A friend of mine dropped by the house one afternoon shortly before last Christmas. She knew I was planning on doing the Camino and wanted to tell me about an item she’d read in the newspaper, announcing a concert of medieval Christmas music, including some pieces sung or danced to by pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela.
I dragged a few family members along and we attended the concert, put on by Utopia Early Music at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Salt Lake City, Utah. It turned out we were all glad we went.
Three of the dozen or so numbers performed were from the 14th-century Llibre Vermell de Monserrat, a manuscript containing religious songs and texts used at the monastery of Monserrat near Barcelona, Spain.
Apparently, pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela would stop at the monastery to visit its shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. They entertained themselves while keeping vigil late into the night by singing and dancing, but, in order that their selections were kept to an appropriate moral standard, the pilgrims asked those at the monastery to provide them with some high-tone material.
The three songs we heard from the Llibre Vermell were “Mariam matrem virginem attolite” (“Praise Mary, the virgin mother”), “Los set gotxs” (“The seven joys [of Mary]”), and “Cuncti simus concanentes” (“Let us all sing”). The whole program was excellent, due not only to the skill of the five musicians – three vocalists accompanied by a vielle (a medieval kind of fiddle) and a Gothic harp – and to the marvelous acoustic quality of the venue, but to the beauty of the original compositions.
Upon returning home, I purchased the songs I could find and have added them to my Christmas listening repertoire, but really, they don’t have to be confined to the Nativity season. Have a listen and try to imagine how a late medieval pilgrim would have responded to the music.
These versions are done by a larger ensemble with more instruments than the group we saw, but the effect is almost the same.