Dulci dignum melodia: a 12th-century polyphonic Christmas at St-Martial de Limoges

The southern French region known as Aquitania was large, prosperous and powerful during the Middle Ages. Culturally rich, during the 11th and 12th centuries it was home to two of the most important poetic and musical movements to emerge from medieval Europe. The troubadours gave Europe its first significant body of vernacular song, bequeathing the ideals of courtly love to future generations of poets. At the same time, the troubadours? monastic sisters and brothers were developing a new style of sacred composition: the Aquitanian versus. The four surviving manuscripts at the Abbey of St-Martial de Limoges, Aquitania?s most important monastery, bear witness to this repertoire?s extraordinary marriage of poetry and music.

Both monophonic and polyphonic versus were composed, with equally intricate and expressive results. Aquitanian polyphony is particularly striking and frequently virtuosic. Rarely performed today, its significance and influence on later developments in Western music is often overlooked.

The two main themes of versus poetry were the Virgin Mary and the miraculous birth of her son. Christmas was one of the great occasions for musical celebration at St-Martial-de-Limoges, and a large portion of the repertoire is devoted to the subject. Many of these texts evoke the power of music, musical instruments and, in particular, human voices resounding with joy:

Dulci dignum melodia
Laudes attollamus,
Novi festi nova cantu
Festum recolamus!


This feast deserves sweet melodies;
Let us lift our praises high,
Let us commemorate it
With the feast?s new song!

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