On the top of a cliff in the Catalan region of northwestern Spain, not far from Barcelona, lies the pilgrimage abbey of Montserrat. The Benedictine monks of the abbey are custodians of a miraculous statue, the so-called Black Virgin of Montserrat. In the High Middle Ages, the fame of the statue's miracles spread throughout Europe. Songs and poetry celebrated the Virgin's actions of healing and grace; some of the Cantigas de Santa Maria of King Alfonso X narrate specific miracles. Montserrat thus became a popular destination for pilgrimages, and the abbey's monks profited from the increased fame and traffic. Several of the monks themselves wrote and collected poetry and music to honor and publicize the Black Virgin. One such collection of ten songs from the fourteenth century survives in the Llibre vermell de Montserrat (which is named for the brilliant crimson of a later, nineteenth century cover).
The pages between the Llibre's vermillion covers contain extraordinary evidence of the cultural mingling that took place in a medieval pilgrimage town. Popular dance tunes rub shoulders with "cultivated" polyphonic compositions; Moorish influence is evident throughout. The scribes labeled O virgo splendens, the opening piece, a caça, or "chace." The term, applied to three of the Llibre's pieces (Laudemus virginem and Splendens ceptigera are the others), indicates canonic procedures; rubrics suggest the music may be sung as either a two-part or a three-part canon. Maria matrem similarly shows knowledge of the sophisticated music of the French ars nova. Polorum regina, on the other hand, is a round dance, similar in conception to the French and English carol. An inscription in the manuscript relates that the pilgrims like to dance during their vigils, and this piece provides a sacred outlet for them; the notation allows a metrical reading, with a simple refrain in which all the pilgrims can join. Two of the remaining pieces embody the pilgrims' cultural mixture in both language and technique: in the Catalan Los set gotxs are Italian echoes, while the Occitan Imperayritz de la ciutat ioyosa leads to southern France. Ad mortem festinamus, the final piece in the Llibre vermell, returns to the dance form, yet its opening refrain instantly proclaims a more serious subject: "We are hastening towards death; let us cease sinning!" This song, the first surviving example of the literary danse macabre, concludes the pilgrim's music with a terrifying appeal to amend one's life. ~ Timothy Dickey, Rovi