The first song-cycle? That is how the seven songs
(only six survive with music) which make up the ‘Cantigas de
amigo’ by the thirteenth century Portuguese composer Martin
Codax have, on occasion, been described. They have been recorded
several times, indeed I have two versions on my own shelves
one of which features Sinfonye with Mara Kiek as the singer
(‘Bella Donna’ Hyperion CDH 55207). Here you have to cope with
a performance which is in the style of an eastern European singer,
very throaty and consistently loud, which my wife for one, “can’t
abide”. In defense of Kiek’s approach I will however, as an
aside, quote Gustave Reese in his famous tome ‘Music in the
Middle Ages’ in which he comments that “the melodies seem to
be based on surviving Mozarabic examples”. It is a pity if Keik’s
voice does not appeal because the disc offers some fascinating
and at times virtuoso instrumental work. Sometimes some the
songs are found anthologized on a general disc of early music
(‘A Chantar’ on Christophorus CHR 77290) but, to the point,
will I keep this new version?
Martin Codax was Galician and what he actual
left us was a simple melody line with a separate text, no rhythm
was given and the performers, if they want to spin the piece
out, have to use instruments perhaps to fill in between verses
or to create drones or simply to add percussion and colour.
What Codax expected no-one will ever know. The songs are for
a girl as she gazes out across the bay at Vigo, just inside
Portugal as her lover disappears on a long voyage perhaps never
to return. “Lonely in Vigo I remain/And none to guard goes in
my train”. If you have been to Vigo to catch a ferry as I’ve
done then any romantic medieval feelings will soon have been
dispersed by its sheer ugliness … but never mind. Codax’s melodies
are very simple, quite repetitive and folk-like. The first time
I heard them was on an early 1970s LP (I think in Erato’s Musica
Espagnola series). This is I lent to someone but it was
never returned. The songs were all over in about thirteen minutes,
as I recall. In the Hyperion recording, mentioned above, they
take a relaxed twenty five minutes. This new version takes almost
an hour over them as you can see above. How does this come about?
I was listening to this CD soon after hearing
some Galician folk musicians live and was astonished how close
Fin’ Amor have come to recapturing their ‘modus operandi’. Each
song will almost certainly have an introduction, establishing
a tonal centre, possibly a tempo and certainly a mood. Once
the singer feels able to join in, the verses may be sung right
through with some lines or verses being repeated vocally by
the instrumentalists who may also play between the verses. There
will be an instrumental postlude in most cases. These instrumentalists
improvise vaguely around the melody to start with and then more
closely once it’s ‘rolling’. This is what happens on this CD
which, in addition has a distinctly Spanish - even Andalucian
- atmosphere at times.
Carole Matras is quite a star. Her voice never
grates but is mellifluous and expressive, folksy but clearly
trained. She has a clear understanding of each text. For example
the third song ‘Mia Irmana fremosa’ begins with a gentle drum-beat
and then the tune is given by the recorder. The voice starts
with verse 1 and for verse 2 an accompaniment is added on the
viele after which it plays a verse alone accompanied by a drone.
The next verse for the singer still vies with the drum but now
two vieles add polyphony. And so on. Subtle variety and an engagement
with the poetry comes with “Sweet Sister, come willingly to
the church at Vigo/alongside the rising sea”. As a contrast
the next song ‘Ai dues, so sab’ora meu amigo’ begins with a
lengthy harp solo and the song last over ten minutes. For this
entire song Matras accompanies herself.
The rest of the ‘Bella Donna’ disc mentioned
above is filled out with songs but mainly instrumental estampies.
This new Belgian recording adds three other ‘Cantigas de Amigo’
by some little-known troubadours. Only the poems survive as
Bernard Mouton tells us in the very interesting booklet notes.
“As a result, we had recourse to the contrafactum … a technique
using an already existing melody to the text”. Suitably they
use tunes found in a contemporary source that is the ‘Cantigas
de Santa Maria’ compiled by Alfonso el Sabio. What I find curious
therefore is that only the song by Raimondo is sung with a text.
The other two are played instrumentally therefore the meaning
of the texts is lost.
As you have gathered I am full of admiration
for these performances. The recording has a natural glow due
to the church acoustic. The documentation is complete with photos
and texts and it all comes in a cardboard holder with a slipcase
for the booklet. I do hope that you can track it down.