About this Recording

Medieval Christian, Jewish and Islamic Music and Poetry from the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean is a meeting place, an inland sea that, on its shores, is home to the peoples and cultures of the East and the West. Over centuries it has provided opportunities for encounters, whether in war or in peace, or in trade.

The ideas of East and West, Orient and Occident, have always been symbols of the rising and setting of the sun, and are still associated today with light and dark, but unfortunately also with right and wrong or good and bad, a sad reflection of the centuries old struggle between Judaism, Christendom and Islam in matters of ideology. Nevertheless there were always places where these three great Mediterranean cultures co-existed peacefully and fruitfully. In the Middle Ages the most important example of such a multicultural and multireligious exchange was, paradoxically, the Moorish Andalusia in the West and, competing with Rome, Christian Byzantium in the East. The distinctive ideas of Orient and Occident seem here to be blurred.

‘Christians, Jews and Heathen’, as it says in one crusader song, lived there in more or less adequate mutual respect, each following their own religious traditions in accordance with their beliefs 1. It is known that Alfonso the Wise, King of Castille and León, had a court chapel with musicians and poets from all three faiths. In Andalusia (al-andalus in Arabic), under Islamic domination for over seven hundred years, there were Jewish scholars holding high official positions under the Caliphate. The Ottoman Empire too, at the other side of the Mediterranean, was decidedly heterogeneous in language, religion and culture. The majority of the people in the European provinces were Orthodox Christians. The Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Gregorian and Moslem communities enjoyed a certain religious and cultural autonomy, allowed a free hand by the state in regulating their own affairs. Already at the beginning of the Middle Ages there was a lively cultural exchange between these apparently so diverse cultures, each learning from the other. It came about, therefore, that not only were many musical instruments, up to that time unknown in the West, introduced into Christian music, but also very different forms of poetry, an art then at its height in the cultural centres of the East. Music, in Christian Europe principally the preserve of the clergy, enjoyed high prestige as an art-form of poetry in the East.

It may seem difficult to find intercourse between these three great cultures in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a time of conquest and crusades. Yet closer inspection reveals links between all three, something that has not changed up to today; with great intellectual curiosity each investigates the other and learns from it, even if they are not too ready to admit it.

On the sources

Known as the Disciplinati di Gesù Cristo, Confraternità di Santa Maria delle Laudi or Compagna di Sancto Spirito people would go in procession through the streets of Umbria, singing songs of praise to God, Our Lady and all the saints. The message of spiritual renewal of St Francis of Assisi had touched the hearts of these generally simple people and they formed religious fraternities, the so called Laudesi. The great demand of these fraternities for new songs and the desire to enlarge their own repertoire brought about the compilation of songs of praise into Laudari. Only two of these Laudari survive complete with text and music, Codex 91 of the Accademia Etrusca of Cortona and Codex Magliabechiano BR 18 in the National Library in Florence. The Laudae in the Cortona manuscript represent the first document known to us that offers evidence of the use of the Italian volgare, the regional dialect, and not only Latin, in music. The strophic form of these Laudae depends indirectly on the Arabic/Andalusian zejel, which varies the musical form and often influences the strophic structure of the song. The poets and composers are almost always anonymous, and the Laudae generally use melodies from secular Ballata. The Ripresa (refrain) is sung by the chorus, while the stanza is sung only by the principal singer 3 4 9 and 15. The melodies are always written in Roman choir notation. The account books of the fraternities show that professional musicians were paid to accompany the singers. In the accounts of different fraternities we find the following instruments, among others: portative organ, lute, fiddle, rebec, and for official and serious occasions trumpets, shawms and drums. The old thesis that before 1200 there was no secular music in the Christian world can no longer be regarded as correct. Italian melody, coming from the tradition of Gregorian chant and folk-song, finds its greatest expression in the Laudae.

In fact the literary, like the musical elements, stem from the Ballata. We know that in the Middle Ages the contrafactum was a current musical practice, particularly with religious texts. set to secular music and vice versa. The Church, as employer, intended a wider diffusion and use of religious texts: the greater the use of well-known melodies, the more successful was the Church in transmitting its message. A Lauda had immediately to inspire the minds of simple people, and that could only be done if actual ‘hit’ melodies and rhythms were used. It is the language of the amata 2 or dolç’amança %, or of the ‘sweet beloved’ (the Blessed Virgin) that suggests to us a love-song rather than a devotional song to Mary. This seems, nevertheless, to have been a thoroughly accepted kind of tribute to a saint, and that not only in Christian culture; also in Turkish Sufic poetry there is reference to the ‘beloved’ 7.

About a century after the rise of Islam the distinguished Islamic mystic and poet Mevlânâ Celâleddin Rûmi founded Sufism. This concept includes many meanings, as Sufism has at its disposal no fixed code of belief, no orthodox teaching, traditions, while practices significantly distinguish its adherents from one another. Irrespective of that, Sufis share belief in a special friendship with God. They believe in the ability to enter into a kind of spiritual unity, community or association with God, and gnosis, that is direct knowledge of the divine truth. Sufic and dervish fraternities are convinced that only he who understands how to ‘hear music’ can experience the highest truth in divine ecstasy. Dervish fraternities even today use music and dance 6 to reach a state of hypnosis and religious sublimation. Reports of people who found death in pursuit of the highest rapture through hearing music, are not rare in Islamic literature.

Yunus Emre is the first mystical popular poet of Turkish tradition. He was born in Central Anatolia in the mid-thirteenth century and died in the first half of the fourteenth. The use of Turkish indicates his rural origin, at a time when in the cities of Anatolia Arabic and Persian were the current languages of literature and science. Yunus Emre was the first important poet to make literary use of his mother tongue, Turkish. The musical and literary heritage of the great Sufic poet offers an important part of what is preserved of the early music of the then cultural sphere of the Ottoman Empire.

‘Since, when pilgrims finally reach the Church of the Holy Virgin, they often start to sing and dance, in the church as also in the streets, here are some pious devotional songs written down for them …’. This preface to the fourteenth-century Catalan Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (The Red Book of Montserrat), one of the most important collections of medieval music with songs in praise of the Blessed Virgin, shows that in Catalonia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries lively singing and dancing was not unusual in pilgrimage churches that today are only used for devotions. This did no harm to the faith, and, on the contrary, the number of pilgrims multiplied and they travelled in large numbers to places of pilgrimage.

In a civilisation such as the medieval, in which the transmission of culture was in the first place oral, this practice had success through religious institutions that had political, cultural, and, not least, economic power. In the reception of secular music, however, the original texts of such melodies are lost for ever, so that a possible reconstruction of popular music before 1200 must be limited to instrumental performance, a serious and sad limitation for modern musicology, the more so since this music influenced the birth and development of the Italian Ars Nova in the following, Gothic period.

In 1492 the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, reconquered Andalusia, which had been under Moorish domination for over seven hundred years. The Moslem Moors living there, like the Jewish minority, were invited either to convert to Christianity or leave the country for ever. The Moors returned to the Maghreb and took with them to their new homeland their music, the Andalusian School, which had been established in the ninth century in Córdoba by the legendary Ziryab, a musician and poet from Baghdad who had taken refuge there 13.

The Jewish sephardim settled around the Meditarranean, many of them in Eastern Europe and Turkey; the Sephardic Romances @, particular examples of Mediterranean musical culture, are now found in Jewish communities throughout the world.

‘I will sing to the Lord, since he has done great things!’ …The fifth Book of Moses speaks only seldom of music, but a few passages show that the retention of the sacred text involved considerable esteem for music; musical performance did not call for constant emphasis. We find a unique fragment of medieval Hebrew music in the recitative Keh Moshe 0. It is one of two individual pieces from that period that is preserved in notation. The special feature is that the neumes are written backwards, in mirror-writing, with the Hebrew writing of the song text, from right to left.

The early Christians on Roman soil later saw no need to find a new music for their worship. They developed their songs on the basis of Jewish synagogue music in association with partly very different cultural and musical elements. The most important influences came from the Hebrew (method of performance, melodic structure) and Greek musical culture, which over the following centuries fundamentally influenced western music theory.

We thank Dr Andrea Vitali (Faenza) for his research on the Laudario di Cortona, Jeremy Avis for his valuable collaboration on Jewish repertoire and Atilla Öztürk and Davoud Nourdanesh for translations of the old Anatolian Turkish texts of Yunus Emre.

Peter Rabanser and Marco Ambrosini
English version by Keith Anderson

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