Al-Basma Canticum Novum Ambronay AMY 057

Al-Basma: Voyage au cœur d’Al-Andalus
Canticum Novum/Emmanuel Bardon
Texts and translations provided.
rec. 2020, l’Abbaye de Sylvanes, France
Ambronay AMY 057 [78]

I feel obliged to express a few reservations before praising this delightful disc. The first concerns its subtitle, “Voyage au cœur d’Al-Andalus”. This would appear to suggest that the disc will be devoted to the music of Andalucia. Yet of its nineteen tracks, five come from the Cantiga de Santa Maria, a collection partly written by, and compiled under the supervision of, Alfonso X, King of Castille from 1252 to 1284 who, though he played a significant role in the assimilation and spreading of Arabic and Hebrew learning and presided over a multicultural court, also played an active role in the (re)conquest of Muslim-held territories – on Alfonso see, for example, Joseph F. Callaghan, The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile (Philadelphia, 1993) and the richly perceptive, and beautifully illustrated volume The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castillian Culture (New Haven and London, 2008) co-authored by Jerrilynn D. Dodds, María Rose Menocal and Abigail Krasner Balbale.

A further four of the items on this disc are examples of the cantiga de amigo (song of a friend), a genre particularly associated with twelfth- and thirteenth-century Portugal. Two more pieces come from the Codex Montpellier (now in the Bibiothèque Inter-Universitaire in Montpellier) which, so far as I know, is a collection of French music and, again, has relatively little by way of direct connection with Andalucia. To take one last example, track 8, Ensalcemos al Apóstol (Let us exalt the Apostle), which survives in the archive of the Cathedral in Pamplona, is a pilgrim hymn associated with the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. For all such reasons it is odd, and potentially misleading, to describe the music in this programme as a ‘Voyage au cœur d’Al-Andalus’; perhaps a title that made reference to the cross-cultural and multilingual nature of the Iberian Peninsula as a whole in this period, would have been better?

My second reservation relates to the booklet essay accompanying the disc by the distinguished French historian Annick Peters-Custot. The music on the disc goes unmentioned until the last half-page of its three and half pages. The earlier part of the essay, provides some interesting observations on how, to quote from its opening sentence, “Even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the 5th century, the Mediterranean basin remained a major area of circulation, contact and exchange that played a critical part in the history and cultural construction of Europe …”, but does very little to illuminate the music on the disc in any detail. Yet, to be fair, she does describe, more accurately than the disc’s sub-title, the nature of its contents: “This musical selection combines works illustrating the rich and plural tradition of the medieval Iberian Peninsula …”. A final small quibble – texts and translations are provided save, presumably by an editorial oversight, for track 7, ‘Gran pïadad’ e mercee’, which is absent both in its original language and in the French and English versions also provided for the other tracks.

Turning to the music itself, which I have found hugely enjoyable and inspiring; I have heard more than a few recordings of the Cantigas de Santa Maria and these are amongst the best. Less frequently heard music comes in the form of the cantigas from early mediaeval Portugal. The sung poetry of that time and place can be divided into three sub-genres: the cantigas de escarnho e de mal dizer (songs of mockery and slander), the cantigas de amor (songs in which a man sings of his love to a noble woman; this kind of song is in many ways akin to the tradition of the Provençal troubadours) and the cantigas de amigo (songs of a friend), in which the poet adopts the persona of a young girl expressing her love for a young man now absent. (The translated phrases above are taken from Barbara Higson Hughes’s anthology of English translations, Songs of a Friend: Love Lyrics of Medieval Portugal, Chapel Hill, 1996). The three poets/minstrels represented here are Estevo Raimondo (fl. 1275-1320), Airas Fernando Corpancho, a joglar – i.e. a paid performer probably from a humble background, as was Martin Codax, a joglar whose origins were probably in Galicia (again far from Andalucia). He is represented here by two of the seven surviving songs attributed to him. Early in the last century, the Madrid-based bookseller Don Pedro Vindel discovered a single parchment sheet (inside the binding of a fourteenth-century manuscript of Cicero’s De Officiis) which contained texts of seven lyrics (six of them with music) by Martin Codax; this is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. There is a splendid modern edition, study and recording by Manuel Pedro Ferreira, O Som de Martin Codax: Sobre a dimensdo musical da lirica galego-portuguesa (seculos XII-XIV). The Sound of Martin Codax: On the Musical Dimension of the Galician- Portuguese Lyric (XII-XIV Centuries), Lisbon, 1986. (Saying, as I did above, that the music for these cantigas is present in this manuscript may be misleading. What there is a basic melody – choices about rhythm, instrumentation and so on have to be made by performers). Common features of this poet’s lyrics are the mention of the port of Vigo and the use of sea imagery. Both are found in Martin Codax’s ‘Quantes sabedes’, one of the highlights of this disc. Though the translation provided in the booklet is serviceable, more of the poetry survives in the version by Barbara Hughes Fowler (in her Songs of a Friend, referred to earlier). I quote her translation here (and warmly recommend her book):

All you who know how to love a friend,
hurry with me to the sea of Vigo,
and we shall bathe in the waves.

All you who know how to love a lover,
Hurry with me to the turbulent sea,
and we shall bathe in the waves.

If you have seen my friend,
him for whom I sigh!
Oh, God, may he come soon!

Hurry with me to the sea of Vigo,
and we shall see my friend there,
and we shall bathe in the sea.

In their performance of this cantiga, the well-used resources of Canticum Novum and Emmanuel Bardon endow it with a far greater range of instrumental and vocal colour than performances by Martin Codax himself could ever have done, without being false to its nature. The introduction by the strings has a genuinely moving gravity, articulating the sad longing of the young woman whose song it is, but as the tempo slowly increases and more instruments enter, glimmers of ‘hope’ appear. The whole has both subtle beauty and emotional power. The alternation of female and male voices makes real sense in a work in which a male joglar ventriloquises a woman’s expression of her feelings.

I also found special delight in the five pieces of music originating with the Islamic population of Andalusia. Three of these (‘Yamourru ’ujban’, ‘Zāranī-l-maHboub’ and ‘Yā ghazālī’) are examples of the mushwashshah, a poetic and musical form which seems to have originated in Andalusia, rather than in the Arab lands further east. Fuller details than are needed here can be found, for example, in the entry ‘Al-Andalus, Poetry of’ in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Fourth edition, 2012, p.27. So far as I can tell, the text of each of these pieces has been abridged in the performances recorded here. If so, it would be stupidly pedantic to complain because the sound world (re)created is startlingly beautiful in ways which complement the texts, as for example, in ‘Yamourrou ’ujban’ which celebrates, and criticises a haughty beauty:

She walks by beautifully without greeting anyone.
Isn’t it strange? Isn’t it a sin?
Passion, my friend, makes us drink lava
when the beloved condemns her captive lover.
(translation from the CD booklet)

The blended sounds of vieles, oud, kanun, flutes and a variety of percussion instruments are exquisite and the solo voice of either Emmanuel Bardon or Bayan Rida (the booklet doesn’t make it easy to identify individual singers) is evocatively plaintive but dignified, and blends perfectly with the other ‘choric’ voices. The whole is memorably delightful.

The pleasure of this disc, however, doesn’t only reside in the quality of individual pieces. The disc is a kind of musical intercultural mosaic of intriguing juxtapositions. So, for example, this thoroughly Islamic muwashshah is succeeded by Cantiga 369 from the Cantigas de Santa Maria which tells of how “Holy Mary protected a good woman … from being harmed by an evil castellan”. This cantiga, to the great credit of Emmanuel Bardon and his ensemble, is as idiomatically convincing and every bit as beautiful as the muwashshah which precedes it.

Taking this disc as a miscellany of the musics to be heard on the Iberian Peninsula in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there is a good deal to enjoy. But if you want a musical voyage au cœur d’Al-Andalus you would be better served by Granada 1013-1502 by Jordi Savall and La Capella Reial de Catalunya (Alia Vox 0015) which really does concentrate on the music of Andalusia and (like most discs issued by Alia Vox) has a richly informative booklet (review).

Glyn Pursglove

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Barbara Kusa, Lise Viricel (voice), Emmanuel Bardon (voice, director), Valérie Dulac, Emmanuelle Guiges, Nolwenn Le Guerne (vielle), Aliocha Regnard (nyckelharpa, fiddle), Marie-Domitille Murez (harp), Bayan Rida (voice, oud), Spyros Halaris (Qanun), Marine Sabonnière, Guénaël Bihan (flute), Henri-Charles Caget, Ismaïl Mesbahi (percussion).

Estêvão Reimondo (fl. 1275-1320)
Amigo, se ben ajades
Yamourrou ’ujban (Andalusian Arabic muwashah)
Alfonso X, ‘el Sabio’ (1221-1284)
Como Jesú-Cristo fezo a San Pedro
Airas Fernandes Carpancho (c.1170-c.1240)
Por fazer romaria
Li Habībun Qad Samah lī
Martin Codax (fl.1220)
Quantas sabedes (Vindel parchment)
(Vindel Parchment)
Alfonso X, ‘el Sabio’
Gran pïadad’ e mercee
Ensalcemos al Apóstol
Alfonso X, ‘el Sabio’
A que por mui gran fremosura
Iocendetur et letetur
Alfonso X, ‘el Sabio’
Nunca ja pód’ aa Virgen
Yā rachā fattān
Plus bel que flor
Zāranī-l-maHboub (Andalusian Arabic muwashah)
Martin Codax (fl.1220)
Ay Deus, se sab’ora meu amigo (Vindel Parchment)
Hé Diex, si haut si bas
Alfonso X, ‘el Sabio’ (1221-1284)
Muito bon miragr’a Virgen
Yā ghazālī (Andalusian Arabic muwashah)
Alfonso X, ‘el Sabio’ (1221-1284)
A Madre de Jesú-Cristo