The Pilgrims Way

A CD of unaccompanied choral music was issued at the end of last year commemorating the first boom period of the ancient pilgrimage across the north of Spain in the period 1000-1600. The Monteverdi Choir conducted by its founder, Sir John Eliot Gardiner sing music of the sort that might have been sampled or sung as pilgrims walked their weary way. It all dates back to the ‘discovery’ of the remains of the Apostle St James the Great by an enterprising Bishop early in the 9th Century. I have seen the tomb, set in the magnificent Cathedral in Santiago. The tomb is venerated by people who are not too concerned about its dubious historicity. In its heyday Santiago rivalled Rome and Jerusalem as goals of Christian pilgrimage. Today the pilgrim way is walked by many people making a spiritual pilgrimage of their own, and at its end they are presented with a ‘compostela’, an official certificate to show that they have made it. 100,377 were issued last year.

Commenting on the music on this new disc, HMV Choice refers to pure, contemplative, ancient music, evoking beautiful 16th.

century musical tapestries, from the elegance of Palestrina to the glory of Victoria, complemented by other worldly chants from the Codex Calixtinus. The reviewer claims that the music is ideal for calming yourself or for deeper introspection. Anthony Clements in The Guardian’s review said the music was beautifully varied and exquisitely sung.

The Codex is a remarkable document dating from 1150, lost for many years and then rediscovered in 1886. It consists of a series of books devoted to the various stories relating to the Apostle and one of them recounts the miracles that accompanied the journey of his alleged remains to their final resting place. The Codex is intended to be chanted aloud and is an early example of polyphony (two independent voices singing in harmony).

It also contains the first known composition for three voices.

Gardiner and his Choir have an extraordinary record of commitment to early music. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Joanne Sebastian Bach, for example, they set off to tour Europe to perform and record all of his 198 cantatas, many of the CD’s of which are now on sale.

Another enthusiast for early music is Philip Pickett and the New London Consort. They recorded a similar but more extensive selection of Santiago music in 1989 on two CD’s based on Navarre and Castile, and Leon and Galicia, using various manuscripts, again including Codex Calixtinus. Whereas Gardiner’s choir is unaccompanied, Pickett uses a variety of early instruments.