Alexander Blachly On The Codex Calixtinus Theft

18

July
2011

Portico de la Gloria, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral (photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia Commons)

Distinguished musicologist and ensemble director Alexander Blachly recently gave an interview to the Spanish news organization La Voz de Galicia about the theft of the Codex Calixtinus.

Here’s my translation of the interview with a link at the bottom to the original in Spanish.

[Introduction]

With nearly thirty years in front of the ensemble Pomerium, which specializes on Renaissance vocal repertoire, Alexander Blachly is one of the most recognizable names in Early Music, not only as an interpreter, but as a musicologist who has developed a long teaching and researching trajectory at universities such as Columbia and NYU. Blachly has studied the Codex Calixtinus in detail and, in 1991, took part in a symposium held at Santiago de Compostela which celebrated the cathedral’s Portico de la Gloria and its instruments.

Were you able to see the codex?

I had the great privilege of visiting the cathedral archive and personally examining the Calixtinus, turning its pages, and marveling at its unbelievable state of preservation. It was as if it had been copied the week before. The parchment had a pale color and the inks—black, red, green, yellow, blue—had lost none of their luster. Being able to see it was one the of the most exciting experiences of my life, which literally transported me back to the 12th Century, much more than the cathedrals have, because the codex has survived in perfect condition for eight centuries, half of which is almost as miraculous.

How would you define its significance within the scope of music history?

The codex has great significance within the tradition of Western music as a testimony of the first attempts at writing polyphonic music. Only Saint Martial organum from around 1100 predates it. My understanding is that the Calixtinus was most likely copied around 1170, at the same time Master Mateo built the Portico de la Gloria, including the twenty-four Elders [of the Apocalypse] with their instruments. The music contained in the Calixtinus is virtually contemporaneous with organum by the first recognized master of polyphony, Léonin, who composed the collection Magnus Liber Organi for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The music in the Calixtinus, which has not survived in any other source, is a priceless legacy from the birth of Western polyphony.

How does it feel to interpret the music?

In 1991, I transcribed twenty polyphonic works from the codex and performed several at the symposium. I’ve since performed some in a number of concerts, although not with Pomerium, which rarely sings music before the 15th Century. Because the musical notation in the Calixtinus is ambiguous in terms of rhythm, one can never be certain that a transcription is truly faithful to what was originally practiced. Nevertheless, the pieces are amazing, appropriately sung in duple meter, like the transcription by José López-Calo, as well as triple meter, as in my own interpretation.

How did you react to the theft of the codex?

It left me shocked and bewildered. How could such a precious object have been removed from the archive, which is locked-up and can rarely be seen? And why would someone want to take it, possibly the most famous book from the Late Middle Ages, which any buyer would identify as stolen? I have a hunch that it’s been “kidnapped” by someone from within the archive and will only be returned for a ransom. The only thing I hope for is that whoever it was will take care of and not damage it. The email lists of musicologists from the United States have spoken of nothing else for days now. We all hope it’s returned to the archive soon.

Alexander Blachly, Musicologist

More: Alexander Blachly: «Mi corazonada es que el Códice Calixtino ha sido secuestrado» (La Voz de Galicia)

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