The Dufay Collective, Music For Alfonso The Wise (harmonia mundi, 2005)

Alfonso X (called "the learned," or "the wise") ruled the kingdoms of Castile and Leon in modern-day Spain from 1252-1284. His wisdom was evidently questionable in some regards, particularly where fiscal responsibility was concerned, but he took much cultural advantage in his proximity to the Arabic Moors. His kingdom's centers of learning helped re-introduce the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans to Europe, and some significant musical developments reached fertile ground on Alfonso's watch as well. The Dufay Collective, a group of scholar/performers of Medieval music, have compiled a collection of songs and tunes from thirteenth-century Spain in the hopes of re-creating the sound of Alfonso's court. Regrettably, the music that accompanied the songs of the troubadours known to have played in Alfonso's court is lost to history, so in a few instances the Collective took existing lyrics from these troubadours and set them to other melodies from that period. Despite focusing on a very specific region of Medieval Europe, the material performed on Music For Alfonso The Wise is a strand of a common thread that interwove the Spanish court with all the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, and whose roots continue to branch out and spread 750 years later.

The instruments used by the Dufay Collective combine European and Arabic traditions. Lead instruments like the psaltery (an early harp) and the vielle (a primitive violin with a characteristically scraping tone) are played over plucked-string rhythm instruments like the oud, rebab, and saz. The first thing that struck me about the disc is how much of the music sounds very similar to modern Balkan music. I'm guessing that as the Muslim influence remained prevalent in the Balkan region for significantly longer than it did in the rest of Europe, current Balkan folk music has kept closer to its form in the Middle Ages. On some tracks, though, the aggressive plucking clearly shows the early evolution of what became flamenco. Of course, the development of flamenco coincides with the Spanish transformation of the Arab stringed instruments into the modern guitar, whose impact on folk music traditions throughout the world in the last few centuries defies any sort of calculation.

The material on Music For Alfonso The Wise comes from two primary sources. The first, Cantigas de Santa Maria, is a collection of odes to the mother of Jesus that was commisioned by Alfonso himself. The second is the earliest known example of a song cycle, Cantigas de amigo by Martin Codax. This album boasts a number of strong and intriguing tracks. "Ontre todalas" begins with minor-key fiddling with a the kind of droning harmony that wouldn't sound out of place in northern European folk tunes, yet when the percussion kicks in is sounds well suited for a belly dance. The combination of "Tant aos peccadores" and "Todo los Santos" would hold its own among modern folk dance recordings. "Quen a Virgen" alternates between the kind of very complex rhythm still prevalent in eastern European folk tunes and the 6/8 rhythm that inspired the modern jig. The plucked strings and percussive handclaps of "Martin jorgar" very obviously bring flamenco to mind. The trembling fiddle on "Non soffre Santa Maria" evokes Hungarian folk music; indeed, this piece would have sounded perfectly in place at Golden Festival.

More than anything else, Music For Alfonso The Wise works for me because I can hear the echoes of so much modern music in the arrangements. Now granted, The Dufay Collective have obviously heard their share of modern music, and its influence may very well have colored their interpretations of the Medieval music they perform here. Yet the melodies are all authentic, and the choice of instrumentation is consistent with the time and place. Music For Alfonso The Wise is an enjoyable and highly fascinating voyage to a part of our distant, but intriguingly not so different, musical past.

Overall grade: A-

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1 comment:

Scarlet119 said...

This sounds intriguing. These guys are obviously named for the 15th-century French composer Guillaume Dufay (obviously!).