The Newberry Consort, based in Chicago, consists of six performers, augmented for this performance by four additional choristers. The players are: David Douglass (co-director, medieval strings), Ellen Hargis (co-director, soprano), Shira Kammen (medieval strings and harp), Dan Meyers (percussion and medieval winds), Mark Rimple (gittern and psaltery), Matthew Dean (tenor and narrator), and Francy Acosta (soprano), Lucia Mier y Teran Romero (soprano), Tom Crawford (alto), Corey Shotwell (tenor).
The Cantigas de Santa Maria were written by King Alfonso X, King of Castile, Leon, and Galicia (1221-1284), known as “el Sabio,” “the wise,” due to his many writings on a wide range of topics, especially the law. He supposedly attributed his recovery from an illness or injury to healing by the Virgin Mary, and so declared himself to be her troubadour. Four hundred and twenty-seven songs, each of which mentions Mary in some way, were collected as the Cantigas de Santa Maria. These are actual songs, accompanied by musical notation of the period, not just poems that were adapted later, so, as much as possible, the music is authentic to the time of Alfonso’s writing.
The consort included fourteen pieces, in two sections, which were accompanied by projections of illuminations from two of the known manuscripts, which are richly illustrated with over twelve hundred pictures. All are fascinating. One set includes illustrations that go with the stories of the songs, and another set depicts musicians and instruments. The Consort also used the projections to provide translated “supertitles” for the songs, much appreciated since they are in 13th Century Galician-Portugese, a popular language for music at that time.
Many of the songs are notable for their portrayal of the Virgin as the intimate and loving friend of the people, a mother figure for whom no job is too big or too small if the prayer be sincere. In one, she “saves” a pregnant abbess (the victim of a seduction) by miraculously removing the child from her womb and causing it to be adopted elsewhere. In another, Mary solves the theft of a mutton chop from some of her pilgrims. In one of the most interesting stories, a young man, recently engaged, places his engagement ring on the finger of a statue of the Virgin for safekeeping while playing ball on the town common. Doing so, he declared his undying devotion solely to her. Miraculously, the statue closes its hand on the ring so it can’t be removed. The townspeople advise the man that there’s nothing for him to d now but become a monk, which suggestion he refuses, and goes on with his wedding. However, he is then haunted by dreams and visions of Mary until he leaves his wife and becomes a holy hermit. (Moral: It’s not nice to fool with Mother Mary!).
The one issue I had with the concert was that all the “fun” songs were in the first half, and the second half was made up of all Hymn tunes, which are sober and serious, which made them seem kind of dull in comparison, although all of the music was lovely, and beautifully played and sung. The range of instruments was intriguing also, including vielle, rebec, harp, flute, bagpipe, hammer dulcimer, and citole. I was particularly interested in the tuning of the vielle, which had a very “fiddle”-like sound.
Illustrations were entertaining as well, with those of the men playing ball, and the pilgrims hunting for the lost chop, being particular favorites. We also liked the depictions of the Virgin enthroned among Queens and wise women, giving a sidelong glance as though some of them weren’t trusted. The pictures of musicians were also fascinating, with their medieval instruments, including such oddities as a bagpipe with two chanters and four drones.
Quibble aside, this was a very interesting and enjoyable concert that gave us some music and stories we hadn’t been familiar with, and which was very much worth attending.
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