For the Columbus Day weekend and its opening concert of the season, the Folger Consort performed a program of the kind of Spanish and Italian tunes the crew might have been humming on the Nin a, Pinta and Santa Maria as they sailed off into the unknown.
The format was not rigid; some of the songs were too old to be familiar in 1492, and others were not composed until a bit later. Five were songs of the Sephardim, the Jews who were driven from Spain in 1492. They undoubtedly date from before the first voyage of Columbus -- the language is essentially Castilian of that period -- but they were not taken down from the oral tradition until this century. The melodies are timeless, unique, with a hint of the Middle East in their style, and they may have changed somewhat in four or five centuries. But let scholars quibble about such points -- the music was exquisite and beautifully performed, and it evoked effectively the atmosphere of a distant time and place.
The first and in some ways the most haunting music on the program was the "Cantigas de Amigo" of Martim Codax, dating from the 13th century. This is probably the earliest European song cycle, deeply rooted in folk traditions, simple and subtle, and intensely evocative both as poetry and as music. The cycle develops seven variations on two interlocking themes: love and the sea. The songs are sung by a woman whose lover has sailed away -- her loneliness, her fears for his safety and dreams of his return. The verse form, usually in two-line stanzas with an obsessively repeated refrain, looks curiously like some American folk forms, perhaps a distant cousin of the blues. The music is not bluesy but has a similar emotional impact, particularly when it is sung as well as it was in Saturday night's performance. Even the vocal arrangements had a pop overtone, with soprano Ann Monoyios as soloist and mezzo-soprano Alice Kosloski and soprano Custer La Rue as a sort of backup group.
The harmonizing of women's voices was a recurring motif of the program, and the voices were well-suited to the varied flavors of ancient folk music. The soulful, exotically intriguing Sephardic songs provided a neat thematic balance to two Semitophobic songs from the "Cantigas de Santa Maria" -- a reminder of the expulsion of the Jews in the same year that Columbus sailed. Other selections from the "Cantigas" had the quaint charm of a stained-glass window.
Also on the program was a large, miscellaneous selection of popular songs and dances of Columbus' time, not only from Spain, which sent him off to glory, but from Italy, where he was born. The silver-toned and stylish singing was well-accompanied by instrumentalists Robert Eisenstein, Scott Reiss, and Christopher Kendall, who occasionally took the spotlight for a dance number. There will be a final performance tonight at the Folger Shakespeare Library.