Have Yourself a Medieval Christmas

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

He was too good to be true.

Alfonso X, known as Alfonso the Wise, ruled as king of Castile and Leon, in the heart of medieval Spain, from 1252 until his death in 1284. During those enlightened times, he made his court a meeting place for Christian, Islamic and Jewish scholars, scientists and artists. An astronomer, composer, poet, historian and architect, Alfonso served as a patron to troubadours, poets and painters. He founded a chair of music at the University of Salamanca. He had a profound, mystical attachment to the Virgin Mary, and one of his great projects was the collection of the "Cantigas de Santa Maria," the life of Mary revealed in about 400 songs, some of which he composed himself.

Examples of these cantigas have appeared on recordings before. But there is now a new two-CD set on Sony Classical, performed by Eduardo Paniagua and his Ancient Music Group, that vividly uncovers Alfonso's extraordinary moment in history and shows its startling relevance to our own multicultural times.

There is no other Christmas music like this, and it is, perhaps, most revealing to compare it with other medieval Christmas music, since two exceedingly beautiful discs of a more typical holiday variety have also come out in time for the season. One, "A Star in the East" (Harmonia Mundi), features the ethereal voices of Anonymous 4 turning to Hungarian sources from the 12th to 16th centuries. The other, "Shining Light" (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi), revolves around 12th century music from Aquitanian monasteries performed by the German-based group Sequentia.

Anonymous 4 can do little wrong, and they make early Hungarian chant and polyphony sound as heavenly as they make just about everything else they perform sound. Yet how traditional this music seems. Hungary was throughout history a crossroads where Eastern influences met Western practice, but this music is so subtle in its use of Eastern modes and decorations that only listeners well-versed in chant are likely to recognize it.

"Shining Light," a program similar to the one Sequentia performed at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena two weeks ago, is music less static, less sure of itself than the more conservative Hungarian variety. One hears Western music coming into its own here, and the title of the disc is well-chosen. There is a glitter and shine that Western harmony provides, and the monks in the south of France seem to have been as intoxicated by it as they were by their great liquors. We hear ourselves, our ways of using music to express the modern Western world, in these wonderful experiments.

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But at Alfonso's court, something far more interesting occurred. Artistic life there was not so progress-oriented, and the music found in the cantigas is not particularly avant-garde for its time, not on the cutting edge of the newest harmonies and counterpoints being developed at Notre Dame and elsewhere. The music could even be downright archaic, based as it was in the troubadour songs of earlier centuries.

Nor does it have much in the way of Moorish or Judaic content. Rather, Alfonso made the music sound and seem like something else entirely. Its utter freshness derives mainly from its use of a wide and incongruous variety of instruments. The cantigas include parts for bagpipes, Western viols and lutes, varieties of flutes and trumpets from Spain and from North Africa, drums and gongs of all kinds from all over the West and the East. There are even instruments listed in the credits of the CD, such as the axabeba, that aren't included in the exhaustive New Grove Dictionary of Music Instruments.

These exotic instruments change everything. Together, they produce a sound unlike anything heard again until our own multicultural era. And the result, especially in the irresistibly elated performances on "The Life of Mary," is singing and playing both rambunctious and exalted. The drums and the drones seem to get the performers to enter into near trance states. The canons and rounds common in the refrains get played over and over with increasingly extravagant ornaments from ever wilder instrument combinations. The performers sound as if they lose themselves to a higher spirit, something not common in rigidly controlled Western music until jazz came along centuries later.

Through his devotion to the Marian cult, which itself was the product of Byzantine influence brought back to Spain by Crusaders, Alfonso celebrated as much of the world and the universe (the texts are full of celestial imagery) as he could know. But he also respected what cultural historian Roger Shattuck calls "inaccessible" or "unobtainable" knowledge. Namely, Alfonso believed in an ultimate ignorance about the virgin birth that did not so much contradict science as transcend it.

Consequently, the cantigas could be particularly worldly in their application of global sounds--and they may well sound to many listeners like contemporary world music--but still achieve incandescence and moral conviction from the deep mystery they express. And thus Alfonso's life of Mary becomes an ecumenical celebration of what we like to think of as the Christmas spirit.

Alfonso remains an obscure figure in the history of music, a small paragraph in the survey books, and there is no mention of him in many of the reference works. His open-mindedness didn't outlast him. He offended traditionalists. His concern for culture and learning ultimately set him at odds with his powerful political family and the pope. Spain ultimately became, with the Inquisition, a place of repression. And Western music and Arab music went their separate ways for centuries.

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One more comparison may help reveal just what a rare, shining moment in music was Alfonso's court. Sony has released another multicultural Christmas CD simultaneously with "The Life of Mary," and with considerably more fanfare (the company is pretty much letting Alfonso find his own market). This compilation disc comes from various starry Christmas programs that Placido Domingo has recorded in Vienna over the past few years. It's a hodgepodge, lurching from Domingo singing "Adeste Fideles" with Jose Carreras to him joining Dionne Warwick in "Smile" and teaming with Sissel Kyrkjebo and Charles Aznavour in "Kum Ba Yah, My Lord."

Everything on the disc is homogenized in schmaltzy arrangements, and it is particularly disturbing to note that one of the arrangers is Lorenzo Ferraro, a talented Italian Minimalista. The only wonderment this kind of enterprise can possibly produce is to set us wondering what magnificent syntheses such genuine musical talents from different cultures might have produced under different circumstances, under, perhaps, the patronage of Alfonso the Wise.

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