A few days ago Metafilter had an interesting link to this site about the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The Cantigas de Santa Maria represent one of the largest collections of solo songs from the middle ages. The manuscripts were written during the reign of King Alfonso X “El Sabio” (1221-1284), though probably not actually by him, all attributions aside. The Cantigas, 420 narrative and lyric poems in praise of the Virgin Mary, are preserved in four manscripts, all closely related, and include the music (with duration and timing information). The lyrics of the Cantigas are in Galician-Portuguese, the literary language of thirteenth century Castile. Two of the manuscripts are illuminated, with images closely related to the lyrics of the songs. The illustrations are not only charming works of art in their own right, they’re highly regarded by music historians for the information they provide about early music performance and instruments.
The Cantigas Database project, directed by Dr Stephen Parkinson, is assembling data about the cantigas, including possible sources of the texts, classifying and organizing them in terms of content and type, with plans to analyze the texts and their illustrations.
Somewhat surprisingly, I first learned of the Cantigas, not from one of the early music classes I took as an undergraduate, but from a passing reference in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. In II 2 of The Game of Kings the always allusive Lymond Crawford writes in a letter to Christian Stewart, delivered via the inadvertent services of Agnes Herries:
Rosa das rosas e Fror das frores
Dona das donas, Sennor das sennores
Those are lines from Cantiga 10; you can see the accompanying illumination here from Cantigas de Santa Maria: Spain, ca. 1280, Codex Ms. T. I. 1 (Cantigas [Canticles] de S. Maria). Done under Alfonso X. Madrid, El Escorial.
The iTunes music store has a couple of albums containing selections from the Cantigas, including one from the Unicorn Ensemble, featuring “Rosa das Rosa.” You can hear it here
. In addition to the melodic tonalities we associate with Western European medieval music, you can also hear the influence of medieval Arabic classical music.