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

Medieval Women’s Choir
Music for Sant’Iago
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

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

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

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

If you represent a choral or vocal ensembles interested in performing at St.
James Cathedral go to
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.

by Patty-Lynne Herlevi

[Photo 1 – Margriet Tindemans, Director, Photo 2 – Marian Seibert].