The Cantigas de Santa Maria ("Canticles of Holy Mary") are manuscripts written in Galician-Portuguese, with musical notation, during the reign of Alfonso X El Sabio (1221–1284) and are one of the largest collections of monophonic (solo) songs from the Middle Ages. All of the songs at least mention the Virgin Mary, and every 10th is a religious hymn. Some of the manuscripts containing this music also contain colored miniatures showing pairs of musicians playing a wide variety of instruments.
The Cantigas are written in Galician-Portuguese, the lyrical language of Castile at the time. The Cantigas are composed of 420 poems, 356 of which are in a narrative format relating to Marian miracles; the rest of them, except an introduction and two prologues, are of lore or involve Marian festivities. The Cantigas depict the Virgin Mary in a very humanized way, often having her play a role in earthly episodes.
The authors are unknown, even if several studies indicate that Galician poet Airas Nunes might well have been the author of a large part of them. King Alfonso X — named as Affonso in the Cantigas — is also believed to be an author of some of them as he refers himself in first person. Support for this theory can be found in the prologue of the Cantigas. Also, many sources credit Alfonso owing to his influence on other works within the poetic tradition, including his introduction on religious song. Although King Alfonso X's authorship is debatable, his influence is not. While the other major works that came out of Alfonso's workshops, including histories and other prose texts, were in Castilian, the Cantigas are in Galician-Portuguese, and reflect the popularity in the Castilian court of other poetic corpuses such as the cantigas d'amigo and cantigas d'amor.
The metrics are extraordinarily diverse: 280 different formats for the 420 Cantigas. The most common are the virelai and the rondeau. The length of the lines varies between two and 24 syllables. The narrative voice in many of the songs describes an erotic relationship, in the troubadour fashion, with the Divine. According to 2000 publishings by scholar Manuel Pedro Ferreira the models for the Cantigas might actually be something different than a traditional French rondeau. He calls the format for some of the Cantigas the "Andalusian rondeau" which has a structure of AB/BB/AB.
The music is written in notation which is similar to that used for chant, but also contains some information about the length of the notes. Several transcriptions exist. The Cantigas are frequently recorded and performed by Early Music groups, and quite a few CDs featuring music from the Cantigas are available.
The Cantigas are preserved in four manuscripts: To (codice de Toledo, T, F (codice de Florencia) and E (codice de los musicos). E is currently held in El Escorial and contains the largest number of Cantigas (400+); it contains no less than 41 carefully detailed miniatures and many illuminated letters. To, from Toledo, is the earliest of the manucripts and contains the smallest number of songs (126). Although it is not illustrated, it is richly decorated with pen flourished initials, and great care has been taken over its construction. The T and FFlorence manuscripts are sister volumes. T contains just under 200 cantigas which roughly correspond in order to the first two hundred in E, each song is illustrated with either 6 or 12 miniatures that depict scenes from the cantiga. F follows the same format but has only 109 cantigas. These are the same as those found in the second half of E, however they are presented here in a radically different order. F was never finished, and so no music was ever added. Only the empty staves display the intention to add musical notation to the codice at a later date. It is generally thought that the codices were constructed during Alfonso's lifetime, To perhaps in the 1270s, and T/F and E in the early 1280s up until the time of his death in 1284.
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