INKPOT CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: Llibre Vermell de Montserrat. Hesprion XX (Veritas)
The Red Book of Montserrat
– A fourteenth-century pilgrimage –Hesprion XX directed by Jordi Savall
with combined choirs and instrumentalists of various groups
Includes full texts with English translations.
VIRGIN VERITAS Edition (EMI) VER 5 61174-2
by Chia Han-Leon
One day in 1811, someone borrowed a medieval manuscript, bound with a red velvet cover, not knowing that that single act would preserve the most precious codex of a little 11th century monastery in Montserrat, Spain the library was burned down during the Napoleonic wars.
During the Middle Ages, monasteries such as this were often built near places associated with saints, as well as those where miracles were said to be performed by the Virgin Mary. Montserrat is a centre of worship of the Virgin. As such, many pilgrimages from all over Catalonia were made to the area, which eventually grew into an important cultural centre. Thus, in addition to the native Aragonese and Catalonian cultures, themselves the influences of their former Arab occupants, the musicians then were also exposed to the arts of the different cultures of the European continent.
In those days, without the annoying “pastimes” of our modern world, music was a very big thing, and kings took pride in having musicians in their court. These too come from a variety of places, and count among them what we nowadays loosely call “troubadours”, “minstrels” and the like. The church too was actively involved in music, and somewhere in between the secular needs of the people joined up with their spiritual yearnings.
The Llibre Vermell is a compilation of music, and not believed to be the work of a single person. The songs and dances were written, so that “the pilgrims, while holding night vigil in the Church of the Blessed Virgin in Montserrat, [could] sing and dance They should be sung in a respectful and moderate manner so as not to disturb those who wish to continue with their prayers and meditation…” This sounds truly sombre, doesn’t it? But truth is, only about half the songs are anywhere near a “moderate manner” –
We hurry towards death, we withdraw from sin.
Sounds dismal? Wrong this is the refrain of one of the liveliest songs of the Llibre Vermell. It is so immediate and raucous that you might think discotheques existed in the 14th century! The result of the musical “additions” made by Hesprion XX here is an astonishingly colourful choral song. It begins quietly with soft bells and suddenly builds up in sheer festive splendour with the booming rawness of medieval percussion, the joyous blaring of brass, accompanied by the glittering strumming of various stringed instruments.
Just listen to the strange wooing instrument (I have still no idea what it is!) at the beginning as it slowly accelerates in tempo. Soon everyone joins in and this 7-minute work, passionately joyful yet almost cosmic in its raw power, becomes a non-stop medieval tour de force. Listen to the excited rattling of the percussion in the background – these are improvised rhythms, constantly shifting to match the mood. In a world without scores, with little in music that is rigidly defined, this performance is in modern terms: JAMMING!!!
Do bear in mind that I am not describing ethereal a capella choral music sung by church choirs, but 14th-century pilgrim songs and dances, with varied instrumental accompaniment. In this case, the famous Spanish early music group Hesprion XX, directed by the highly-talented Jordi Savall (he’s so admired and popular that a new record label has been set up in his name), embellish each piece with instrumental colour that can only be described as vividly splendid with several exclamation marks!
This is not regular “serious music” which one would associate with “classical music” – essentially, it’s more like medieval pop music! Listen for yourself how in Los set goyts recomptarem (“I shall recount the seven joys” track 4), the simplest combination of bells, drums (big and small) and other “background” instruments create an exciting field of percussive rhtythms. All these embellished by strings bowed and strings plucked, with a medieval cornett thrown in for good measure.
Not that quiet songs are not available: “Imperayritz de la ciutat joyosa” (“Empress of the joyful city” track 9) is a beautiful song describing the Virgin Mary (many of the songs celebrate, with varying degrees of loudness, the Virgin). In all, a very enjoyable programme framed by the quiet O Virgo splendens, an “Antiphon in sweet harmony to the dearest Virgin Mary of Monte Serrato”.
Iberian medieval music is full of surprising colour and raw emotion, although perhaps this is also a matter of interpretation. Don’t for a moment believe that different recordings of this popular manuscript will be identical. The Llibre Vermell provides only a skeleton of melodies for the pilgrims – the music as you hear it is a matter of the performers’ tastes.
My key point is that if you want to hear “Spanish” music, listen to how the Spanish do it! No one penetrates the sheer colour and the vivid wanton excitement of their distinctive music like they do. Like Spanish music of any time, these interpretations are undeniably very distinct from the rest. The performance of the music here is of a stylistic palette that reaches wild joy, but also spiritual serenity and musical liberation.
The Llibre Vermell is but one collection of many manuscripts, codices and books that the Spanish have preserved for more than half a millennium. With the resplendent voices both instrumental and vocal and poetic musicality of Hesprion XX and Jordi Savall, it is waste that this corner of early music (indeed of all music), with its unabashedly friendly melodies, has not reached a wider audience.
So if you’re sick of symphonies, concertos and quartets, give this a try! I guarantee it will be a totally refreshing experience, demonstrating that not all “classical music” is “serious”!
re. 1.11.97. up.28.5.98 Chia Han-Leon