Cantigas de Santa Maria Suite


Legendary 13th century miracle songs reimagined for the 21st century by Simon Thacker


Simon Thacker's acclaimed genre defying ensemble Ritmata bring their distinctive sound to 13th century Spanish songs of miracles, harnessing the power of some of Europe's greatest music written up to that point from a country and at a court that served as a unique meeting point for three cultures.


Seven hundred years before anyone had thought of the term "world music" a remarkable Medieval Spanish King, Alfonso X "El Sabio” ("The Wise"), was creating it with his Cantigas de Santa Maria, compiled at his famous court where the finest poets, musicians, scientists and artists representing Moorish, Jewish and Christian cultures interacted. Simon's suite is based on these incredible melodies, which continue to move listeners and inspire performers after seven centuries and are here reimagined by a musician with an innate understanding of Spanish music, incorporating his experiences working with musicians from different musical systems around the world, reflecting their origins from the court of a King who commissioned translations of the Bible, the Koran, the Cabala, the Talmud and Hindustani tales. A potent and innovative union of sacred and secular, the melodies are taken from both popular music and plainsong whilst the texts cover a massive number of themes detailing virtually every aspect of contemporary life, from autobiographical episodes in the life of the King and tender tributes to the Virgin Mary to episodes in war and stories reflecting the harshness and brutality of the time.



Simon writing about his Cantigas de Santa Maria Suite


Spain and Spanish culture has always fascinated and moved me in equal measure.


Until 1492, to varying degrees at different points, Christian, Moorish and Jewish cultures interacted and merged, particularly during the reign of Alfonso X “El Sabio”, “the learned”. Alfonso’s political and military endeavours were not impressive but his cultural legacy is quite remarkable, not least for the more than 400 Cantigas praising the Virgin Mary and narrating her miracles, complied under his direction (many would appear to be composed by him), the largest body of European songs surviving with musical notation before the year 1300.


There are many reasons why I decided to arrange and recompose this music for myself as a classical guitarist to perform with three jazz/world musicians, none of them religious.


Principally, the melodies are very powerful, moving and direct. The notation of the time conveys only the vocal line and is therefore ripe for transformation, and the fact that this music has survived and transcends over seven centuries and an embryonic notation system to inspire countless people today to perform and record it, the fact that it lives on, similarly inspires me. I believe that the clearly intense, obsessive passion and conviction that originally inspired its composition (even if I do not share the passion for the object of these convictions) makes it potentially very powerful, especially in a world where we are surrounded on a daily basis by music intentionally devoid of these fundamental qualities. I have a very clear vision of how to transform this music to create something new and relevant with a basis in the culture and psyche of the musicians and composers of the thirteenth century. In other words a merging of mind, spirit and purpose across seven centuries.


I have already mentioned that Spanish music fused different cultures and musics to create unique, highly expressive musical languages and this is a concept that continues to drive much of what I do. Another recent project of mine fused Indian classical and Western contemporary classical music to form a new genre and in this set of Cantigas, I seek to merge these medieval melodies with my own harmonic vocabulary rooted in contemporary classical music, the rhythmic processes of Indian music, the improvisation skills of jazz, among other of my interests, to form a new genre, visceral and real, unique to the ensemble.


The creative expression of the Cantigas is vast, encompassing music, art and poetry, and they are a mine of information about the people that created them through their visual and written imagery, the beliefs and thought processes depicted, melodic patterns, musical and poetic forms, personal monologues of the king detailing his deepest concerns, and so on. The songs and stories in some cases can be traced back considerably further than the thirteenth century (one song I reimagined is from the eighth century) and from sources across Europe and further afield. Some of their themes are of their time, some are universal, some are horrifically politically incorrect and, particularly when set against background research into the political chicanery and shifting allegiances during conflicts, many are particularly prescient to today's interaction between "the West" and Islamic countries. They are a strange and fascinating mix of uncontainable artistic impulses (harnessed as a vehicle for the King to imprint his divine right to rule), awe inspiring subtlety, obsessive devotion, medieval brutality, pioneering tolerance and intercultural collaboration, shameless prejudice, mysticism, politics and much more.


Simon Thacker's Ritmata first premiered my Cantigas Suite at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and since then Cantigas have been an important part of our repertoire. We have performed in both vocal and instrumental lineups and currently I am working on even more ambitious large scale instrumental Cantigas which will be premiered in 2017. The possibilities for combining the music of the Cantigas with other art forms is one I intend to explore in the years to come.







Simon Thacker's   Ritmata






Alfonso X "El Sabio" King of Castille, León and Galicia at his court, as portrayed in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Alfonso's incredible collection of songs and art from the thirteenth century.

Cantiga 123 "De Santa Maria sinal qual xe quer", reimagined by Simon Thacker for his quartet Ritmata

Panels from the Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscripts, Moorish and Christian musicians playing ouds together

Tuned bell chimes (cymbala) containing seven bells conveniently labeled [A, B,] C, D, E, F, G

Pipes and tambors played by court musicians, 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript panel 

One of the original 13th century Cantiga manuscripts, early ligature musical notation on the left