Music Monday: The Red Book of Montserrat

My knowledge of Medieval Europe is somewhat patchy, to say the least. My high school’s basic world history course tracked Europe thru the fall of the Roman Empire, but then shifted south to cover the kingdoms of Africa (a curriculum that I’m very down with; it’s a shame that more public high schools don’t teach about Songhai, Mali, Kush, Axum, and the many other kingdoms and empires that have existed in various incarnations on that continent.). Then, when I took AP European History, I came down with pneumonia the week that we covered the Middle Ages in Europe, and never really made up the material. And while I did take the Medieval and Renaissance music history course in college, it was . . . considerably less politically focussed than the Baroque-to-<strike>Contemporary</strike>1950s, so it did little to fill in the gaps.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the music of that era, but it does rather limit my ability to put it firmly in context. Unlike reading about people working between the World Wars or in mid-Romantic Germany or any of the other periods I have a more thoro grounding in, reading about Medieval music feels a lot like fumbling around in the dark — names and places fly by, but I don’t have anything firm to hang onto. Was that place a creative hub, or was it a relative backwater? Is this pilgrimage super standard, or was it an usual, surprising route? How exactly was this music distributed and performed? It’s hard to add new knowledge blocks when there isn’t already a foundation in place to set them on. Which is all to say that, while I’m going to do my level best to provide some general contextual background for today’s music, I can’t necessarily go as deep as I would in more familiar territory, and if you start asking questions, I’m very quickly going to run into “blank stare of not having any clue whatsoever” territory. (Also, for any medievalists reading this, please let me know if I get things wrong! I really do want to know more about this period in European history, I just don’t know quite where to begin . . . )

Now that the prefatory throat-clearing is out of the way, the music! Normally I start out with a profile of the composer, but these works are anonymous, so: Way back during the Roman Empire, there was a temple to Venus on Montserrat, in Catalonia. Some time later, as happened to many such sites, it was rebuilt as a Benedictine monastery, complete with a black Madonna, the Virgin of Montserrat. This icon was widely venerated (tho it seems only on the national/regional level and not thruout Europe as a whole), and many pilgrims made the journey out to Montserrat to visit the statue in the usual pilgrimy way. When they arrived, part of their religious practice would be to sing and dance as groups of travelers.

This was all well and good for a while, but by the late 1300s, several of the monks had become concerned about the increasingly secular (and often rather ribald) nature of these songs and dances. (It turns out that fears that The Music Of Today is Corrupting The Morals Of Our Youth are hardly a product of the modern age. . . ) Rather than banning songs outright, they decided to put together a collection of devotional texts and pious songs with suitably “chaste and pious” lyrics. The collection was first put together in 1399, but stylistic markers indicate that many of the compositions well predate that — it’s entirely possible that some of them are simply re-purposed folk songs; instead of writing and teaching new music to the itinerant devotees, it was more convenient to simply strip out pre-existing secular (and even bawdy) lyrics and swap in religious ones in the appropriate meter, getting people to worship to a tune they already knew. (Later in the 1400s, the Catholic Church would become Very Upset about composers sneaking drinking songs into their masses, tho as with many dicta from on high, the authorities in Rome couldn’t always enforce their bans particularly effectively.) In the 19th Century, the book was re-bound with a red cover, giving it the name it still has today: Llibre Vermill de Montserrat; the Red Book of Montserrat.

Several pages have gone missing from the book over the centuries — of the original fourteen songs, only ten still exist — but it’s still an important source for studying the music of that time and place. As with any written source that predates sound recording, of course, there are rather vexatious questions of interpretation and performance practice, questions that I freely admit I am wholly incapable of addressing. (I know a fair bit about Baroque performance practice because Vivaldi just couldn’t stop writing concerti for bassoon, but several centuries and the better part of a continent (among other differences) make that knowledge effectively irrelevant for the songs in the Red Book.) I honestly have no idea if the recording I’m linking to today is “authentic” — tho it’s arguable that no recording of these can ever really be authentic, since this wasn’t music to listen to but instead music to take an active part in making at the culmination of a religious journey. Does it really make sense to quibble about rhythmic flexibility when the entire means of interacting with this music is so wildly divergent? (And further: What does it mean to yank these songs so far and firmly out of their original context? To turn them from a participatory experience of religious devotion to an inert object to be consumed for aesthetic pleasure? I don’t have answers to these questions.)

Even if it’s not 100% (or even 50%) authentic, I’m totally OK with that. I very much enjoy listening to this recording, even if it’s not 100% (or even 50%) exactly what you would have heard if you were watching the monastery at the end of a pilgrimage in the late 1300s. If it helps, think of this not as a recording of the music in the Red Book of Montserrat, but as a cover band’s rendition instead. (Certainly that would help explain the extra tracks. I scared up a copy of the liner notes online, but they are frustratingly silent on exactly which tracks are from the Red Book and where the other ones are from. Again, my knowledge of this repertoire is shallow.)

Rather than give an exhaustive breakdown of an entire hour’s worth of music, I think it makes more sense to talk more generally about the pieces that make up the collection. There are vigorous dance tunes like the opening “Cuncti simus concanentes” and concluding “Los set gotxs”, structured loosely as a call-and-response: A soloist sings a verse, and then the entire group joins in for the chorus. (Intriguingly, many of the verses are in the vernacular Catalan or Occitan while the choruses tend to be in Latin.) It’s a simple form, and one that's very good for getting things stuck in your head, but the rhythmic vigor and modal inflections keep it from getting stale. At the other extreme are more plaintive solo numbers like “Quant voi la flor novel” or “Comencerai a fere un lai” that, while often having a similarly strophic structure at heart, artfully embellish each verse in response to the text, with the result that the repetitions can become rather obscured. (These texts are difficult to translate, as they’re deeply laden with cryptic, symbolic allegories and double meanings. The surface meaning is sometimes only incidental, and some of the deeper meanings still elude modern scholars.)

Ranging between these extremes are more gentle call-and-response numbers like “A madre do que a bestia”, similar in construction to “Cuncti simus”, but more relaxed in vibe, as well as more vigorous solo songs — “O Maria, maris stella” even seems to contain a stately dance interlude. (“Quant ay lomon consirat” has a much livelier one that, transcribed into modern notation, would require the use of mixed meter.) There are even pieces that rely on the much older plainchant tradition, as does “O Virgo splendens”, at least before the instruments begin. Taken together, they present a rich and vivid picture of the diversity of musical styles alive in that time and place. It’s sometimes tempting to view music history as a straight-line trajectory from simpleness and homogeneity towards ever-increasing complexity and stylistic diversity, but reality is messier than that. Some of these pieces are low and earthy, some of them are etherial and subtle, but they’re far from an indistinguishable mass, and nor are they dull from the standpoint of analysis. It’s a point I made before in writing about the Agincourt Carol, but I think it bears repeating: The musical systems of the European Common Practice — tonality, four-bar phrasing, strict metric regularity, etc — haven’t always been with us, and nor are they inevitable and “natural”; they were built up slowly over the years, and venturing out to listen to things from before they were in place can be just as eye-opening as doing so for things written after their considerable weakening at the start of the 20th Century.

As these songs, once written in popular idioms, now seem strange and even somewhat exotic to our ears, so, undoubtedly, will the music that’s popular today be alien and cryptic when another 600 years have gone by. Musical styles are not eternal, and these songs serve as a stark reminder of that.