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The Black Madonna & Vermillion Book: "Popular" (?) Music from 14th Century Spain

Thirty miles west of the bustling Spanish metropolis, Barcelona, nestled in the craggy serrations of the multi-peaked mountain range Montserrat is Catalonia’s most important religious pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages, the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat (“St. Mary of the Serrated Mountain”). Starting in the 11th century and continuing through the late Middle Ages, Montserrat became a significant pilgrimage site for devotion to the Virgin Mary. Intriguingly, music has consistently maintained a central role in these pilgrimage activities beginning with the founding in the 12th century of one of the oldest boy choirs in Europe’s recorded history, La Escolania de Montserrat. The Llibre Vermell (Vermillion or “Red” Book), a 14th-century manuscript held in the monastery archives, has become an icon of this unique musical heritage site. This relatively unassuming codex is a detailed record of musical and pilgrim life at the shrine to Mary, known at Montserrat as “The Black Madonna” (so called because the wood used to carve the 12th century image of the Madonna is black).

The title "Red Book of Montserrat" describes the book’s red velvet binding, given to the folios during the 19th century. The manuscript pages were prepared at the end of the 14th century and the collection contained 172 double-sided pages, of which 32 are now lost. Only six of these folios contain the ten extant musical pieces; however, there were likely at least 14 originally in the book. Unfortunately, most of Montserrat’s manuscripts were heavily damaged or totally destroyed during the Napoleonic War. No composer is identified for any of the pieces within the book.

The 10 songs that survive in the book are:

  1. 3-part Canon: O Virgo Splendens (fol. 21v-22) ("O Splendid Virgin")

  2. 2-part Virelai: Stella Splendens (fol. 22r) ("Splendid Star")

  3. 3-part Canon: Laudemus Virginem (fol. 23) ("Let us praise the Virgin")

  4. 4-part Canon: Splendens Ceptigera (fol. 23) ("Splendid ruler")

  5. 3-part Virelai: Mariam, Matrem Virginem, Attolite (fol. 25r) ("Praise Mary, the virgin mother")

  6. Virelai: Polorum Regina (fol. 24v) ("Queen of the Poles")

  7. Virelai: Cuncti Simus Concanentes (fol. 24) ("Let us sing together")

  8. Ballad: Los Set Gotxs (fol. 23v) ("The seven joys")

  9. 2-part Motet: Imperayritz de la ciutat joyosa / Verges ses par misericordiosa (fol. 25v) ("Empress of the happy city" / "Virgin, out of mercy")

  10. Virelai: Ad Mortem Festinamus (fol. 26v) ("We hasten towards death")

As a major center for learning and pilgrimage, Monserrat and its monks were faced with the unusual problem of large numbers of pilgrims visiting from all over a mostly secular Southern and Western Europe. Accounts tell us that one of the most notable conflicts with the monastic lifestyle was the pilgrim’s custom of singing and dancing in the church and around the sacred shrine. While the singing and dancing were clearly an expression of joy at finally completing the pilgrimage, the songs commonly known amongst these numerous and diverse peoples tended to be, as one would expect, secular and inappropriate for a sacred site.

Rather than prohibit the pilgrim’s exuberant song and dance, the monks decided to support it. To contend with secularism, the monks redirected the pilgrim’s singing to a newly and locally compiled collection of music with subjects more suitable for the monastery, but with musical content similar to the popular styles of the day. Consequently, most of the music is sacred but in the popular, secular style of the 14th Century. It is even probable that these pieces were originally well known secular songs reenvisioned with sacred texts.

The purpose of this compilation of daily accounts and songs is clarified by its anonymous compiler on folio 22-recto (see image below), where he wrote:

Quia interdum peregrini quando vigilant in ecclesia Beate Marie de Monte Serrato volunt cantare et

trepudiare, et etiam in platea de die, et ibi non debeant nisi honestas ac devotas cantilenas cantare,

idcirco superius et inferius alique sunt scripte. Et de hoc uti debent honeste et parce, ne perturbent

perseverantes in orationibus et devotis contemplationibus. (fol. 22r)

"Since sometimes the pilgrims desire to sing and dance while they keep watch by day and night in

the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and since no songs should be sung in the church

unless they are chaste and pious, therefore these songs herein have been inscribed. Furthermore,

these songs should be used only modestly, taking due care that no one who is devoted to prayer or

contemplation is disturbed." (trans. J Key)

The songs, therefore, were composed, or at least re-texted, for the pilgrims to have something appropriately "chaste and pious" to sing.

While the collection was compiled at the end of the 14th century, most of the music within appears to be stylistically older as compared to the contemporary avant-garde of the French Ars Nova and Italian Trecento. For example, the motet Imperayritz de la ciutat joyosa is a non-imitative polyphonic piece that contains two different texts sung simultaneously. This is a motet style more familiar to the 13th century Parisian milieu and considered old-fashioned by the time of the manuscript’s compilation.

The humble simplicity, dance-like rhythm, and tuneful melodicism of the pieces in the Llibre Vermell has given this collection a persistent appeal even into the 21st century. These works are some of the most frequently recorded and arranged pieces of Medieval music under both classical and popular music labels.

For a complete critical transcription of the music for "O Virgo Splendens" click here.


~ O Virgo Splendens ~

The Caça (“chace” or canon) known as “O Virgo Splendens” (“O splendorous virgin”) is the first in the small collection of music from the Llibre Vermell. It is perhaps the oddest of the set, being the most stylistically remote. It is the only piece not notated or composed in the contemporary style of the Ars Nova. Rather, its notation and style harken to previous centuries, perhaps as old as the free organum style of the 10th and 11th centuries such as those found in the Ad organum faciendum. Given its apparent lack of rhythmic mode of any kind, its relation to the 10th and 11th centuries seem likely.

The piece, like many canons recorded in the 14th century, begins with a riddle that reveals the canonic nature of the notated music. As it stands in the manuscript, the piece is notated only as a monophonic (single voice) melody without any counterpoint or explicit accompaniment. However, in the margins of the page where the piece begins (folio 21v.) is inscribed the simple clue “Caça de duobus vel tribus” (“A hunt for two or three”).

The image of a hunt implies a chase of one thing after another, which stands as an analogy for one voice chasing after the other, as is done in a canon wherein one voice begins and is followed by one or more entries of other voices with the same material. If this analogy is understood, the only problem that must then be solved is where the other voice(s) (either one or two) should enter after the first voice. If there are not clues given in the music, educated guesses can be made by simple conventions, such as phrase lengths, text divisions, or material organization on the page (e.g. one system to the next). The simple solution to this puzzle is each entry should start with each occurrence of a new phrase in the first voice. The musical phrases are clearly demarcated by new text phrases, which are highlighted by large florid capital letters standing as pseudo bar lines in the music (see original score above).

Overall, this piece is harmonically static within the Dorian mode, orbiting the final D and co-final A at the ends of phrases. In fact, every phrase ends with a modal cadence on the D-A dyad. However, touches of C-major, G-major, F-major, and E-minor occasionally blossom through the texture, with G-major and C-major prominently featured at the beginning of many phrases.

The fact that there is no single high or low point to the melody also confines the music within a non-dynamic sphere. All the musical material is solidly confined within a major 9th from the C a major 2nd below the modal final D, to the D an octave higher. Such a solidly prescribed and reiterated range givens this piece a sense of melodic stasis.

A further element of stasis in this piece is the unchanging phrase lengths. To make this canon simple to perform (since it was likely being performed by mostly untrained musicians), the composer designed each phrase to be equal length with implied pauses between each phrase. The music is consequently simple, halting, and very even, making it easy to coordinate and perform.

The phraseological evenness and predictability along with the melodic and harmonic stasis all contribute to this piece’s sense of minimalism. However, this minimalism is certainly inline with what would have probably characterized “chaste and pious” music that would “take care” to not disturb “one who is devoted to prayer or contemplation". Thus, rather than characterizing a secular Caça or “hunt” of a man after the material world (such as can be heard in the contemporary canon “Se je chant” from the Ivrea Codex), perhaps this piece characterizes the sacred hunt or figurative pilgrimage for God within contemplation and prayer, towards which the pilgrims were meant to direct their devotions during their literal pilgrimage.

For a complete critical transcription of the music for "O Virgo Splendens" click here.


Original Latin Text:

O virgo splendens hic

in monte celso

miraculis serrato,

fulgentibus ubique,

quem fidelis

conscendunt universi.

Eya, pietatis

occulo placato,

cerne ligatos

fune peccatorum,

ne infernorum

ictibus graventur,

sed cum beatis tua

prece vocentur.

English Translation:

O virgin, shining brightly here

On this high mountain

That has been serrated

All over by radiant wonders

And that all of

The faithful climb.

O, with the gentle

Eye of love,

Behold those caught

in the bonds of sin

So that they will not

have to endure the blows of hell

But rather be called among the blessed

Through your intercession.


Primary Sources:

Monasterio de S Maria [E-MO] MS 1 "Llibre Vermell de Montserrat" no. 1 fols. 21v. - 22r.

Secondary Sources:

Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.

Tertiary Sources:

Newes, Virginia E. "Chace." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University

Press, accessed November 23, 2016,

Segarra, Ireneu. "Montserrat." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University

Press, accessed November 23, 2016,

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