In certain medieval manuscripts, music and image combine to evoke powerful religious feelings. Take, for example, the sources for the Cantigas de Santa Maria, where colorful drawings of musicians, saints, and nobles frame music and poetry that tell of miracles performed by the Virgin Mary. Gazing at the manuscript, one can catch a glimpse of the celebratory religious culture the authors were trying to convey from across the centuries.
Friday night at the First Church in Cambridge, the Chicago-based Newberry Consort and Boston’s vocal ensemble Exsultemus presented the sights and sounds of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, in a concert sponsored by the Boston Early Music Festival. English translations of the poems and projected images taken from the manuscript sources illuminated mesmerizing performances of fourteen songs from the Cantigas, one of the richest collections of medieval troubadour song.
Written in Galician-Portuguese, the Cantigas de Santa Maria were assembled at the court of Alfonso the Wise, king of Castile, León, and Galicia from 1252 to 1284. Most of its 427 songs—composed by anonymous poet-musicians and, likely, Alfonso himself—profess sincere religious beliefs about the Virgin Mary. As the cult of Mary was strong on Iberian Peninsula in Alfonso’s time, the Virgin was a constant presence daily life, and the miracles captured in many of the songs were viewed as solutions to everyday problems.
The manuscript sources themselves leave some elements to the imagination. The Cantigas were written as simple verse songs with a single line of melody. Friday’s performance added harmonies, counterpoint, and instrumental color to the texture, additions that served to highlight the dance-like character of the florid melodies and propulsive rhythms. The Newberry Consort’s method for adding richer textures to the music is, however, rooted in the source material. The instrumental ensemble—consisting of vielle, rebec, harp, flute, bagpipe, hammer dulcimer, and citole—was modeled on those depicted in the illustrations projected onto the giant screen placed center stage.
Two instrumental numbers heard Friday evening featured the subtle expressive powers of the consort. In “Deus te salva, groriosa” the musicians shaped the music in a color wheel of effects. The short piece opened with Mark Rimple performing a light, trickling melody on the psaltery, a plucked string instrument that resembles an autoharp. As if to blanket the texture in a silvery sheen, Jesse Lepkoff (flute), David Douglass (vielle), and Shira Kammen (harp) added layers of delicate countermelody and harmony. In “Toller pod’ a Madre de Nostro Sennor,” the instruments shaped the line into a bristly, Spanish-flavored dance. Douglass and Kammen punctuated the music with well-timed syncopations on dual vielles.
Other songs made theatrical use of the instruments. “Non sofre Santa Maria,” a humorous song that tells of the Virgin Mary leading hungry pilgrims to find a missing chop of meat, featured the spiky sonorities of Kammen’s rebec, played by bouncing the wood of the bow on the strings, and the twang of Tom Zajac’s mouth harp. In “Todo-los bees que no Deus,” Zajac’s tambourine added appropriate thunder to match the song’s description of an earthquake.
But the Newberry Consort’s greatest achievement as an ensemble was the smooth control of the phrasing and fine communication with the singers, effects that seemed to lay each song in a feathery bed of accompaniment.
The singing of the lead vocalist of the evening, soprano and Newberry co-director Ellen Hargis, made for fine storytelling. The longest song offered, “A Virgen mui groriosa,” tells of a man, who, enraptured by the beauty of a statue of the Virgin Mary, places a ring around its finger as a promise to serve her for the rest of his life. But he eventually strays and takes a wife, and, to reproach the man, the Virgin Mary visits him in a dream to remind him of his original promise. Hargis, singing with bell-tone clarity and light shakes of her voice, captured to fine effect the nervous energy laden within the song.
Supporting her were five singers of Exsultemus, who together sang with a creamy tone and pristine blend.
Their most affecting singing came in the songs that made up the second half of the program, many of which dealt with episodes of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. “Madre de Deus, ora por nos,” a prayer to the Virgin Mary on the Day of Judgment, unfolded in strands of haunting, free-flowing melody. The song’s wide leaps and winding melismas, dexterously handled by the singers, seemed to recall the music of Hildegard of Bingen.
“Subiu ao ceo o Fillo de Deus” tells of Christ ascending to heaven. Tenor Matthew Dean sang an affecting line, which Douglas and Kammen echoed and embellished with their strings. Throughout, the Newberry Consort and singers rendered the music with soft tones that seemed to echo at a distance, an effect that captured the mystery of the moment.
Also moving were the songs of praise to the Virgin Mary. The singers performed the gently flowing melodies of “Muito deveria” with warm, enveloping blend. The Newberry Consort and Exsultemus closed with an equally soft and delicate rendering of the most famous of the Cantigas, “Rosa das Rosas.”