The Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (the Red Book of Montserrat) is a 14th century codex compiled by monks and still preserved in the library of the monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat located outside Barcelona in North-Eastern Spain. The monastery was at the time an important pilgrimage site and cultural centre in Catalonia. The 137 surviving double pages of the manuscript feature devotional texts and liturgical material as well as ten anonymous songs in Latin or Catalan with musical notation.
Probably based on existing secular folk melodies, the pieces were written as simple dance songs and ballads, canons, motets or virelais for one, two or three voices with religious lyrics for the pilgrims to sing. Since the mid-1960s, the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat has been recorded by countless mediaeval ensembles and vocal groups, but the 1978 interpretation with Jordi Savall as a musical director probably stands a landmark recording of the ten songs.
With Montserrat Figueras (1942 – 2011) as the solo soprano and choral director, early music ensemble Hespèrion XX together with five vocal groups, Llibre Vermell de Montserrat – A 14th century pilgrimage was released in 1979 and has been regularly re-issued ever since on EMI or Virgin Classics.
O Virgo Splendens
All the surviving music sheets for the Llibre Vermell introduce very simple tunes that were meant to be sung or played by common people and not by skilled musicians or trained singers. But the magic really happens when those songs are arranged in canon for two or three voices. Introduced as an “Antyphon in sweet harmony to the dearest Virgin Mary of Monte Serrato”, O Virgo Splendens hic in monte celso (O Virgin resplendent on this lofty peak) opens the recording to the sound of bells ringing and of a rooster crowing.
Resplendent star on the mountain, like a sun beam
Miraculously glowing, hear your people.
They all flock together, glad peoples, rich and poor, high and low;
They climb the mountain as soon as they see it and return from it full of grace […]
Maria Matrem Virginem
In November 2013, the vocal group La Capella Reial de Catalunya (formed in 1987 by Jordi Savall) and early music ensemble Hespèrion XXI assembled in the church of Santa Maria Del Pi in Barcelona to perform the songs of the Llibre Vermell. The event was beautifully captured by Karl More Productions.
A unique blend of early folk music and religious polyphonic music (and a personal “desert island” record for years), the contemplative songs of the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat are a collection of timeless and mesmerising beauty.