Cantigas de Santa Maria | notes I
The Renaissance Players

“As there were once many philosophers, yet among them all only he who was believed to embrace a knowledge of all things with certainty was called simply wise. Now, however, the world is getting old, and no one is to be called, I do not soy wise, but, what is less, a philosopher”.

Domingo Gundisalvo, De Scientiis (12th century)

Thus wrote Gundisalvo, the Archdeacon of Segovia (philosopher and translator from Arabic to Latin) in one of his treatises based on the work of the Arabic mathematician al-Farabi. Though Gundisalvo did not live to witness the reign of a Castilian king called by his contemporaries “el Sabio” (in the sense of both wise and learned), his definition aptly applies to the widely-encompassing intellectual pursuits of Alfonso X (1221—1284) who, during his long reign from 1252 to 1284, established himself as one of the most remarkable kings of his day. His tentacles of patronage extended into an enormous number of scholarly, artistic, legal and (not always so successfully) governmental areas.

On coming to the throne of Castile and Leon in 1252 he immediately and with great zest began to institute his idealistic reforms. The breadth of written works produced during his reign was truly encyclopaedic and, being blessed both by the royal stamp and being written not in Latin but in the Castilian vernacular (or, in the case of lyrical works, in Galician-Portuguese), these works had an enormously wide appeal and accessibility. By eagerly partaking of the wisdom of the East and the West, which entailed gathering together in his courts at Toledo and Leon the best artists (poets, musicians, scribes and illuminators) and scholars (translators, mathematicians, philosophers, historians, astronomers and so on) from the three religions of the Iberian Peninsula — Christian, Jewish and Islamic — he demonstrated his belief that Spain's ultimate destiny was to make heterogeneous cultural links.

Possibly Alfonso wished to claim for himself (that is, for his kingdom and his God), by extensive cultivation and development into new areas, something equivalent to the marvels of material luxury and intellectual sublimity which flourished during the Muslim caliphates and which were revealed to him as a member of the conquering armies entering the Muslim-ruled cities of al-Andalus.

After the capital Cordoba fell to Alfonso's father Ferdinand III in 1236, the treasures of this city were revealed to the conquerors. Known as “the bride of al-Andalus” and “the ornament of the world”, it was said to surpass all the capitals of the world except Baghdad in its intellectual knowledge and architectural beauty. Two outstanding examples were its huge library containing 400,000 volumes (compared to the 400 — 600 volumes then housed in St Gall) and its sumptuous mosque called La Mesquita. But there were many other marvels, not least the high value put on knowledge, evidenced by its brilliant Jewish culture and the prodigious output from the women copyists of the numerous Islamic religious schools. Alongside this was the vast network of poets and musicians as well as the artisans producing leatherwork, jewellery, woven silks, cloths and manufacturing paper for literary works.

The modern historian Americo Castro describes the feeling of awe experienced by Castilian troops entering Muslim Seville for the first time after its capture by Ferdinad III in 1248:

“these victorious armies could not repress their astonishment upon beholding the grandeur of Seville; the Christians had never possessed anything similar in art, economic splendour, civil organisation, technology and scientific and literary productivity”.

For Alfonso the downside of this emulation in maintaining all the various scholarly and literary activities, mingled as they were with other kingly pursuits such as gift-giving, foreign intrigues and revolts by Muslims and his own nobles, was that it forced him to tax his subjects heavily. This in turn caused widespread ill-feeling and eventually led to his fall from grace.
Certainly there is evidence that Alfonso was involved in what was produced, although it is not easy to know exactly how much this entailed. Describing how fussy be was about presentation, he tells, in the prologue to his Libro de la ochava esfera, how be frequently had to eliminate redundancies and rephrase passages of poor expression in the work of his scribes. Yet, considering the colossal output of his scholarly entourage, it would be reasonable to deduce that he acted more often as a guiding force. This is in fact clearly stated in the Primera Parte of his Grande e General Estoria:

“The King writes a book not by writing it with his hands but in the sense that he gathers material for it...adapts it, shows the manner in which it is to be presented and orders what is to be written”.

The literary outcome — all voluminous works — included the history of the world, the Grande e General Estoria, and the history of Spain, the Estoria de España (or Primera Cronica General); legal works such as the Fuero Real, the much revised Siete Partidas (known in its first draft as the Especulo) and the Setenario; scientific works in astrology such as the De Judiciis Astrorum (the Arabic version by al-Maghrabi roas translated by a Jewish scholar into Castilian and then by a Christian scholar into Latin); in astronomy such works as the Libros del Saber de Astronomia (which subdivided into several other books) and the Tablas Alfonsíes (based on an Arabic source, reworked by two Jewish astonomers - Yehuda ben Moses Cohen and Isaac ben Sid — and still in use in the 17th century, surviving in at least 100 copies); zodiacal books such as El Libro de las cruces and the Lapidario; and books about chess, dice and board games, the Libros del axedrez, dados et tablas.

In 1251, while still a prince, Alfonso comissioned a Castilian translation of the Indian animal tales of Bidpai called, in Sanskrit, Panchatantra. This had previously been translated into Persian and then Arabic as Kalila wa Dimna.

Original lyrical works by Alfonso include approximately 44 poems of love and wit of the cantigas de amor and the cantigas de escanho e de maldizer genres, all but one of which are in Galician-Portuguese (which was used universally for secular poetry in the Christian courts throughout the Iberian Peninsula).

Indubitably the most important creative outpouring from him and his collaborators was the unique and prolific collection of cantigas de Santa Maria. It can be stated unequivocally that, in his time, no other poet or sponsor of poets achieved greater prestige or produced as many poems as Alfonso X. The mammoth task of collecting and organising songs in praise of the Virgin Mary (cantigas de loor) and about miracles she performed (cantigas de miragre) took over 40 years.

The 427 items in this spiritual thesaurus were exquisitely copied with illuminations and bound together into a codex, four different manuscripts of which survive: three incomplete, but all related with differences in contents, calligraphy, musical notation and illustrations. Unless otherwise stated, the source for our performances has been the earliest, the complete and the largest (not in size, but in numbers of pages and songs) - the manuscript of El Escorial, catalogued as b.1.2 (also known as j.b.2 or E') and dated c.1210-1283. Its 361 pages contain a prologue and 12 songs as introduction, followed by another prologue and 402 carefully arranged cantigas de miragre and de loor. After the second prologue these are organised in groups of ten from cantiga 10 onwards - that is, one cantiga de loor is followed by nine cantigas de miragre (an order which is possibly related to the mediaeval arrangement of the rosary).

Above the text and melody of cantiga 1 and then every cantiga ending with the number X (that is, above every cantiga de loor), there is a miniature depicting musicians playing instruments. The X may also have acted as a reminder of Christ (being the first letter of his name in Greek) and of the Ten Mosaic Laws; or perhaps even referred obliquely to Alfonso himself as the Xth Alfonso of Castile. The first miniature shows Alfonso in his court flanked on both sides in a pentamerous framework (a visual reminder of the five letters of the Virgin's name?) by scribes, scholars and string players. This large grouping is somewhat atypical of the remaining 40 miniatures in each of which only one or two persons are depicted. Overall, the 41 miniatures reveal a widely comprehensive instrumentarium, played by a variety of performers (male and female) of varying social classes (from the king, his clerics, princes and courtiers, to joglars and peasants) and religions (Christian, Jewish and Islamic). These pictures are quite realistic in their relatively accurate and detailed depiction of musicians seated, squatting or standing, sometimes singing (or declaiming), possibly moving - all holding a wide array of plucked, bowed, blown, beaten and struck instruments.

While the mnemonic information contained in mediaeval illumination must be carefully appraised to avoid “reading” it too literally (for example, “this song was played with the instruments depicted above it”), it seems to us that there is some sort of message here that is hard to ignore, especially when considering whether or not to use instruments in the performance of any of the cantigas. As mentioned further below, in such cases our instrumental choices were only in part guided by the types and groupings found in the Alfonsine manuscripts.

In the chosen manuscript (b.1.2), the letters of the Galician-Portuguese texts are written in French-Gothic script by a scribe who identifies himself on the back of folio 361 (in smaller, more cursive letters than in the main text) as follows:

“Virgen bien aventurada
ser  de mi remenbrada
Johñes gundisalvi”

(Unfortunately there is no evidence linking this “gundisalvi” to the 12th century Archdeacon, Domingo Gundisalvo, or to the 13th century poets Gonzalo (“Gonzalvo”) de Berceo and Fernan Gonçalves).

As with his other monumental literary projects Alfonso called on the best researchers, historians and poets available to find and collate the miracle tales, and then set them into Galician-Portuguese poetic structures (mostly in the zajal format) to suitable melodies (likewise, mostly as virelais). As well as such identifiable theological and narrative collaborators as the Franciscan brother Juan Gil de Zamora and the court cleric Bernardo de Brihuega and possibly the Compostelan cleric Arias Nuñes, it is possible that Alfonso called on the many Iberian, Provençal and Italian poets who frequented his court to assist and add to his own lyrical endeavours.

It seems quite clear from the prologue particularly and then every one of the cantigas that in the compilation of this collection Alfonso was driven by a purpose — namely, to edify spiritually and morally not just the men and women who frequented his courts but, more especially, the populace at large for whose well being he felt responsible. This was to be effected by citing countless demonstrations (interspersed with praises) of the mercy and goodness of the Virgin Mary towards even the most vile sinners.


While possibly the olden known prayer to the Virgin Mary comes from the late 4th century — Sub tuum praesidium confugimus (“we take refuge in your protection”), yet from as early as the 2nd century Christian theorists wrote and debated extensively about her holiness and ecclesiastical significance especially on such matters as her perpetual virginity and the immaculate conception. (Indeed the Roman Catholic Church has been the only church to formally accept this last doctrine and only did so in 1854). From the 4th century Marian cults extolling her holiness spread from Syria through Byzantium, across Europe into England, France and the Iberian Peninsula. As was usual with other saints and heroes, legends about her miracles abounded, which eventually being written down in the 11th and 12th centuries, were preserved for hundreds of years. In these stories Mary is the spiritual mother offering salvation to all in need by acting as the mediatrix between them and her son. Prior to this, a great and continuing flood of devotional tributes were made to her by Christian churches in the East and the West — for instance, the institution of Saturday as Lady's Day (established in the 9th century by Alcuin of York), as well as various feast days, sermons, prayers, antiphons (especially the famous four: Alma redemptoris mater, Regina caeli laetare, Salve regina and Ave regina caelorum) and of course the building of great cathedrals in her name (Nostre Dame) at such places as Chartres, Rheims, Amiens, Rouen, Bayeux and Paris.

While it is possible to make a case for precedents for the idea of compiling sets of poems dedicated to the Virgin Mary, or recounting miracles attributed to her, nonetheless there are certain elements which make Alfonso's undertaking decidedly unique - firstly, its magnitude and breadth and then, the conceptual structuring, along with the visual layout and presentation of the material.

Possible precedents are found in the works of at least three men — Gauthier de Coincy. Gonzalo de Berceo and Juan Gil de Zamora. Between 1218 and 1233, Gauthier de Coincy, the Benedictine Prior at Vic-sur-Aisne, wrote two books of Miracles de Nostre Dame. Written in 30,000 lines of verse narrative, these contain 58 miracle tales which he took from an original Latin source. To 22 of these newly-composed poems were added pre-existing melodies taken from a wide range of sources. This was a standard 13th century practice which Alfonso seems to have continued. Some modern scholars have likewise been able to identify a very small proportion of the melodies in Alfonso's collection as being from other Christian sources. Gauthier's is the earliest and largest collection of sacred songs in the vernacular prior to the cantigas de Santa Maria and its popularity is attested by the fact that it was recopied into at least 80 known manuscripts. Gauthier (as well as Folquet de Marsella and the anonymous author of the Catalonian Llibre Vermell) also composed lyrics on the five and seven Joys of Holy Mary - a subject also treated in several of the Alfonsine cantigas.

Another “Gonzalvo”, the so-called “ioglar de San Domingo” (and, incidentally, the first Castilian poet known by name), was the secular priest and notary Gonzalo de Berceo (c.1196—1264). He was the author of three Marian works - the Loores de Nuestra Señora, the Duelo de la Virgen and, most relevantly, the Milagros de Nuestra Señora. This last is a collection, written in Castilian, of 25 miracle stories with an allegorical introduction. Again, like Gauthier's collection, Gonzalo worked from a Latin prose original containing 28 stories, 24 of which he borrowed and reset (his 25th tale, La iglesia robada, is set in Spain and may be of local origin). As with the Alfonsine cantigas, the Virgin Mary is presented in a variety of human moods (gentle, raging, jealous) which always dissolve eventually into merciful forgiveness and protection.

In searching for precedents it is significant that both Gauthier and Gonzalo represent direct links to Alfonso, not only via their subject matter, but also because both of them transformed prose works in Latin into vernacular poetry to make them more accessible to the general populace.

The third author from whom Alfonso definitely did borrow was his friend and confessor Brother Juan Gil de Zamora, who wrote the Liber Mariae. Fifty of the 70 miracle stories in this book were used in Alfonso's collection.

There has been a vast proliferation of analytical studies written about Alfonso's lyrical output. Joseph Snow's critical bibliography cites over 376 titles from c.1278 to 1976. The first, written by the above-mentioned poet, musical theoretician and Alfonso's collaborator, Juan Gil de Zamora, makes clear reference to Alfonso's creative involvement in the poetic and musical aspects of the project :
“ the manner of David, in order to make known publicly the glorious Virgin, he composed many very beauntiful cantinelas regularly measured with appropriate words and related melodies”.

Since 1976 the continuous and steady avalanche of further Alfonsine studies published in books and journals was given an additional impetus in the 1980s by the international Symposium in New York, which in turn inspired Dr John Keller and others to found a journal dedicated to the cantigas celled Cantigueiros.


Although virtually nothing is known about exactly how or where these cantigas were performed, there is nonetheless a body of connective material which may allow us to arrive at a range of reasonably-informed hypotheses, the validity of which can never be “proven” one way or the other. The desire to pursue these hypotheses into actual sound is motivated by the charming texts whose narrative content can still enthrall modem audiences (a proven fact), their settings in uniquely eccentric poetic structures and the beautiful melodies, each of which is clearly delineated (in b.1.2, the source used) in skeletal format under the synopsis-like masthead of each text.

The melodies are clearly decipherable in their pitch but not in their rhythm. Even though some of the notation resembles mensural notation, no consensus on how the rhythms should be disposed has yet been reached. In 1922 Juan Ribera published his arguments (with transcriptions) for using Arabic practices to solve the rhythmic problems. These were firmly squelched by Higinio Anglés who offered his own solution of transcribing the melodies with modal rhythms or with mixed metres, the latter allowing the monody a more flexible fluency than that available using strictly regular 13th century modal rhythms.

In our transcriptions we have considered and extended beyond these and other ideas by allowing the poetic metre and word stress to influence choices of musical metres. We have also considered additive metres in 5, 6 and 7 (with their internal accentual patterns in groups of twos and threes which can be regularised or reshuffled within the phrase), keeping in mind that all these metres are found not only in the collections of Spanish romances and villancicos of the late 15th and early 16th centuries but also survive in present-day folk music practices in Spain, as well as in Andalusian-Moroccan and the widely dispersed Judeo-Spanish communities.

We have also kept in mind that it was quite acceptable in certain religious ceremonies in mediaeval Christian Spain for song and dance to occur in combination. This is undisputedly confirmed in the rubrics of the 12th century Codex Calixtinus concerning pilgrim behaviour at Santiago de Compostela and likewise, at Montserrat, in the Llibre Vermell (see The Ring of Creation, WAL 8005-2). There are several supportive illustrations in the cantigas manuscript of El Escorial, T.j.1. For example, cantiga 120 depicts a group of ten musicians and dancers performing while Alfonso kneels beside them (in the middle of the picture) as the link between their earthly forms of devotion and the heavenly recipients on the right, the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus; and cantiga 62 (the same source) shows two trumpeters and twelve dancers out on the castle battlements as a visual representation of the dance referred to in the text while the Virgin Mary (again, on the right) effects the miracle for a mother and her son. Two examples in the song texts will further confirm this mode of performance. Firstly, a cantiga de loor (number 86) found only in the music-less Florence Manuscript (F), begins as follows:

In praise of Holy Mary
With singing and with dancing
let us give praises
to the crowned Virgin
who is our hope”

Secondly, a cantiga de miragre (number 24 in b.l.2), the story of how a lily-like flower grew in the mouth of a dead clergyman, finishes as follows:

“Immediately after they made a sermon they led off with dancing”

We have also considered, cautiously, the possibility that these and all the other miniatures in b.1.2 might reflect something of contemporary performance, for instance that the cantigas may have been accompanied by one or two instruments, or in special cases, larger instrumental ensembles as well as dancers. This is still matter on which no scholarly consensus has been reached.

The aim over this series of recordings of cantigas de Santa Maria has been to present as wide as imaginatively possible a range of hypothetical performance solutions. As well as incorporating all of the above-mentioned possibilities we will encompass such other matters as the Arabic-based concept of improvising preludes, interludes and postludes to establish the mode of the cantiga and to introduce melodic motives based on the main melody, inventing new motives which are pre-learnt and re-stated in later interludes as recurring melodic cues; having strophes sung sometimes with measured, at other times with unmeasured, rhythms or declaimed with or without instrumental accompaniment; adding drones above and below the main melody; improvising contrapuntal counter-melodies; using question-answer alternatim textures (where solo voice or instrument is answered by an ensemble of voices and/or instruments); ornamenting, gracing and extending the main and other melodies; presenting various sizes of ensemble from small to large; and ending the performance with extended, dance-like instrumental postludes.

In addition, on each CD we have experimented with the idea of presenting some cantigas as textless melodies (as sort of voice-less jubilus), especially with the idea of realising in sound the “suggestions” made in the naturalistic miniatures of b.1.2 of playing melodies on pairs of instruments (harps, psalteries, pipes-and-tabors), or on solo instruments (bells, organetto), and then, extending on this, moving to slightly larger ensembles of homogeneous or heterogeneous instruments.

It is unfortunate that in Christian-dominated Spain all the niceties of performance practice were maintained in oral-aural traditions which wem not notated or even described, as they were by the Arabic theorists of Muslim al-Andalus (unless, of course, Alfonso and his team thought that the iconography did visually and evocatively “describe” current performance practices according to the established mnemonic traditions). Our search for solutions leads down many paths including those connected with Jewish and Arabic practices, the latter especially in theoretical treatises which have not yet been fully explored by European performers.

The exquisite uncertainty of the search engenders some regret that so much was preserved and kept securely enclosed in the minds and memories of practitioners of the time. The solace expressed by Ibn Hazm, the distinguished and original 11th century Muslim poet-scholar of Cordoba, at the burning of his books by political fanatics becomes for us a woeful lament for what has been lost and, in the words of Psalm 69, “blotted out the book of the living”. Ibn Hazm wrote:

“Trouble me not regarding this burning of books and papers, but rather say: ‘Now we shall see what he knows’. If  they have burned the paper, they have not burned what the paper contained. That is in my breast and I carry it wherever my horses take me. It stays where I halt, and it will only be buried in my tomb”.


Unless otherwise stated, all transcriptions of music and text relate to El Escorial manuscript, b.1.2. Each of the CDs in this series contains ten items, to maintain the decimal quality of Alfonso's groupings, though in a different disposition of cantigas de loor and de miragre.

In the cantigas de loor the refrains are performed after each stanza; whereas, in the cantigas de miragre, they are often omitted after stanzas to allow the text to run in a continuous flow, particularly when enjambement is present.

A variety of musical textures has been devised to suggest different ways in which these songs may have been performed. The full range of such textures in our arrangements is available only across the series rather than within each CD, although with each CD we have tried to provide contrasts in a cohesive whole.

The original melodies of the cantigas on this CD are structured as virelais, with various modifications on a general A1 A2 bl b2 a A1 A2 circular format.

The recording has been organised to reproduce the acoustical ambiance of a large, stone church as a fitting venue for dedication of these praises.

— • —

We are indebted immeasurably once again to the inspirational research and expertise of many scholars such as Walter Mettman, Josť Filgueira Valverde, Joseph Snow, John Keller, Peter Dronke, and to Dr Kathleen Kulp Hill of Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond (USA) for so graciously giving permission to use her translations with rights reserved. None of this would have been possible in the initial stages without Dr John Stevenson who supplied us with our first Englished texts.

Through the devotion and expertise of Barbara Stackpool, to whom this disc is offered, this group has found its salvation and survival: ¡Viva la dama de las castañuelas!

Notes by Winsome Evans © 1996


director :
Winsome Evans, B.E.M., O.A.M.

patrons :
Professor Donald Peart
Emeritus Professor Sir Peter Platt

· Winsome Evans : bombarde, treble and alto shawms, gemshorn, organetto, psaltery, harp, bells, bowed diwan saz
· Ingrid Walker : whistle, gemshorn
· Katie Ward : vielle
· Benedict Hames : rebec, gemshorn, bowed diwan saz
· Andrew Tredinnick : mandora, ud, chitarra moresca
· Llew Kiek : gittern, baglama
· Barbara Stackpool : castanets, finger cymbals, tambourine
· Andrew Lambkin: tapan, darabukka, daireh, bells

· Mina Kanaridis : soprano, reader
· Jenny Duck-Chong : mezzo-soprano, bells
· Mara Kiek : alto, daireh
· Geoff Sirmai : reader

Musical arranger © : Winsome Evans
Producer : Llew Kiek
Engineer : Guy Dickerson, Megaphon Studios
Translation : Dr Kathleen Kulp Hill, with permission, rights reserved, © 1994

Digital editing and compiling at Airmotion Studios : Geoff Sturre, All Music Manufacturing
Mastering Engineer : Oscar Gaono, Sony Music
Typesetting : Natalie Shea
Cover art : Winsome Evans
Special thanks to : Dr John Stevenson for his generous assistance with text paraphrases


· treble shawm : Philip Levin, U.S.A.
· alto shawm : Gunter Koerber, Germany
· bombarde : Glotin et Cie, France
· whistle : Jonathan Swayne, England
· gemshorns : Brian Garlick, England
· harp : Frank O'Gallagher, Australia
· psaltery : unknown, U.S.A.
· mandora, ud, chitarra moresca : Peter Biffin, Australia
· gittern : Arnold Black, Australia
· baglama, diwan saz : unknown, Turkey
· vielle : Ian Watchorn, Australia
· rebec : Bernard Ellis, England
· portative organ : Ron Sharp, Australia
· tambourine : Jeremy Montagu, England
· finger cymblas : unknown, Malaysia
· castanets : unknown, Spain
· darabukka : unknown, U.S.A.
· daireh : unknown, India
· tapan : Risto Todorovski, Australia
· bells : Whitechapel Bell Foundry, England

Recorded at ST. Peters, Sydney
Copyright © 1996, The Renaissance Players

Walsingham CLASSICS