists who compiled the selection. The Cantigas are a mix of rowdy tales (often featuring Mary in the cameo role of perpetrator of some roundabout, mischievous miracle), more sober Biblical narratives, and songs of praise—Friday night’s programming featured mainly the rowdy tales in the first half and the sober narratives in the second, both punctuated by songs of praise. The combination of mortal foibles, the offerings of grace, and devotion to a higher good proved irresistibly touching. As became apparent over the course of the evening (to those of us not intimately acquainted with the Cantigas), the overarching theme of the compendium was essentially courtly love, with Mary the ultimate focus of female devotion and Alfonso-as-bard her distinguished servant. Somehow both sides of this (potentially sacrilegious but ultimately harmonious) conflation come out ennobled: the absurd aspects of the courtly love tradition are mitigated by the presence of an object with seriously virtuous cred, while the divine is given a compassionate face.
The first cantiga of the evening, “A Virgen mui groriosa,” gave the theme an earthy, cheeky spin: a youth pledges his life to Mary, then goes back on his vow in order to marry his sweetheart; on his wedding night she appears to him in a series of increasingly exasperated visions, eventually popping up between him and his naked wife in bed to take him to task for his fickleness. (Dénouement: the young man is so frightened he leaps out of bed then and there and runs into the forest to become a monk, leaving his jilted mortal girl behind forever. Moral: Mary will take you to heaven, but you really need to be loyal to her.) Other songs on the first half of the program had similarly wry narratives: in one, Mary performs a miracle to reveal the location of a stolen chop of meat to some hungry pilgrims (dubious moral: Mary takes care of her people…except that rather than eating the meat, they save it as a relic). In the most quietly subversive song, Mary performs another miracle by removing an inconvenient child from the womb of an abbess who had fallen into sin and was up before the Bishop for punishment (N.B. this was not an abortion, but a spiriting away of the presumably full-term baby to France), thus ensuring that the abbess, an upstanding leader despite her moment of weakness, maintains her position of influence in a system quick to censure.
Even the songs on second half, though much more circumspect in their retelling of the key plots from the Bible, celebrated the connection between the human and the divine. One of the most moving cantigas was “Como podernos a Deus gradeçer” (sample lyric: “It was great when God created the heavens and earth, but greater still when He descended to earth to walk among men”), an assertion that love and empathy are even more divine acts than creation. The cantigas celebrate just these traits in God, Jesus, and especially Mary towards us imperfect mortals, inspiring by example and gentle exhortation. Who among us is needless of more such virtues in our lives?
The concert also demonstrated some other elements I could use more of: wonderfully played medieval instruments and full-screen, richly colored projections of artwork. The multi-instrumentalists and singers (and sometimes both) of the Newberry Consort were captivating both in the graceful, matter-of-fact mastery of their antique instruments and their expressiveness. Tenor Matthew Dean opened each cantiga with a richly intoned Galician-Portuguese introduction, while soprano and co-director Ellen Hargis shouldered the lion’s share of the sung storytelling with impressive poise and unwavering clarity. Among the instrumentalists, it was hard to settle on who to watch; vielle player Shira Kammen was possibly my favorite, bringing a Scheherazade-like rhapsodizing to her solo moments, coaxing an impressive variety of sounds—from barriolage chords to col legno percussive accents—from her boxy instrument and convex bow, and engaging with the surrounding musicians with clear delight. The number of instruments in the instrumentaria of plucked-string player Mark Rimple and wind and percussionist Tom Zajac was even greater than listed in the program—leaving me without a name for the curvaceous set of pan pipes used by Zajac to startlingly evocative effect in “Quen a Virgen ben servira,” a cantiga in which a monk, upon requesting Mary to give him a taste of paradise, is entranced for 300 years by the song of a bird.
The local contingent of Exsultemus members, soprano Shannon Canavin, mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal, countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf, and tenor Michael Barrett, provided well-blended underscoring in the refrains; the monophonic nature of the songs demanded the difficult but sensitively executed task of frequent unisons. They also occasionally shone in delicate solos, sometimes adding an extra narrative dimension by taking on the role of a specific character. The behind-the-scenes hero of the evening was Shawn Keener, responsible for one of the central elements of the evening—the projection of facsimiles of selections from among the more than 1200 illustrations found in the Cantigas’ manuscripts. These offered depictions of the characters (with surprising emotional detail), where narrative prevailed, and illustrations of musicians and instruments at other times. The flawlessly executed images offered both stunning backdrops and convenient supertitles; along with the expressivity of the songs I couldn’t imagine a better immersive experience in a concert hall.
The limited notation of the manuscripts leaves much up to interpretation. I’ll never know (and am content to remain ignorant of) which exact elements of instrumentation, drones, countermelodies, percussive underpinning, or even rhythm were pre-arranged and which improvised. (Even the rhythms of the songs, many of which are based on dances and were cleanly executed in a variety of meters by Friday’s performers, are a topic of debate among connoisseurs of medieval notation.) Yet more than any scholarly research, the most cogent argument for their realization of the Cantigas was the harmony of their delivery with the message of the work—joyful, spontaneous, celebratory, and full of devotion.
I can hear and play any number of masses by the greats and still ultimately come away cold and a bit alienated. But in the Cantigas (take a look [here] at some manuscript and illumination samples) I find fiery, intimate, and delightful sacred music that, when passionately played, can’t fail to move and uplift human hearts centuries after its invention. Hail Mary!