Rosa das Rosas: Cantigas de Santa Maria
The Newberry Consort
Thursday, June 13, 5 PM
This was billed as a multi-media event, which is a really good idea
for this music, because there are lots of people who have studied the
original 13th century manuscript in literature class or art class or
music class without any information about the rest of it.
There was a screen behind the performers which had a picture from the
manuscript, and translations of what the singers were singing. This
is really nicer for both audience and performers than everyone
squinting into their program books.
Many of the pictures have people playing instruments, and it was a
little jarring when the instrumentation chosen by the performers was
completely different from that in the pictures. I was particularly
struck during Cantiga 300, where the picture showed two
very conical bore wind instruments (not in enough detail to tell
whether they had a brass mouthpiece, a reed, or a fipple) and Tom
Zajac was playing a cylindrical bore traverse flute.
RECORDER and OTHER INSTRUMENTS
The music of the Cantigas is vocal, but to listen to an hour and
fifteen minutes without intermission, it was really nice that there
was a variety of instruments. There was vielle, rebec, lute, harp,
citole, hammered dulcimer, flute, recorder, bagpipe, and percussion.
(Played by 5 different people.)
Variety was also provided by supplementing the two singers (Ellen
Hargis and Matthew Dean) from the Newberry Consort with 5 singers from
the Boston area _a capella_ group Exultemus. So while Ellen Hargis
did the vast majority of the solo singing, dialogs could happen with
another singer, and some of the more general emotions could be
expressed with a choral sound. The final piece, Cantiga 10: Rosa das
Rosas, used this sound particularly well.
The recorder was actually on only one piece, but it was one of the
more striking uses of instrumental accompaniment. Cantiga 103 tells
the story of a monk who asks the Virgin to show him what the bliss of
heaven is like, and he starts listening to a bird sing, and the next
thing he knows it’s 300 years later and he no longer knows anyone in
the monastery. A highly improvised recorder solo (by Tom Zajac) was
the depiction of the bird song.
The other instrumentation I found most memorable was the quite simple
castanet beat (also played by Tom Zajac) with the Cantiga 425, about
the joy the disciples felt at the Resurection.
13th or 21st CENTURY?
The medieval notation used in the Cantigas is quite good at telling us
what notes comprise the tune, but experts differ by quite a bit about
the rhythms, and there aren’t harmonies or instrumentations notated
at all. So one is tempted to conclude that the good performers of
this music are actually quite good composers, and the music they’re
playing is twenty first century music, based on some material from the
This concert, partly because of the immersion in the pictures and the
ease of following the words, and also because of the relatively
“straight” interpretations, without a lot of composed harmony and
counterpoint, seemed more like a real experience from the 13th century
than other medieval concerts I have heard.