Religious Music of the Layman

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Religious Music of the Layman

Songs of Personal Expression.

Not all sacred music was for church or monastic services; laymen also participated actively in their faith by singing sacred songs. One of the uses of this repertory was the personal or familial expression of faith done at home, although there was also a widespread tradition of confraternities—societies of laymen who gathered together in a chapel or church to pray and sing devotional songs. These gatherings were not part of a liturgical service, and generally were not presided over by the clergy. The sacred songs of the different regions, sung in the vernacular language, differ from one another in several ways, including subject matter and style of melody.

Cantigas de Santa Maria.

One of the earliest and most interesting repertories of sacred song has been preserved in three elaborate Spanish manuscripts, dating from the thirteenth century during the time of Alfonso X "el Sabio" (The Wise), king of Castile and León (regions of what is now Spain) from 1252–1284. His reign was one of enormous contrasts. On the one hand, there was political unrest and civil war, but on the other there were great advances in culture, science, and literature. The Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Holy Mary) includes more than 400 songs, all of which are devoted to the Virgin. The subject matter of the texts concerns everyday people in contemporary Iberian life (encompassing Spain and Portugal), all of whom are assisted by miracles performed by Mary. As in the cantiga illustrated here, each song is introduced by a narrative passage that sets the scene. The poems that follow are all in strophes (stanzas or groups of lines in a single metrical form), usually of six to eight lines of verse, with a four-line refrain. The music that sets each of the cantigas is therefore in two parts, reflecting the poetic form and rhyme scheme. The music is fairly simple, having a modest range, simple


introduction: "Aquela en que Deus" is one of over 400 songs devoted to the Virgin, known as the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Holy Mary). They are all preserved in three elaborate Spanish manuscripts, dating from the thirteenth century, during the time of Alfonso X "el Sabio" (The Wise), king of Castile and León. The song in the example below explains how Holy Mary of Ribela does not allow any oil to be burned before her altar except olive oil, which is very clean and pure.

rhythms, and, for the most part, only one note per syllable of text; all of the settings are monophonic. In "Aquela en que Deus," there are really only two different musical phrases for the entire cantiga. The Cantigas show a number of interesting relationships. The melodies and their form—verse, refrain—are quite similar to the troubadour repertory; they coincide with the end of the era in which troubadours were active on the other side of the Pyrenees Mountains in France, although their subject matter is unique to Iberia. The artistic styles and patterns of the illustrations in the cantiga manuscripts indicate an obvious influence from the Islamic world. The Arabs had been in Spain for several hundred years at that point, and some of the musical instruments in the cantiga manuscript illuminations are clearly modeled on Arab instruments. The rhyme scheme of most of the Cantigas, one that was popular at Alfonso's court, is known as zajal, an Arabic form. All of this suggests that while the music seems to be related to the northern repertory, the texts probably were influenced by Arabic literature.

Italian Laude.

The small body of surviving Italian monophonic songs consists almost entirely of laude spirituali (spiritual praises), all of them in the vernacular language and on religious subjects. The laude were the repertory of the numerous religious confraternities (groups united for a common purpose such as the veneration of a saint or other figure) in many North Italian cities during the late Middle Ages. Citizens by the hundreds joined these societies, some joining several, which would meet regularly (sometimes weekly), and sing the laude in procession. Approximately 150 laude exist with music from before the mid-fourteenth century; most are fairly simple in terms of range and rhythms; nearly all of them are in stanza form with a verse and refrain, suggesting soloist-chorus performance.


Higinio Anglès, La música de las Cantigas de Santa Maria del Rey Alfonso el Sabio. 3 vols. (Barcelona: Biblioteca Central, 1943–1964).

Fernando Liuzzi, La lauda e i primordi della melodia italiana. 2 vols. (Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 1935).

see also Religion: The Laity and Popular Beliefs ; Theater: The Development of Liturgical Drama

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Religious Music of the Layman

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