Hit Songs From The 12th Century

Nationally-known Newberry Consort performs music from 12th century Castilian renaissance at Early Music concert.

By - Mar 11th, 2015 11:48 am
Newberry Consort

Newberry Consort

A book takes center stage in a multimedia presentation by the Newberry Consort at Early Music Now’s concert early Saturday evening at the UW-Milwaukee Zelazo Center. This book, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, features lavish 12th century illuminations and narrative songs of praise that will charm the listener with their child-like stories and professions of faith.

We tend not to recognize the sparks of light in the European Middle Ages. Alfonso X “the Wise,” king of Castile (northern Spain) presided over a local 12th Century renaissance. Islamic, Jewish and Catholic scholars contributed to scientific, legal and literary works with his support and direct participation.

Cantigas de Santa Mare codex

Cantigas de Santa Mare codex

Newberry Consort program notes describe the origins of this concert: “After recovering from a life-threatening illness, Alfonso commissioned collection of cantigas, or songs, to express his gratitude. The Cantigas de Santa Maria are the result, praising the Virgin and celebrating the many miracles attributed to her with compelling melodies…The tales are by turns charming, whimsical, touching, and magical.”

The songs describe small miracles, “how Holy Mary caused a chop of meat to be found which was stolen,” and large ones – the visit of the Three Kings to Bethlehem and Creation itself. In one story, “Holy Mary saved a pregnant abbess who had gone to sleep weeping before Her altar.” (Mary spirits the child away and saves the abbess from embarrassment.)

The Newberry Consort has created a miracle of their own. Working only from musical notations of the melody line, they have fashioned well-thought-out polyphonic harmonies and instrumental accompaniment that recreate the original experience. From the program notes: “The verse and refrain form of the cantigas is similar to that of the instrumental estampie and other improvised dance forms. The instrumentalists perform a dance of their own, holding hands, as it were, by playing the refrains together, and then take solo turns on the verses, improvising their variations on the melodies and creating countermelodies.” Projections of art from the manuscript and the poetry of the songs complete the presentation.

Musicians in the Cantigas de Santa Maria codex

Musicians in the Cantigas de Santa Maria codex

The Newberry Consort, led by co-directors David Douglass and Ellen Hargis, will bring six singers and four instrumentalists to Milwaukee from their home-base at Chicago’s Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies.

Between 3:00 and 5:00 PM, Early Music Now will offer their annual Chocolate reception and silent auction. A room adjacent to the performance hall will be filled with opportunities to bid on theater and musical performance tickets, restaurant certificates, professional services and “wide variety of donated treasures.” This high-class rummage sale will be sweetened by a wide selection of chocolate treats. Plan to arrive early. The silent auction will conclude at intermission, but the chocolate will be but a pleasant memory by then.

Early Music Now will present the Newberry Concert on March 14th at 5:00 PM  at the Zelazo Center (2419 Kenwood Blvd). For further information, including complete performer details and program notes, see the Early Music Now website.  Tickets may be purchased on-line or at 414-225-3113, and are $28 – $44, but $10 – $15 for students.

The Early Music Now subscription series ends Saturday April 18th with the Boston-based ensemble, Blue Heron, featuring “Music for Canterbury Cathedral” at the St. Joseph Center Chapel (1501 S Layton Blvd). Note that the time of this concert has changed from 5:00 to 3:00. Hailed by The New Yorker as the American heir apparent to the Tallis Scholars, this ensemble explores music from the Peterhouse Partbooks (c.1540), featuring a newly discovered entirely anonymous mass that may have been dedicated to Canterbury’s local hero, St. Augustine.

And Early Music Now will offer a bonus concert, “Celebrating the Clarinet,” on Saturday, May 9 at 7:30 at the Wisconsin Lutheran College (8815 W Wisconsin Ave.) A sequel to last season’s notable introduction to the historical clarinet, internationally renowned clarinetist Eric Hoeprich is joined by cellist Tanya Tomkins and pianist/fortepianist Eric Zivian in a program including Beethoven‘s Trio in Bb, op. 11, Glinka‘s Trio Pathetique, Weber‘s Concertino, and Brahms‘ Trio in a minor.

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