November 12, 2002

Geopolitics explored by Camerata. Also, music is played.

Boston Camerata

Camerata Mediterranea

Andalusian Orchestra of Fez

Cantigas de Santa Maria: Songs of Mystic Spain

Christians, Muslims and Jews at the court of Alfonso the Wise, King of

Castille (1221-1284)

The Boston Camerata

Joel Cohen, director

Mohammed Brioul, guest co-director

with members of

Camerata Mediterranea


Sharq Arab-American Ensemble

Mandel Hall, November 5

While across the nation people sat before their television sets awaiting the results of the interim elections, one privileged audience sat in Mandel Hall soaking up the sounds of medieval Spain. The Boston Camerata, well-known and respected for their interpretations of early music, joined forces with members of the Camerata Mediterranea and the Sarq Arab-American Ensemble for an American tour of the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, or Songs of St. Mary, were compiled at the court of King Alfonso X during his reign from 1252-1284. The text and music of the approximately 400 songs have been preserved in three manuscripts, along with illustrations of musicians in action.

While monophony, modal melodies, and the miracles of the Virgin Mary may be foreign to my modern ears, the Cantigas de Santa Maria are surprisingly pleasant and engaging. I say surprisingly because the Cantigas have a high potential for inducing boredom on several counts: each song is a single, unharmonized melody; the songs are strophic—meaning the same melody is repeated for each stanza of the text—the melody very often consists of no more than three musical phrases repeated in various combination to accommodate the ten lines of a stanza. And even if the novelty of the music were enough to maintain interest through one song, multiply one by twenty and the novelty starts to wear off. The appeal of the music, however, did anything but wear off, thanks to several aspects of the performance.

The distinctive voice and style of each of the four vocalists played a large part in keeping the music interesting. Of the four vocalists, all of whom were female, two were of classical Western training and two were of traditional Arab-Andalusian training. While the two classically trained singers sounded as if they could break into aria at any time, the traditionally trained pair had less adulterated voices, producing a clear, simultaneously nasal and throaty sound, devoid of vibrato except as decoration at particularly expressive moments. By singing alternately as soloists and in various pairings along with the instrumentalists that produced uniquely pleasant sounds, they provided the variety of sound and articulation of form not inherent in the music as written, but necessary to engage the listener and make sense of the songs' otherwise undistinguished repetition.

The singers also communicated the meaning of the songs to the audience such that even those of us not fluent in Gallego-Portuguese could understand what was going on. Those songs solemnly praising the Virgin Mary were sung by a solo vocalist in a direct and concentrated manner. In those songs, which joyously relate one of the Virgin Mary's miracles, the vocalists took on different roles as narrators or characters in the story and divided the stanzas accordingly, gesturing the events as they sang.

Another point of interest in the performance was the instruments. The ensemble consisted of a guitar-like lauta, two violin-like vielles, a violin, a quiet acoustic bass guitar-like oud, and two percussion instruments. Though one of the vielle players would often get noticeably creative, the instrumentalists invariably played the same melody as the singer in their respective ranges, with the percussionists keeping the pulse. The variety of tone colors this produced was amazingly satisfying and never left me wishing to hear a more elaborately harmonized accompaniment. Just from listening I never would have guessed the presence of the violin. By resting it on his knee, holding it vertically and bowing horizontally in front of himself, and using no vibrato, the player achieved a mellower, whiny sound reminiscent of a Chinese erhu. In addition to the spectrum of tone colors they provided, the instrumentalists also greatly contributed to the performance through their stage presence, openly communicating with each other. Their communication had the function not only of infecting the audience with their joy, but of recreating the sprit in which the songs were originally performed. Intended for performance on feasts of the Virgin, they probably would not have been heard in a setting anything like the scene in Mandel Hall, but instead in a more festive and interactive setting.

Boston Camerata director Joel Cohen spoke to the audience throughout the concert, sharing his enthusiasm for the Cantigas project as well as the frustrations encountered in putting the project together. Despite his claim to hate the word, multiculturalism could hardly be avoided in a description of the undertaking. (Cohen in fact avoids the word in his program notes by using the word polycultural. Is this preferable? I think not.) The reasons for bringing Western and Arab musicians together for the project were manifold. The instruments used at Alfonso's court (as evidenced by pictures decorating the Cantigas manuscripts), while extinct in Europe, remain current in Muslim Northern Africa, as do the medieval modes. The continuous tradition of these elements not only facilitates the learning of the Cantigas by musicians trained in Northern Africa, but also imparts on them, as the closest living link to musical practice in medieval Spain, an authority as interpreters of the music. And finally, the cultural diversity of the ensemble reflects the cultural diversity of Alfonso X's court. From the still extant payroll, Cohen told us, we know that the court maintained 27 musicians: 13 Christians, 13 Muslims, and one Jew. (Hmm, affirmative action in the mid-thirteenth century?)

Cohen took advantage of the heightened political consciousness of Election Day to draw parallels between medieval Spain and the present in the Cantigas. When he told the audience, "The long piece you heard was about a corrupt judge," he was met with applause. More importantly, however, he crystallized for us the frightening reality which current U.S. policy is creating. Four of the musicians who were supposed to be a part of the Cantigas tour were unable to enter the United States. Musicians from around the world are encountering the same problem. Some are touring Canada instead of the U.S., while concert organizers here scramble to find replacements for the groups which have been forced to cancel. While Cohen made light of the situation, ("You can't just have violin players running all around can you? You gotta draw the line somewhere,") he was obviously troubled. And rightly so, for if we cut off cultural exchange, how are we ever to develop the mutual respect necessary for peaceful coexistence in the world?

The advertisements for this concert were blatantly lying in their claim that it would, "recreate the spiritual and musical climate of thirteenth-century Iberia, when Jews, Christians and Muslims existed peacefully together." Alfonso X in fact took active part in the reconquests of Muslim Spain and expelled Muslims from the lands in order to repopulate them with Christians. Also, his Siete partidas—the body of codified law which is arguably his most significant achievement beside the Cantigas—included injunctions specifically against Jews. However, the fatuous attempt to make Alfonso X into a more enlightened despot than he was does not diminish the cultural achievement which the Cantigas represent, nor the usefulness of their performance today as a lesson in history, an opportunity for cultural exchange, an awareness-raiser of the impediments thereof, and as an autonomously beautiful musical experience.