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The secular serves the sacred in late fourteenth-century Catalonia

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed

Next week harmonia mundi will begin distribution of a recording on the French Paraty label entitled Le Livre Vermeil de Montserrat. This is the name that has been given to a manuscript discovered in the library of the Abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia, which probably dates from the very end of the fourteenth century. The name refers to the fact that, about half a century after the manuscript was discovered, it was given a cover of wood and red velvet, rather sumptuous treatment for a collection of ten anonymous songs. This new recording is currently available for pre-order from

I first became aware of this collection through my own self-motivated study of music from the medieval period. I had become particularly interested in the amount of hybridization that would go into making music. As I have already previously observed, the chants compiled by the sixth-century Pope Gregory I, now known as “Gregorian chant,” did not all come from church practices. Not only were there secular sources but also there were the “Mozarabic” chants with roots in the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula.

As a sidebar it is worth noting that such hybridization was not unique to the Middle Ages. Albert Schweitzer’s J. S. Bach begins with a fascinating discussion of the origins of music for Lutheran services. He evokes a charming image of Luther playing tunes on a recorder that would fit the words of hymns. Schweitzer also relates that, when someone recognized one of the tunes as a popular song, Luther replied, “The Devil cannot have all the good tunes to himself!”

The ten songs in the Livre Vermeil seem to have been created for those on pilgrimage to Montserrat. However, the booklet notes by Philippe-Jean Catinchi suggest that, upon their arrival, the pilgrims were interested as much in rejoicing upon arrival as they were in religious devotion. He even cites that the time spent during an obligatory vigil at the church of the Blessed Mary would be occupied with singing and dancing.

Thus, these songs anticipate Luther’s rejoinder about depriving the Devil of some of his best tunes. Most of the music is unabashedly joyous, often involving some of the most engaging instances of early counterpoint. That joyousness is further reinforced by Bruno Bonhoure’s introduction of winds, strings, and percussion, all of which would have been improvised, since the manuscript provides only the vocal material. (Bonhoure is both musical director of the ensemble La Camera delle Lacrime and its lead vocalist.) Finally, since the ten songs make for a relatively modest selection, the album is framed by two additional songs, both secular, beginning with “Le chant de la Sibylle” and concluding with “Eis segadors.” The result is a delightful antidote for those who still believe that the Middle Ages was a period of dark solemnity.