The Cantigas de Santa Maria («Canticles of Holy Mary») are 420 poems with musical notation, written during the reign of Alfonso X The Wise (1221–1284) and often attributed to him. It is one of the largest collections of monophonic songs from the Middle Ages and is characterized by the mention of the Virgin Mary in every song.
La Capella Reial de CatalunyaHespèrion XXJordi Savall, dirección
1. Introducción (CSM 176) 1’38
ALFONSO THE WISE
Cantigas de Santa Maria
As a lawmaker and originator of legal codes, Alfonso X, also known as Alfonso the Wise, followed in his father’s footsteps, carrying out projects planned and begun by King Ferdinand. In the field of poetry it is also very likely that he was inspired by the example of his father. As we know from Alfonso’s description of him in Setenario, as well as other sources, King Ferdinand was a great patron of the minstrels who visited the court of Castile and, significantly, he professed a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary, which is referenced in three of the Cantigas (122, 221 and 292).
Emergence and spread of the Marian cult
According to sources conserved in various 3rd century Coptic and Egyptian papyri, as well as texts by St Ephrem the Syrian († 373) and St Epiphany († 403), the author of Precationes ad Deiparam and the earliest popular liturgical hymns, the origins of the popular veneration of the Virgin Mary can be traced to the East. It was there, at the site of the famous temple of Artemis (the goddess of hunting, forests, mountains and the moon, considered by ancient traditions to be the twin sister of Apollo) in the city of Ephesus (present-day Selçuk, in the district of Izmir near Kusadasi, Turkey), at that time the second most important city in the Roman Empire that Mary was proclaimed the “Mother of God” during the third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. Regarded as the prelude to the spread of the Marian cult in both the Eastern and Western Church, this dogma was celebrated and set in stone for posterity by Sixtus III (432-440) with the rebuilding of the Liberian Basilica in Rome, today known as the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. The basilica was the epicentre from which the most splendid rituals of the Marian liturgy radiated forth, as witnessed by the antiphons O admirabile commercium, Quando natus es ineffabiliter ex Virgine, Ecce Maria genuit Salvatorem, which were originally sung by the Eastern communities and subsequently translated into Latin to form part of the Roman liturgy to form part of the rituals of the Marian liturgy, and are still sung every year on 1st January on the Feast the Circumcision of Our Lord.
After the 5th century, Gaul, Lower Germany and the Iberian Peninsula saw a proliferation of Marian churches. The Hispanic Church, where the Salve sancta Pares by the Latin poet Prudentius († after 405) was first sung, and which in the 7th century had translated into Latin the profoundly Marian works of St Ephrem, was that same Church which at Tarragona, at the end of the 7th or beginning of the 8th century, copied the Orationale, with its thirty-four splendid prayers dedicated to the Virgin Mary. (Higini Anglès, La música de las Cantigas de Santa María, 1958).
From the middle of the 5th century, musical lyric poetry dedicated to the Virgin Mary, together with Latin poetry, spread throughout the Christian world; it should be remembered, however, that although many works from the archaic period are anonymous, the identity of many sacred Latin poets from as early as the 6th century is known to us. Among them, some of the principal poets before Alfonso the Wise who dedicated their poetic inspiration to extolling the glories of the Virgin Mary include Magnus Felix Ennodius († 521), Venantius Fortunatus (before 610), the Venerable Bede († 735), Paulus Diaconus († 799), Paulinus Patriarch of Aquileia († 802), Walahfrid Strabo († 849), Bishop Fulbert of Chartres († 1028), Hermannus Contractus († 1081), St Anselm of Canterbury († 1109), Peter Abelard († 1142), St Hildegard of Bingen († 1171), John of Garland († after 1252), Adam of Baseia († 1286), etc., many of them renowned figures in the history of music.
Devotion to the Virgin Mary, which burgeoned during the 12th and 13th centuries –as well as the previously mentioned Latin repertory– led to another more popular flourishing of Marian songs in Romance languages, including the troubadour king’s collection of Cantigas de Santa Maria. This repertory saw a widespread increase from the 12th and 13th centuries, thanks to the creation and expansion of new religious orders which fervently promoted devotion to the Virgin Mary: St Bernard (the “Troubadour of Mary”) and the Cistercians, the Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites and Servants of Mary, all of whom competed to increase the musical presence in Marian art. According to Higini Anglès, of all the songbooks that have been preserved, Alfonso the Wise’s collection of 420 Cantigas de Santa Maria constitutes “the most important musical repertory in medieval European lyric poetry”, and it is undoubtedly the richest Marian songbook from the Middle Ages. 356 cantigas are narratives recounting the miracles of the Virgin, while the remainder, with the exception of an introduction and two prologues, are de loor, or refer to Marian or Christological feasts. All, except the introduction, are accompanied with music, and –as Jesús Martín Galán points out in his commentary – the variety of metrical forms used with great virtuosity by the authors of the texts is extraordinary, especially in the 64 non-narrative canticles, in which we find 53 different combinations.
King Alfonso X
His court and Las Cantigas de Santa Maria
Alfonso X was born at Toledo on 22nd September, 1221, the firstborn son of Ferdinand III of Castile and Beatrice of Swabia and, although very little is known about his literary and musical education, there is documentary evidence that in his youth he liked to surround himself musicians and poets and compete with the troubadours and minstrels who served at his father’s court, where he first learned to appreciate Occitan songs and Galaico-Portuguese lyrics. His connections with the Royal House of France also introduced him to the monodic repertories in the Latin and Romance languages, as well as the Minnesang repertory. At his father’s royal chapel he discovered ecclesiastical chant, and at court he became acquainted with the lais, virolais and rondeaux and the musical forms practised by Provençal troubadours and French troveurs.
One of his most important contributions, after being crowned king of Castile and Leon, was his ability to assimilate the Eastern culture that he found in the capital of the kingdom. There, at Toledo, the School of Translators gathered together an outstanding group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars who carried out the great scientific task of rescuing the texts of Antiquity and translating them into Western languages, thereby contributing to lay the foundations of the scientific renaissance of medieval Europe. Within Alfonso’s huge scientific and literary production, which was planned and to some extent supervised by the king himself, his most significant as well as personal work, the collection entitled Cantigas de Santa Maria, takes pride of place. This collection, whose two principal manuscripts are richly adorned with miniatures, accompanied the monarch for many years until his death. The eminent scholar Walter Mettmann recalls the king’s fondness for the book, writing: “When he lay sick and close to death in Vitoria, and his skilled physicians were no longer able to offer him relief, he ordered that, instead of warm compresses, ‘the book of canticles to Holy Mary’ be laid on him, whose miraculous power restored him to health.” (Cantiga 209, No. 5 on the CD). Just a few weeks before his death, he requested in his will and testament “all the books of the Cantigas in praise of Holy Mary should be placed in the church where our body is buried”.
The Cantigas re-released in this new ALIA VOX Heritage CD are a selection prepared and recorded in 1993 with Montserrat Figueras, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and the musicians of the ensemble Hespèrion XX, with the addition of the Cantiga O ffondo do mar tan chão (CSM383), recorded in 2008.
Florence, 19th May, 2017
Translated by Jacqueline Minnet