The track listing for this double-CD set is a little confusing for the general listener (especially inasmuch as you have to flip to the back of the booklet for English translations). The first CD is titled "The Kingdom of Seville during the Time of the Moors," while the second is labeled "The Court of Alfonso X in Seville." These titles suggest that the disc contains music of two different periods, but in fact all the music comes from the Cantigas de Santa María, a collection of hundreds of monophonic songs compiled under the supervision of, and in some cases composed by, King Alfonso X of Spain. This set is part of an ongoing complete recording of the Cantigas by the Spanish group Música Antigua and its director, Eduardo Paniagua. The two CD titles represent, loosely, different textual themes that appear within the larger body of songs.
This is a logical way to approach the Cantigas, which, like Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," subsume a great deal of local detail within a broad religious theme (in this case worship of Mary). The texts of these songs recount folk tales, war stories, miracles, features of life at Alfonso's court, and much more about a rich era in European history in which Arab, Jewish, and Castilian cultures coexisted and interacted, albeit tensely. Grouped on the first CD are songs that touch on the Moorish presence in Spain; these are augmented convincingly by interpretations from Música Antigua that draw heavily on Arabic traditions of improvisation. The second disc focuses on the figure of Alfonso himself, containing several songs with what may have been autobiographical texts.
The notated Cantigas give nothing more than a melody and debatably a few hints as to rhythm. The rest is up to the performers, who study treatises, examine works of art that contain musical instruments, and simply choose guesses that seem to make the most sense -- as the liner notes here say (in the often fractured English translation), "it is the personality of the musicians themselves, more than any other element, that makes the difference, in conceptual and sonorous terms, in Medieval music." The personality of Música Antigua is oriented toward Spain's Moorish side, and the musicians use some songs as bases for improvisations in Arabic styles. The performers add rolling but not tensely motoric rhythms to most of the songs, backing off occasionally to let text accents take over. They use a large variety of instruments, and the music on these discs is constantly unfolding something new. Their sound is down-to-earth rather than beautiful. In all, a traveler headed to view the monuments of medieval Spain could learn a lot about them by hearing this set (and other recordings in the series) on the way over. Texts are in the original Galician-Portuguese (a literary language that served as a common tongue among speakers of the different dialects of Spanish) and are translated only into modern Spanish. English summaries of each song are provided, however, and a bit of high school Spanish will go a long way in following the texts.