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The Codex Calixtinus (12th Century)

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Also known as the Book of St. James (Liber sancti Jacobi)

The Codex Calixtinus is dedicated to the apostle James the Greater and contains a huge assortment of music from the 12th century. It was commissioned by Pope Calistis II (also Calixtus II, 1065-1124), who was pope from 1119-1124. The collection was completed around 1137 or soon after 1139. You can still see it without going to Spain because a complete edition in three volumes was published by Walter Muir Whitehill and Dom Germain Prado in 1931. This modern edition includes facsimiles, notes, and transcriptions of all the musical parts of the manuscript. (I want this. Please take up a collection and buy this for me. I didn’t find it on Amazon.) In 1922, the music alone was transcribed and published by Peter Wagner. (I would also be very happy to have this. Also not listed on Amazon.)

The original Codex was dedicated to St. James. After his martyrdom, the body of St. James was moved from Jerusalem to Galicia, Spain, where James spent time preaching and where he is now venerated (under the name Sant’ Iago or Santiago) as patron saint. According to tradition, his body was miraculously translated into some other substance than flesh and bones during the trip. His relics are in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, an Atlantic coastal town in the extreme northwest corner of Spain, built over his gravesite in 1078.

In 1993, UNESCO placed the Spanish section of the pilgrimage on the World Heritage List, adding the French section in 1998.

The Codex is an illuminated manuscript. The order of songs was probably chosen by the French scholar Aymeric Picaud (dates unavailable) and the principal scribe was called “Scriptor I” in the text itself, which implies that another scribe was expected. Experts say that the whole collection is in a single hand, so I guess Scriptor I worked alone in the end.

Whoever the scribe was, he wasn’t a student of the (then) new art of music notation. He knew nothing of alignment, and it’s hard to tell when the organum parts converged. It’s also clear that the pieces were meant to be learned by rote and performed from memory. Performers of the time didn’t read the music off the page, even in rehearsal; sheet music was considered more of a souvenir or art object than a working tool. (You can read more about the history of music notation here: http://melaniespiller.com/lavender_029.htm.)

In addition to the music, the collection was an anthology of background detail and advice for pilgrims following the way of St. James from Jerusalem to Spain. It’s a proper tour guide, with descriptions of the route, including works of art to be seen along the way and descriptions of local customs. The collection includes sermons, reports of miracles, and liturgical texts associated with James.

There’s a copy of the Codex Calixtinus at St. James’ shrine at Compostela, which has been one of the great pilgrimage spots in Europe since late-medieval times. The Codex is particularly lavish, with many special features. One of these is an appendix of a dozen parchment leaves containing two dozen polyphonic compositions, some of which were specially written for the Office of St. James, and others that were borrowed from the common monastic repertory of southern and central France.

For many years, there was a false assumption that the very first three-part polyphonic setting ever written appeared in the Codex Calixtinus. But the piece, called Congaudeant catholici, actually had the third part written in as a discant (a high, floaty bit) rather than a third composed part. The discant was written in red on the same staff as the tenor (the slow chant on the bottom) by some later scribe. If it were really sung in three parts as written, there would be more dissonance than is found in polyphony from the period, although that might not be a deterrent to doing it that way. At the time, a discant only had to go nicely with the tenor line, not necessarily with the melismatic upper voice. Singers probably chose to sing one part or the other of the higher parts—not all three at the same time.

Along with that interesting three-part piece, one of the oldest collections in the Codex is the Marial Tropers. It’s one of only two that have survived from this early period of music development. (Tropes are the wiggly elaborations and ornaments in Medieval music.)

Three parts of the Codex contain music: Book I and two appendices. Let’s look at the whole collection.

There are five volumes, totaling 225 double-sided folios. The oversized pages were trimmed during restoration in 1966. (Ack!) Each folio displays a single column of thirty-four lines of text. Book IV was torn off in 1609, possibly by accident, possibly by theft, or possibly by decree of King Philip III (you’ll read more about this in a moment).The section was reinstated during the restoration in 1966.

Book I contains the liturgies and comprises almost half of the codex. There are sermons and homilies, all about St. James, including descriptions of his martyrdom. Included are “special” pieces of music along with the Ordinary (Kyrie, Sanctus, etc.) liturgical chants for the festival. The Offices, Masses, and Processions of the festival are liberally supplied with tropes, which are embellishments added to the music of a Mass in the Middle Ages. The music was written in Aquitainian neume notation (a form used in northern France and Spain that didn’t endure into the 13th century).

There are also pilgrim’s songs, which would have been sung on the road to and from Compostela as well as in the cathedral. Most pieces from this period are anonymous, but the Calixtine (isn’t that a fun word?) specimens have the names of their composers appended. Most of them are French bishops and archbishops, but according to one source, the attributions are apocryphal. It’s thought that at least 12 of the 14 Spanish pieces were written under strong French influence.

Calixtus’ (probably fraudulent) letter occupies the first two folios. It claims that he collected many testimonies on the good deeds of St. James over the course of 14 years. He also describes how the manuscript survived fire and water damage. The letter is addressed to the holy assembly of the basilica of Cluny and to Archbishop Diego of Compostela (c1069-1149). There’s more on this in a minute.

The first six pieces of music in the Codex are organum (two lines of parallel melody), the remainder are conductus (two lines of divergent melody). There is only one example of imitation (see Composer Biography: Johannes Ciconia (c1370-1412) for more on imitation) in the whole collection. It probably wasn’t accidental, but also, it was probably very much a new style of music. The imitation included is of the type called “interchange,” where two voices produce essentially the same melody, taking turns. Later, imitation developed into form known as the rondelle, and eventually became the form known as a canon for which Johann Sebastian Bach was particularly famous. Imitation appears in the Codex in a conductus piece called Ad superni regis decus (to the glory of the heavenly king).

In the 13th century, the forms of music organum and conductus would become clearly different, but in the 12th century, the two words were used interchangeably. The Codex provides examples of the beginning of the bifurcation. In conductus, the tenor line was not necessarily a previously known melody, such as a chant. In fact, composing something new for conductus was a rule. The upper part moved in parallel steps with the tenor line, forming a sort of chordal harmony (not in modern terms—chords hadn’t been invented yet), like faux bourdon. Sometimes the upper voices split a note’s duration and sang two or three against a single melody note. That’s as fancy as it got in the 12th century, though.

The local liturgy for St. James included in the Codex are Matins responsories, a gradual, and an alleluia, which are provided in chant form (one melodic line, no harmonies) and appear early in the Codex. The two-line versions of the same chants are in the organum style.

Book II is an account of 22 miracles across Europe attributed to St. James during his life and after.

Book III is the shortest book and describes moving St. James’s corpse from its original tomb in Jerusalem to the new one in Galicia. It also describes the custom started by the first pilgrims of gathering souvenir seashells from the Galician coast. The scallop shell is a symbol for St. James.

Book IV is falsely attributed to Archbishop Turpin of Reims (d.800), who is commonly known as Psuedo-Turpin. In fact, it’s the work of an anonymous 12th century writer. It describes Charlemagne (742-814) coming to Spain, his defeat at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (in 778), and the death of the knight Roland (d.778, and a frequent subject in troubadour and minstrel songs). The great king and conqueror Charlemagne had a dream in which St. James appeared, urging him to liberate his (St. James’) tomb from the Moors and showing him the direction to follow using the route of the Milky Way. That’s why, in Spain, the Milky Way has an alternate name, Camino de Santiago.

The chapter also includes an account of Roland’s defeat of the Saracen Ferragut (dates unavailable, but in the 9th century) and the legend of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moorslayer), which was an early example of Catholic propaganda to recruit for the military Order of Santiago, formed to protect church interests in northern Spain from Moorish invaders. This order was also closely associated with the Crusades. The legend got out of hand and became an embarrassment, portraying St. James as a bloodthirsty avenger 800 years after his death. King Philip III (1578-1621) ordered that the section of the Codex be removed, and for a while, it circulated as a separate volume. Despite this, there are still statues and chapels in the churches and cathedrals along the way applauding St. James the Moorslayer.

Book V is a pilgrim’s guide, advising where to stop, which relics are the good ones, which sanctuaries to visit, which inns serve bad food, and the various commercial scams to be aware of, including churches holding false relics. It also describes the city of Galicia and its cathedral. Some of the earliest Basque words and phrases of the post-Roman period are also recorded in it. Book V is a marvelous insight into who a 12th century pilgrim might have been.

Both appendices were compiled in the cathedral town of Vezelay by around 1170 and shipped or carried down to Compostela as a gift to the shrine. One of the reasons for associating the manuscript with a fairly northern point of origin is its use of the word “conductus” in place of “versus.” Another is the inclusion of standard Mass and Office items in polyphonic elaboration along with the more usual tropes and verses in monody (chant). These settings consist of six responsorial chants.

A second copy of the entire Codex was made in 1173 by a monk named Arnaldo de Monte. This version is known as the Ripoli (after the monastery in Catalonia by the same name) and is now stored in Barcelona. In the 12th and 13th centuries, there were copies all over the place, from as far away as Rome and Jerusalem. It was particularly popular at the Abbey of Cluny, another sacred location to which pilgrims progressed in the Middle Ages.

A full transcription was done by Walter Muir Whitehill in 1932 (as mentioned above), and published in Spain along with a musicological study by Dom German Prado and a study of the miniature illustrations by Jesus Carro Garcia.

But the story of the Codex isn’t all rainbows and unicorns.

A letter from Pope Calixtus that provides the preface to the book is thought to have been forged. You see, Calixtus died 11 years before the collection was begun. He could still have commissioned it, but he never saw a single page.

In a 1972 article, Christopher Hohler (1917-1997) said that the book was meant to be a grammar book, being in deliberately bad Latin. He claims that it’s a classic nomadic French teaching technique, to have the students correct the bad grammar. It wasn’t at all about collecting the music or providing a travel guide, according to Hohler.

The earliest known edition dates from 1150 and was lost until 1886, when the Jesuit scholar Padre Fidel Fita (1835-1918) found it. But that’s not the only time the great book disappeared.

The Codex  Calixtinus was stolen from the cathedral in 2011. Spanish police thought that it was an inside job or that the manuscript was hidden somewhere inside the cathedral. Rumors abounded that it was an attempt to embarrass cathedral administration over lax security or that perhaps it was some sort of grievance or grudge being played out. One year and one day after its disappearance, the Codex was found in the garage of a former employee, along with several other items of worth. The book was undamaged and is back on display at the cathedral.

Sources:

“Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century,” by Richard Taruskin. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” (Volume II of New Oxford History of Music), edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W> Norton & Co., New York, 1994.

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