The concept of “meltin pot of cultures” perfectly suits Medieval Iberian courts, especially Alfonso X’s. The linguistic, cultural and artistic pluralism of the Christian court embedded in the Andalusian culture gave rise to an experience of cultural integration and confluence which was obvioulsy contested by the papacy, it contradicting the spirit of crusades and enabling the Wise King to be a protagonist to the detriment of ecclesiastical powers. In this context, great works of art were born as an expression of the various artistic and cultural movements or, less often, of the fusion of coexisting cultures in the Iberian peninsula. That is the case of Cantigas de Santa María.
Alfonso X of Castile, son of Ferdinand II and Beatrix of Swabia and great-grandson to Ferdinand III of León and Alfonso VIII of Castile, as well as geat-grandson of the emperor Frederick I Barbarossa and Isaac of Byzantium, and descendant of the emperor Alfonso VII of León, of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England, was a man of great cultural curiosity and vivacity, which his mother had probably drummed into him thanks to the particularly refined education she received at the Sicilian court of Frederick II Hohenstaufen. He attached a great importance to arts and strenuously supported the affirmation of Castilian language with a vast translation and review program of important works of Mathematics, Astronomy, History, Law and Literature. His court became a major meeting-place for sages, erudites and artists. Different troubadours stayed there a long time; among them, Gonzalo Eanes, Airas Núñez or Guiraut Riquier, who lived with the king from 1269 to 1279.

The Cantigas de Santa María were King Alfonso X’s favourite work among all the ones he had been promoting during his reign. Their importance is clear since they contain a huge amount of songs (more than four hundred) and have been programmatically copied in the real scriptorium for twenty years consecutively. Furthermore, their manuscripts represent a valuable source of information for the semi-mensural transcription and the myriad of miniatures representing uses and customs, places, people, fashion, tools and dances. They constitute a musical corpus of great relevance and interest.
Cantigas were copied in King Alfonso’s scriptorium as a sort of work in progress, which started with some drafts collected in its first version: a book of one hundred poems followed by a series of new and increasingly copious versions. The king’s compilatory intention verged indeed on perfectionism. Iconographic sources testify to this process which dates back to the last third of the XIII century. In the miniature of the 4v-folio sheet, manuscript T, the king is portrayed while he is working at his scriptorium and writing a draft of Cantigas together with his collaborators, to whom he shows a packet with the Prólogo. The first code of Cantigas was probably copied between 1264 and 1269. It contained the transcription of one hundred songs, according to the Prólogo: “Pois que el Rey fez cen cantares” (To, f. 1). The original manuscript has been lost, however manuscript To is very likely to be a copy of it, since it includes one hundred cantigas and an appendix, and it was almost certainly copied at the end of the XIII or beginning of the XIV century (as demonstrated by Laura Fernández, 2009). This can be an explanation to some errors and incongruencies which would otherwise be difficult to understand in case of supposed direct derivation from Alfonso’s scriptorium and considering that it is the oldest of all of them.

The successive edition of Cantigas was a sumptuous two-volume book (manuscript T and F) with the transcription of four hundred cantigas. Manuscript T, named “Códice Rico” with two hundred cantigas, was probably copied around 1280, whereas F, with as many songs as T, was unfinished and unset to music; it was probably interrupted because of the king’s death in 1284. These two books were conceived for Alfonso’s personal use, he always took one copy with him, as cantiga 209 indicates. The book helped him recover from an illness during a stay in Vitoria.
Manuscript E, copied after 1282, is the most complete. It gathers all cantigas and perfectly represents the work of Alfonso’s scriptorium. In all likelihood, it was thought to stay in Seville Royal Chapel, according to what the king declared in his will: “that books of Cantares de Miraglos and Loor de Sancta María stay all in that Church where our body was buried so as to have them sung on the occasion of Sancta María and Nuestro Sennor feasts.” Manuscript E is also known as “Códice de los Músicos” due to the huge amount of miniatures which have proved to be extremely useful to identify plausible interpretations of cantigas, miniatures representing singers and minstrels playing musical instruments.
The mise en page of manuscripts (particularly T/F and E) is extraordinarily accurate, as well as their internal organisation. After Prólogo all cantigas are numbered and ordered in such a way as to make every ten cantigas about the Virgin’s miracles be followed by a praise (“cantiga de loor”) to the Marian figure, which recounts episodes of Her life and lauds Her virtues. Moreover, miniatures in cantigas historiated manuscripts – relating facts and real or possible places whose authenticity is not to be questioned – show that they were executed by vocal and instrumental groups and interpreters (male and female) who were indistinctly Arabian, Jewish and Christian. This confirms the presence of different influences on the work at literary, pictorial and musical levels. On the one hand, French influences are easily noticeable (especially in lyrics and work composition); on the other hand, Islamic or Byzantine elements can also be detected (actually, many Byzantine characters visited the court of King Alfonso, whose grandmother was daughter to the emperor of Costantinople), as well as Italian ones.

As to Italian guests, it is worth noticing that the presence of Italian artists and translators at Alfonso’s court is widely documented. Some of them possibly came from the Sicilian Staufen pictorial school, closed in 1266 with Manfred’s death. His successor was Alfonso, titled King of the Romans. This would account for both the presence of Italian elements in some miniatures and those cantigas of Italian setting.

Various influences can also be noticed in the music of Cantigas. Notation takes inspiration from French models spread all over Europe; contents are represented by characters and places from all over the known world; melodies quote from liturgical (Dies irae: cantiga 350), religious (“Canto de la Sibila”: cantiga 422; prose Aeterni numinis de Hu: cantigas 85 and 171; rondellus Fidelium sonet di Fi: cantiga 290) and profane works apart from obvious echoes of popular music that cannot be documented. Finally, Cantigas also show a deep influence of Andalusian music as to form and rhythm, i.e. those aspects which distinguish this repertoire from other Western traditions, making it more original. In Ferreira’s opinion (2000), the rhythm of Cantigas is ultimately Arabian and is based on periodicity, that is impossible to transcribe in the French system of rhythm modes and is rather more similar to those described by Arabian theoreticians, such as Al-Farabi (cyclical quaternary rhythms with syncopations and lengthenings). On the contrary, the form of Cantigas is assumed to be indigenous (Hispanic), coming from traditional forms like moaxaja and zéjel, which seem to have given birth to two basic formal schemes: virelay (with many variants) AA//BBB AA, AB//CCC AB, and a particular type of rondo defined “Andalusian” by Ferreira, AB//BBB AB, (…) AAA BA. In addition, other musical forms appear in Cantigas; among them, the French rondo AB//AAAB is to be mentioned due to its high occurrence. However, the forms of most cantigas (around 90%) are virelay or Andalusian rondo. These forms were either unknown to the rest of Europe (as is the case of Andalusian rondo) or introduced in the Iberian peninsula much earlier than elsewhere (in France, virelay is unknown until 1300); for this reason, Willi Apel (1954) thought of a Spanish origin for this form. Furthermore, Ferreira (2001) argues that the oc-currence of “autochthonous” musical forms in sources is constant, whereas in more recent manuscripts the use of French forms is reduced.

The selected repertoire in this disc includes an instrumental song, one praise and seven miracle cantigas (in almost all cases of oriental theme); most cantigas are unpublished. Miracle cantigas all share the typical virelay musical form, while the praise cantiga is the only one with no repetitions. Songs are accompanied by instrumental preludes modeled on Mediterranean music that serve as a thread and at the same time take listeners to the only instrumental track, TUSHY Al-M’sarki, a piece of the Moroccan tradition deriving from the Nubas repertoire, i.e. Al-Andalus cultivated music.

In all miracle cantigas the context presentation is followed by the story of divine intervention. Indeed, cantiga 136 Poi-las fi guras fazen dos santos is set in the city of Foggia, Apulia. A German woman, flied into a rage because she had never won at dice, flings a stone against a marble icon of the infant Jesus. The Virgin, who was holding her Child, injures herself as she was raising her hand to protect him and as a consequence her statue cracks. The king (Corrado) punishes the woman and recruits an artist to repair it, but this is in vain, the hole in the stone still being there as a remnant of that offence. This anti-iconoclastic discourse is not an isolated case in the Cantigas repertoire, the king presumably being a strong devotee of sacred icons. Actually, this miracle (as well as other miracles described in Italian-based cantigas) is not mentioned in any previous collection, it probably belongs to the oral tradition.

In cantiga 165 Nun poder d’este mundo Saint Mary is said to have defended, with the help of celestial soldiers, the Syrian city of Tortose against the powerful sultan Bondoudar and this, in turn, is said not to have reacted because of his awareness of divine power. As observed by Gonzalo Menéndez Pidal, scenes illustrating this cantiga present similarities with some Islamic manuscripts describing war challenges (a manuscript of the School of Baghdad dated 1237 – F-Pn, Arabian Ms. 5847).

Cantiga 28 Todo lugar mui ben tells about the Virgin defence of Costantinople against the Syrian sultan, implored by Saint German and other worshippers. The sultan asked Muhammad for help turning his eyes to the sky, and then he saw the Virgin defending the city walls with her mantle in spite of the injuries she was suffering. That is why he entered the city weepy and asked to be baptized. The execution of this cantiga with a sostenuto rhythm is usually accompanied by bagpipes and pipes that give the song a particular colour similar to northern Spain popular music.

Cantiga 49 Ben com’aos que van per mar tells the story of a group of pilgrims heading for the Church of Soissons. Because of the darkness of the night they get lost in the mountains, but the Virgin leads them safe and sound to their destination. A parallel polyphony is realized in the refrain of this song through a vocal crescendo, whereas the strophes recount the story in monodic way. Manuscripts seem sometimes to testify to the use of parallel polyphony in cantigas; for instance, in manuscript T certain passages are often written in 5th-superior differently from manuscript E.

Cantiga 193 Sobre los fondos do mar narrates the Virgin’s miracle of saving a merchant robbed and thrown to the sea by one of King Louis of France’s ships during one of his trips to Tunis with the crusaders. After a long instrumental introduction the execution requires a different rhythm from Anglés’s, and conforms to Jerome of Moravia’s durations indicated in original sources, closer to Arabian-Andalusian rhythm patterns. Polyphpony is seldom introduced in strophes.

Cantiga 187 Gran fe devia om’ aver en Santa Maria explains that the first Syrian Church had previously been a synagogue. By the Virgin’s order a monastery had been built there. Monks had also been about to abandon it due to lack of food. However, after spending a whole night praying, the Virgin filled their barn up. Moreover, when the famine spread, the Virgin awarded them with a great quantity of gold, once again thanks to their prayers. This is to demonstrate that faith in Sancta María can save man form all evil.

Cantiga 33 Gran poder a mandar. A ship with more than 800 pilgrims sailing toward Acre sank because of a tempest. Some passengers, among whom a bishop, embarked on a lifeboat, but one of them stumbled while trying to go on board and fell in the sea. When survivors reached the shore, they realized that the man who had fallen in the sea was waiting for them. He told them that the Virgin had saved him. As the refrain goes, a great power has on all elements the mother of their Creator.

The first cantiga is the only one that does not describe any miracle. Des oge mais quer’ eu trobar is a praise cantiga, whose form is not the typical virelay. Actually, exceptions to hispanic musical forms are to be found just in these praise songs. It is a song with no structural repetition – although it retrieves melodic material from one sentence to the next one – in conformity with the style of courtly love songs (an aspect which is also linked to the use of “French” forms). The song starts in the courtly manner, stating that the minstrel will only compose for his Lady, and goes on narrating the seven joys of the Virgin.