Two seasons ago, the medieval ensemble Alkemie captivated CEM’s audience with a program of French and Italian ars nova and trecento music. They return on October 20 for a performance of Spanish Marian music. As in many European cultures, the Virgin Mary was at the center of not only religious, but also political and cultural life in medieval Spain. So too among musicians, an entire tradition of various forms of song celebrating Mary developed.
For king and commoner alike, Mary was the primary source of hope and protection, whether the inspiration for royal ventures – Spanish kings reconquered the Iberian peninsula under Mary’s banner – or a miracle worker for peasants – the Cantiga “A Madre do que a bestia” recounts Mary’s intercession to make a sheep speak so that a peasant woman can reclaim her stolen wool. The breadth of Marian devotion among the populace is described Stella splendens, a pilgrim song found in the 14th century Llibre Vermell at the shrine of the Virgin of Montserrat: among those assembled at the shrine are “rulers,” “prelates and barons, famous counts, all kinds of monks and priests, soldiers, merchants,” “sailors, burgers and fishermen,” “ploughmen,” “scribes, advocates, stone-masons, carpenters,” “Queens, countesses,” “teenagers and girls,” “nuns.”
The variety of song included in the Marian tradition is as broad as its adherents. The Llibre Vermell contains liturgical pieces and, in addition, songs and dances for the pilgrims in the style of traditional folk tunes. The Cantigas de Santa Maria composed at the 13th century court of Alfonso X is a collection of some 400 strophic songs. Most describe Marian miracles in dramatic form; every 10th song is a hymn of praise to the Virgin. The texts employ every poetic form and meter used in the late 13th century and the songs’ musical influences include the troubadour and Arabic traditions. Villancicos, derived from medieval dance forms, developed by the 16th century into sophisticated polyphonic compositions of which devotional pieces (including Marian devotion) were a characteristic group.
In a time of plagues, warfare, and political strife, Mary was honored for both her purity and her humanity–her intervention was the only sure means of healing and protection. So it is no surprise that musicians and composers sought her solace and protection through song. Medieval musicians imagined Mary as a light in the sky, illuminating the path of a pilgrimage; they extolled her as the most beautiful of roses; and they spun tales of Mary as a creator of miracles and slayer of dragons. Alkemie’s program gives a wonderful taste of this varied repertoire.