March 27, 2004

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Added three articles today by Lady Valeria delle Stelle. See the Articles link in the Navigation menu to the left.

Cantigas de Santa Maria


During the 12th and the 13th centuries, throughout the Christian world, flourished the cult of the Virgin Mary. Men saw her as an intermediary between the common people and God, her Son, and as a symbol of absolute love and immaculate service to a feminine idea. People were inclined to ask the Virgin to plead their cases with God, and large numbers of songs were devoted to her, singing her praise and recounting the miracles that she performed in aid of the pious and the clean of heart. There are many collections of these songs in Italian, French and Latin, but the largest one is the Cantigas de Santa Maria, compiled between 1260 and 1280 by Alfonso X, El Sabio (The Wise) “King of Castilla, Toledo, Leon, Galicia, Sevilla, Cordoba, Murcia, Jaen and the Algarbe” (1).

Alfonso was a highly educated man, whose Court consisted of Christian, Arab and Jewish poets, musicians and scientists. During his reign he compiled, edited and published a large number of books, with subjects ranging from art and literature to scientific texts translated into Castillian from the Arabic originals. But the most important of these publications are the Cantigas, which have been described as an “encyclopedia of narrative art in both verbal and visual form, of poetic meters, of musical notation, of daily life and custom” (2). This may sound pompous, but it is an undeniable fact that the Cantigas de Santa Maria offer us an amazing insight in 13th century everyday life.

There are some 426 cantigas contained in four manuscripts, of which three are in Spain (two in the monastery of Escorial and one in Madrid) and one in Florence. The two most important are the Escorial manuscripts. One contains 401 cantigas with their music and a series of richly illuminated miniatures of musicians holding instruments, giving us a first-hand clue of the instrumentation used in their performance. The variety of instruments is impressive. All types of stringed instruments, bowed (fidulas and rebab or rebec) or plucked (citterns or guitars, mandolas, lutes, psalteries or zithers and harps ), wind instruments (shawms and double shawms, bladder pipes, transverse flutes, pipes or recorders, trumpets, horns or trombas, bagpipes), percussion (drums and tabors, clappers or castanets, cymbals, chime bells) and even portative organ and organistrum or symphonia. Also, the miniatures seem to provide indispensable evidence that the Cantigas were sung by one or more voices variously accompanied by one, two or a group of instruments and sometimes by dancers.

The other contains 194 cantigas, illustrated in a “comic strip” fashion. Each cantiga is represented in six or twelve (and in one case eight) illuminated panels that describe visually the miracle recounted in the song. These panels present us with an amazing view of day-to-day life. Depending on the story we see travelling merchants and pilgrims, battling soldiers, minstrels, physicians exercising their trade, criminals being punished… Every aspect of life is vividly portrayed. Invariably the Virgin Mary appears in the end to proclaim judgement or offer mercy. The cantigas are written in Galician – Portuguese, the medieval Romance language of the province of Galicia. Galicia was the site of Santiago de Compostella, one of the greatest shrines of the Christian world, therefore it was exposed to pilgrims from all over Europe, which brought with them stories from their respective countries, as well as the elaborate poetry of the Provençal troubadours. This, mixed with the native vein of folk lyricism, produced a highly developed literary language, used both by Portuguese and Spanish minstrels for love poems (cantigas de amigo, cantigas de amor) or poetic satire (cantigas de escarmio, cantigas de maldizer). It has been suggested that Alfonso used it also for political reasons, as Galicia was one of the provinces he ruled over.

Almost all of the cantigas are in the popular virelai form (refrain/verse/refrain). The verses vary in line length, from four to sixteen syllables, but the structure remains the same. They number of stanzas can be anywhere from five to thirty! Their structure is usually AA BBAA AA, AB BBAB AB or ABCD EFEF ABCD.

The melodies of the cantigas come from a variety of sources. Some were adapted from sacred (western chant, mozarabic liturgical music) or popular melodies from both sides of the Pyrenees. There are cantigas whose melodies derive from troubadour songs in Provençal. Others have striking affinities with Arab music, and many have borrowed the metrical structure of the zajal, a popular type of song in Arabic. The tunes were composed or adapted by court musicians or, as it has been claimed, by Alfonso himself. They are in a variety of modes, but the Dorian and Mixolydian predominate. Unfortunately, the square notation used in all the manuscripts still presents serious problems of transcription as regards metre, rhythm and melisma.

The most striking feature of the cantigas, however, is their narrative content, which formed a vital part of their appeal. “A profound and delightfully naïve confidence in the boundless compassion, or rather the infinite tolerance of the Mother of God towards the sins of man, pervades all these songs. Through them we get a glimpse of the medieval soul, with its solid faith, its crude beliefs and simple notions of the supernatural, its charming and unbridled fantasy, its unconscious irreverence and its innocent mixture of the human and the divine.”(3) The majority are accounts of the miracles performed by the Blessed Virgin (cantigas de miragres) but every tenth is a hymn in her praise (cantigas de loor). It is these latter ones, many of which feature first person accounts (for example cantigas 1, 347, and 400), which are believed to be by Alfonso himself. Many cantigas de loor borrow their ideas and their language from the Courtly Love songs of the period. For example, in cantiga 10 Mary is described as the rose of roses and the flower of flowers, the most beautiful of women, a mistress that everybody should love and cherish and in cantiga 340 she is called the Daughter and Bride of God, the Dawn through which the Sun, who is Christ, was revealed, the Dawn which brightens the Heavens.

In the miracle cantigas, the language is extremely matter-of-fact and the narratives often bawdy or humoristic. Their stories, like the melodies, come from a variety of sources (for example, cantiga 42 uses a story that was popular in France before the 13th century), and many were written down in other countries. The variety of the themes is infinite. Most cantigas recount miracles done upon the common folk: there is a nun who is about to flee with the knight which has seduced her, a pregnant abbess being miraculously delivered from her baby, a ship of greedy merchants caught in a storm pleading for help, even a thief spared from the gallows because he prayed to the Virgin Mary. Others deal with kings and princes, and men and women of high status. Some draw their themes from a historical background, such as cantiga 15, in which Mary defends the city of Caesaria from the Emperor Julian the Apostate or cantiga 28, in which Mary defends Constantinople against the Moors. The Holy Mary is credited with healing powers, as in cantiga 37 where she restores an amputated foot and in cantiga 69 where she made a deaf-mute speak, and even with bringing the dead back to life, as in cantigas 21 and 33 where she restores to life a child and a pilgrim. Some cantigas deal with Her powers in a more circumspect way, like cantiga 29 where Mary made her image appear on the stones, but all of them demonstrate in the end the boundless love that people expected from the Virgin Mary.


Footnotes (1) The Cantigas de Santa Maria, p xix (2) Ibid, p xi (3) Las Cantigas de Santa Maria, Lyrichord Reference Center, Ernesto G. da Cal

Secular music in 15th century England

The study of English secular music during the later Middle Ages and the beginnings of the Renaissance has been severely hampered by the fact that the number of surviving songs in English between 1100 and 1400 is outrageously small. Even so, some conjectures can be made, and so far there has been no evidence that England had a developed tradition of monophonic song, like the Troubadours and Trouvères in France or the Minnesänger in Germany, or that it was affected by the ideas of Courtly Love, so popular on the Continent during that period. Instead, there exist a number of devotional songs or carols (not necessarily for church use but with ecclesiastical themes) and a few scattered one- and two-part secular songs like Foweles in the Frith and Brid one brere.

However, even these early attempts show certain aspects that help define English music, most important of which is the preference for using thirds, as opposed to the fourths and fifths that were the norm elsewhere. Indeed, to the modern listener, early 15th c. English music sounds sweeter and fuller that continental music of the same period. This is due to its use of full triads, block chords or lightly ornamented homorhythmic passages and consonant harmonies that avoid dissonances except as passing notes.(1) In 1440, Martin le Franc, in his book Le champion des dames, recognised an English discrete style, influential on the continent, characterised by “sprightly consonance and a number of specific technical features”.(2) These include the English discant, comprising of two-part, contrary motion counterpoint favouring imperfect consonances, namely thirds and sixths, and the faburden, a parallel homophony in thirds and sixths, both largely improvised. Even though Le Franc was probably referring to religious music, secular music of the period shares most, if not all, of these characteristics. One beautiful song, O Rosa Bella (attributed to John Dunstable but probably composed by Beddyngham), was very famous on the continent and many composers wrote variations or whole pieces based on its tune.

The earliest pieces we have are from the so called Cambridge manuscript (c 1415) and are written in French or Latin and adapted from late 14th c. French and other continental sources. However, English became the official language of the Court in 1362, and when Henry IV became king in 1399, being the first king whose native language was not French, there was in increase in the use of the English language in literature and, by extension, in music.

Deo gracias Anglia
Redde pro victoria

Owre kynge went forth to Normandy
With grace and myght of chyualry;
Ther God for hym wrought mervelusly;
Wherfore Englonde may calle and cry,
“Deo gracias.”

This is the burden and first stanza of what is possibly the most famous English 15th century song, the Agincourt Carol, written sometime during the first quarter of the 15th c. to commemorate the battle of Agincourt in 1415. Carols form the main corps of surviving secular music from the 15th century. They can be found mainly in three manuscripts: the Ritson manuscript, compiled probably between 1470 and 1510, the Fayrfax manuscript, compiled around 1500 and the Henry VIII manuscript, compiled around 1515. The Ritson manuscript comes from the West Country, probably from Essex cathedral and seems to be a general purpose song-book for a provincial establishment. It contains many religious carols written in the traditional medieval style and a few ceremonial ones. It also has two kinds of secular songs: love songs in Burgundian chanson style and some English songs similar to those in the Fayrfax manuscript. The Fayrfax manuscript reflects the taste of the Court under the first Tudor King. The songs are all in English and of three kinds: 2 and 3-part songs on courtly love, larger songs with religious themes (Passions) and topical, satirical and humorous songs.

The word carol originates from the Old French carole, which is a round-dance in which the dancers themselves provide the accompanying music. It is used in this meaning up until the 15th century, when its function begins to change. It becomes more and more a purely vocal piece, but still maintaining the traditional form of a four-line verse followed by a two-line burden. According to R. L. Greene, carol is “a song on any subject, composed of uniform stanzas and provided with a burden… The burden makes and marks the carol. It is not a refrain (which might appear at the end of each stanza) but a self-contained formal and metrical unit”.(3) It is simple, direct and unpretentious in style, mainly cheerful, using stock phrases and traditional imagery. Its basic form is related to other continental popular forms of the time like the French ballade, the Italian ballata or the Spanish villancico. However, all these were monophonic, whereas the English introduced a unique feature: the polyphonic carols, which first appeared around 1400. These carols were fairly straightforward, usually in triple measure, with parts often moving in parallel thirds or sixths. The burden is in three parts and the stanzas in two. The earliest collection of carols is the Trinity Roll, which contains the Agincourt Carol. During the 15th century, the carols progressed technically and musically, from two to three parts, and increased in rhythmical subtlety and formal complexity.

Carols come in a surprising variety of subjects, but they can be broadly categorised as secular/popular and religious. According to John Stevens “the popular carol, rough and direct, combines a warmth of human feeling with a matter-of-factness and a sense of wonder. The clerical carol, complex and often ornate, dwells with dramatic intensity on the physical and spiritual anguish of the Passion. The one didactic but gay; the other solemnly devotional.” (4) Other researchers divide them in four categories: courtly or popular dance-song, popular religious song (lauda), popular litany or processional song, ecclesiastical polyphonic song.

The language of carols can be equally complex. There are texts purely in English, French or Latin (usually called cantilenae), but also macaronic texts in any combination of these languages. Religious or devotional carols are usually in English with a Latin burden. Many of these seem to have been written anonymously by men of some education and song-craft but not great intellectuals.

Another type of secular music was of the type written for the medieval “miracle” or “mystery” plays, performed in major festivals throughout Britain. It was on the greater part incidental music, but certain composed 2-part songs and instrumental pieces survive. For example, in a York mystery play or “pageant” from the mid-15th century, music was used to add verisimilitude, to add a supernatural dimension as in the Angel’s song and to create diversion as in the Shepherds’ song. There are surviving songs from the York play, and it is interesting to note that they were written in Latin and not in English as one would expect, even though they were intended for public use.

Civic music was functional within a particular social framework. There were lots of minstrels at the King’s court or other large households and town musicians or “waits” and freelancers. The city of Coventry had paid minstrels playing at the various “pageants”, as for example on Corpus Christi Day. Music was used for royal occasions, such as the Coronation festivities and the musico-poetico-dramatical allegories greeting Henry VI on his return from France in 1431. At royal visits to Coventry all available musical resources were conscripted. In 1474 was “myntralcye of harpe and dowsemeris” at the Conduit and “mynstralcye of harpe and lute” at Broadgate, and also “Childer of Issarell syngyng”, “mynstralcy of small pypis” and “mynstralcy of organ pleyinge”.

The tradition of the minstrels goes back to the earliest middle ages, and was continued throughout the centuries until 1500 and beyond. Minstrels had a variety of entertaining skills. They could play a variety of instruments, sing, juggle and mime, all with certain skill as is shown in the popular image of a man playing the “fife and tabor”. Their repertory included singing of narrative poetry and the playing of dance music.

The earliest and most important surviving source of dance music is the Gresley manuscript, compiled c. 1500. It contains a number of choreographies and various tunes to which these could be danced. The melodies are similar to 15th c. Italian dances and everything in the document suggests that there was a flourishing tradition of sophisticated dances in Renaissance England.(5) Although the technical term basse dance didn’t reach England until later, the form evidently existed and flourished here as on the Continent.

Another form of popular music was the ballad. Originally a dance song (the name ballad derives from the Italian ballare = to dance), by the 14th century it meant a distinct song type with a narrative core. The origins of ballads can be traced to the late middle ages, when heroic type ballads served as entertainment. Unfortunately, there are almost no examples surviving that include both music and lyrics. Folk ballads and songs were transmitted by mouth and ear. However, since the earliest surviving manuscript of a ballad is Judas, dating from about 1330, and there exists a large number from the late 16th and the early 17th century, we can safely surmise that ballads were part of people’s entertainment in the 15th century as well. Most of the ballad tunes are “unharmonic”, they use certain rhythmical formulae, gapped scales and formal variety. A ballad has certain defining features, such as impersonality of narrative, incremental repetition and recurrence of commonplaces. The subjects range from apocryphal legends (Judas) to miracles, outlaw exploits, folk history, border raids, encounters at sea and humorous domestic strifes.

In all, English 15th century secular music forms a unique and distinct tradition, focusing on polyphonic music instead of the prevailing monophonic tendencies of the continent, and eager to explore “unusual” harmonies and textures.


  • The New Grove, Second Edition, ed. Stanley Sadie, 2001

  • Music in the Renaissance, Gustave Reese, J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd, London, 1954

  • Music in the Renaissance, Howard Mayer Brown, Prentice-Hall Inc. , New Jersey, 1976

  • Renaissance Music, Allan W. Atlas, W. W. Norton & Co, 1998

  • The Oxford History of English Music, Vol 1, John Caldwell, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991

  • A History of British Music, Percy M. Young, Ernest Benn Ltd, London, 1967
  • Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court, John Stevens, Cambridge University Press, 1979

  • The English medieval Minstrel, John Southworth, The Boydell Press, 1989
    (All illustrations come from this book)

  • The Gresley manuscript, c1500. Copyright Robert Huggett 2002

  • The Gresley dance collection, c.1500, David Fallows, RMA Research Chronicles, Vol XXIX, 1996, p. 1 – 20

  • MUSICA BRITANNICA vol. IV: Mediaeval Carols, Ed. John Stevens, Revised 2nd Edition, London: Steiner and Bell, 1970 (All musical examples)

Footnotes (1) Music in the Renaissance, p 8 (2) The New Grove (3) R.L Greene, Early English Carols (4) Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court, p10 (5) The Gresley dance Collection, p3

Performance aspects: the music of Abbess Hildegard von Bingen

Leda Filippopoulou, RWCMD, PG Dip Year 1, May 2003


Hildegard von Bingen - visionary, poet, composer, naturalist, healer, and theologian. Born at Bermersheim in Rheinhesse in 1098, the tenth and last child of noble parents, Hildegard showed early signs of exceptional spiritual gifts. She studied with Jutta of Spanheim who taught her to read and write and instructed her in the Benedictine order. After Jutta’s death Hildegard founded her own monastery, where she remained until her death in 1179. She wrote works on theology, herbalism and healing, spiritualism and music. By her own admission she was not an educated person, and her music and poetic work was the result of visions, which she faithfully transcribed. She referred to herself as “the vessel through which God spoke”. 900 years after her birth, Hildegard’s music is being appreciated and performed by a wide range of people. Her music has inspired many other musicians, male or female, and there has recently been a New Age approach to her music. There was “The Electronic Ordo Virtutum”, performed in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center Festival by four composers calling themselves the Hildegurls, australian Becky Llewellyn began using Hildegard as the basis for a modern composition, and at least one male composer, Robert Kyr, set some Hildegard texts to his own music.

But, above all, Hildegard has inspired many early music scholars and groups, who strive since the early 80’s to open her musical world to the public. People like Christopher Page, Barbara Thornton and her group Sequentia or the quartet Anonymous 4 have studied her music and come to varying conclusions as to the method of performance, the use of instruments and voices, tempi and modes. In this essay, I would like to present some of their perceptions on the artistic value and the performance techniques of Hildegard’s music.

“The music of Hildegard is made up of a comparatively small number of elemental melodic patterns, which recur constantly under different melodic and modal conditions and are the common property of her poetic output. … Highly decorative, the text and music of Hildegard's songs are intimately related and inseparable, as parallel syntaxes mirroring (and at times contradicting) one another, while unfolding within an idiosyncratic system of modes. …The music is not drawn from plainchant and is in some respects highly individual. Hymns and sequences are nearly syllabic, while prolix responds are extravagantly complex, with elaborate melismas extending up to 75 notes; antiphons occupy a stylistic middle ground, alternating syllabic and melismatic styles. The responds are supplied with verse and repetenda, and occasionally also Gloria Patri using melodic material from the verse; some antiphons have ‘EVOVAE’ and the hymns ‘Amen’. The sequences use poetic and melodic parallelism, but far from strictly.” (1)

“Hildegard's music can only be fully understood in the light of all her work. The beauty and depth of theme found in her theology, philosophy, cosmology and medicine, can all be found condensed in her music as in a jewel. For Hildegard as for the medieval, music was an all-embracing concept. It was the symphony of angels praising God, the balanced proportions of the revolving celestial spheres, the exquisite weaving of body and soul, the hidden design of nature's creations. It was the manifest process of life moving, expanding, growing towards the joy of its own deepest realizations and a profound unity of voices singing the praises of God here on earth. It was beauty, sound, fragrance and the flower of human artistry. Over 300 times in her writings, Hildegard uses music to illuminate spiritual truths.” (2)

This amazing variety and uniqueness is what makes Hildegard’s music so attractive to performers and listeners alike. Almost all of her works have been recorded, but it seems that her hymns and sequences are some of the favourites. Anonymous 4 and Gothic Voices have recorded many, including O Ecclesia, a sequence about the martyrdom os St. Ursula.

Anonymous 4 believe that “the absolutely integral relationship of text and music in all Hildegard’s works, their daring use of imagery, and the artful freedom of melodic formula and gesture are truly inspired and are a testament to her genius… Hildegard’s style is truly individual and had no direct ancestors or descendants.”

In O Ecclesia the rhythm is fairly slow to accentuate the gravity of the legend of St. Ursula and the phrases are quite short. The four voices in unison are so well blended that they truly sound like one voice, and the sound they produce is flowing and rich. Enhanced by the acoustic of the Campion Center where the recording took place, it embodies the serene and devotional character of this sequence.

In contrast, the recording of the same piece by Gothic Voices uses a much faster tempo (almost twice as fast, so the duration of the piece is only half of that of Anonymous 4) and, consequently, longer phrases. The voices alternate between a soloist and a chorus in unison. The voices do not blend very well, but that enhances the contrast between the solo and polyphonic segments. Even though it is recorded in a church (St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead), the acoustics are not as rich as the previous recording. The most important difference is that they use an instrumental drone, played by a symphony. This acts as a bass from which the melody seems to be arising.

Christopher Page’s views on performance techniques are eloquently explained on the CD booklet: “… the more spiritual meaning a text was thought to embody, the more they internalised it by a process which they frequently compared to digestion, absorbing the words in tranquility… Plainchant was often approached in a similar frame of mind. Ideally, singers were to allow their activity to absorb the whole spirit and body, inducing a state of meditative calm and so intensifying the the quality of devotional life.. Distractions, such as the intrusion of instrumental decorations or of extrovert vocal practices, were therefore to be avoided. Discretion was the basis of the ideal: voices betraying a poised, attentive spirit dwelling upon the inner meaning of the text, sensitive to musical nuances but never seduced by them. This is what the performances on this record try to recapture.. It is not the only way of performing medieval plainchant, but it can at least be aligned with virtually every medieval attempt to describe performing ideals. We believe also that such an approach is faithful to Hildegard’s creative personality. … Hildegard’s writing suggests a quiet mastery that controls ecstasy and shuns delirium, always working within the mainstream of Christian tradition.”

Page has said that he now believes that no instruments were ever used in plainchant. He even went as far as to propose that Hildegard’s music might never have been performed at all! This radical view is not shared by many of his collegues, although the use of instrumental drones and backgrounds has diminished in the last 20 years. Barbara Thornton, who recorded the immense Ordo Virtutum (The play of the Virtues) in 1982 with Sequentia, has admited that one of the reasons for the use of instruments in the early days was the fact that singers were not used to sing modally for extended periods of time, and that, as the singer’s abilities increased, the use of instruments gradually decreased.

In their earlier recordings, Sequentia use simple vocal drones in fourths and fifths to enrich the melodies. They also use a variety of instruments for drones, such as fiddle, flute, psaltery, harp, organistrum and symphony. This provides a variety of acoustic backgrounds and makes every piece distinct from the rest.

In the CD booklet of Ordo Virtutum Barbara Thornton provides us with an insight to her unique perception of Hildegard’s music: “Hildegard von Bingen’s literary Latin is surely one of the marvels of the age, not only beautiful to speak and to listen to, but immensely rich in images, which demand a creative imagination and a strong theological background for their understanding. Only through the study of her poetic vocabulary does the logic of some of her musical eccentricities emerge: the juxtaposition of unrelated modes, the surprising leaping melodies, the interruption of declaimed passages with richly ornamented melismas etc. … This, then, is how we designed our musical gestures: in reaction to the symbolic, poetic or dramatic nature of the text. In so doing, we developed a singing style giving special attention to the delineation of primary and secondary notations, the integration of melismas into a primarily declamatory style, the performance of notational ornaments, the arrangement of rhetorical devices, which are so important to the understanding of texts. … The function of the instruments became specifically representative of themes, characters, moods and actions.”

Indeed it seems that all of Hildegard’s fans share Page’s view that Hildegard was “a remarkable woman in an age of remarkable men.”

Bibliography and CD’s

  1. IAN D. BENT/MARIANNE PFAU, “Hildegard of Bingen”,
    The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 18/03/03),


    The hottest 900-old on the charts by Bernard D. Sherman
    This article first appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Sunday, August 9, 1998.


    Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
    Sabina Flanagan University of Adelaide

  6. Hildegard von Bingen – 11.000 Virgins
    Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula
    Anonymous 4, Harmonia Mundi 1997

  7. A feather on the breath of God
    Sequences and hymns by Abess Hildegard von Bingen
    Gothic Voices – Christopher Page, Hyperion 1981

  8. Hildegard von Bingen – Symphoniae
    Hildegard von Bingen – Ordo Virtutum
    Sequentia, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (recorded in 1982 and 1983)

Footnotes (1) IAN D. BENT/MARIANNE PFAU, “Hildegard of Bingen”, The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy