Music at the End of the World: Medieval Women’s Choir Sings Songs of El Camino

Medieval Women’s Choir
Music for Santiago
St. James Cathedral, Seattle, Washington
May 6, 2006

Camino de Santiago (the way of St. James), better known as, El Camino has been capturing the imaginations of pilgrims seeking healing and miracles since the Middle Ages. Beginning in the mid-11th Century, the tomb of St. James, located in the Spanish village, Santiago de Compostela, (field of stars), became one of Europe’s most important pilgrim’s routes. The actual pilgrims’ route to Compostela can start anywhere in Europe, but many pilgrims begin walking the long road to Compostela in the Basque region, in southern France or northern Spain.

Many books by contemporary pilgrims have been written about El Camino. The most famous book,  The Pilgrimage by Brazilian author, Paulo Coehlo has in itself sparked an interests in the minds of people seeking both adventure and spiritual transformation. Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel also highlighted this route and pilgrims in his controversial 1968 film, The Milky Way. Early Music choirs and musicians, including Anonymous 4 and the Norwegian ensemble, Kalenda Maya, have brought medieval pilgrim chants and songs to the light of this modern age. And in Seattle, at the monumental and historic St. James Cathedral, the Medieval Women’s Choir directed by Margriet Tindemans (Sequentia), presented a special concert highlighting music from the Book of James or Codex Calixtinus, (currently housed at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela).

El Camino conjures up medieval images of knights, wealthy patrons and holy people in search of the miracles of their age. Among the most famous individuals said to have completed the pilgrimage are Saint Francis of Assisi and Geoffrey Chaucer’s wife, but even pilgrims in our age, (including actress Shirley MacLaine), have brought this route to the masses after penning books about their
experiences along the route. It is said that even people who walk the route as sightseeing tourists or for exercise still succumb to spiritual transformation. But this route is not without its perils including emotional breakdowns, foot injuries, attacks by dogs, illness and succumbing to what feels like wicked energy in villages along the route. Obviously, given the perils of the strenuous road, one would need some kind of advice or solace in the form of music.

The Book of St. James, a collection of chants performed at the Medieval Women’s Choir concert included such advice and solace for pilgrims. According to the thoughtful program notes written by Margriet Tindemans, “The book also contains accounts of St. James’ miracles, and gives information about various routes to be followed, with reports on recommended sights and lodgings and warnings against dangers both natural and manmade!

While a map would have came in handy finding one’s way around St. James Cathedral’s vast sanctuary, we didn’t need the Book of St. James to warn us of perils. However, finding the best seat to view the concert was a bit troublesome since the choir performed in various locations, often times traversing the aisles like a party of pilgrims. Meanwhile, the eyes of a pantheon of saints including St. James and Mother Mary looked down upon us as ethereal voices floated over our heads and flew past a multitude of stained glass windows that glittered in the early evening light. I had only heard second hand about the beauty of this cathedral and the enjoyment of hearing the Medieval Women’s Choir perform and now I was absorbing both experiences.

The 60 women choir along with guest soloists, Richard Corbeil (l’Ensemble Llibre), Bill McJohn and Eric Mentzel (Sequentia, Ferrara Ensemble), performed 21 chants from the Book of St. James. The chants were collected from pilgrims representing various cultures, including early French polyphony, refrain songs, antiphons and responses with chromatics and embellishments. Peggy Monroe provided light percussion which she performed on a set of Indonesian bells, large scallop shells, (emblem of the pilgrims of Santiago) and a small frame drum. At times I felt like I had been dropped into Medieval Spain.

The vocalists, led by one of the choir soloists, Marian Seibert, who carried a pilgrim’s staff, started their musical journey in the center of the sanctuary and then proceed similar to pilgrims on the road to the rear of the cathedral. Both monody and polyphonic chants were performed from the rear.

Those folks sitting in pews that faced the front of the sanctuary gazed at the trio of male guest vocalists who sang in the far distance and opposite of the choir. The men would sing antiphons while the women vocalists would sing responses. I felt both the women’s and men’s voices vibrating in my body, while crosscurrents of monody sung by the men and polyphony sung by the women floated
above my head. It was too easy to fall under the spell of these miraculous chants and I easily slipped into a trance, despite not understanding one word of Latin.

The concert which performed in its entirety without an intermission, featured performances by the guests vocalists and choir members in equal measure. I found that keeping track of the chants was like trying to catch fish in a ragged net.

By the time I finally could match the song titles in the program with the actual performances, half the program had swam past me. The trio of men took center stage and honored the audience with stellar medieval chants. From what I could tell, Cunctipotens genitor featured mostly monody with drone, Ad superni introduced polyphony and other songs were rich in chromatics and other
embellishments.

Other highlights included Marian Seibert’s solo performance of Salvator progressus, the choir’s performance of the joyous and lilting Jacobe sancte and the finale, a jubilant chant, Dum pater Familias, which might have been sung by medieval pilgrims on route. The Medieval Women’s Choir interpretation of the chant, complete with scallop shell castanets clacking along, invited audience
members to tap their feet in time and sway to the exotic rhythms.

The musicians mirrored pilgrims on route as they traveling back and forth from the center to the rear of the cathedral, finally ending up at the center. (I kept imagining a large group of pilgrims marching along a dirt road). Just when it looked like the vocalists were going to break into a Spanish folk dance, the last note rung out, breaking the musical spell that had been cast over both the musicians and audience members. But the powerful chants linger in the walls of St. James Cathedral and in the space between my ears. May the choir sing on.

For more information on the Medieval Women’s Choir and Margriet Tindemans go to http://www.medievalwomenschoir.org.

If you represent a choral or vocal ensembles interested in performing at St. James Cathedral go to  http://www.stjames-cathedral.org and take the virtual tour while you’re at the site. Seattlelites are proud of this 100 year old Cathedral whose 167 foot towers gaze down at the city proper.

Author: PatriciaHerlevi

Patricia Herlevi is a former music journalist turned music researcher. She is especially interested in raising music consciousness. She is looking for an agent and publisher for her book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit). She founded and hosts the blog
The Whole Music Experience and has contributed to World Music Central since 2003.

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