Montserrat Figueras: the voice of early music

Silenced in 2011, the famous Catalan soprano Montserrat Figueras was one of the first performers to bring a renewed respect and intrigue to the art of early music.

Montserrat Figueras: the voice of early music
Montserrat Figueras, © AFP / CréditPHILIPPE MATSAS / OPALE / LEEMAGE

Born on 15 March 1942 in Barcelone, the soprano Montserrat Figueras filled the second half of the 20th century with her bright voice and contributed, alongside her husband Jordi Savall, to the rediscovery of previously forgotten early repertoires.  

The singer passed away on 23 November 2011 and left behind an important vocal heritage: throughout her musical career, Montserrat Figueras developed a unique singing style, pure but highly expressive.  

Music archaeologist

Montserrat Figueras was raised by a musically passionate family and studied singing at the municipal Barcelona music conservatoire (where she met Jordi Savall). The young soprano was already intrigued by the early music repertoire, and joined during her studies Ars Musicae, a Catalan ensemble specialised in early medieval music. 

In 1968, the Figueras-Savall duet moved to Switzerland to enroll at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, a key institution for those musicians interested in early and baroque music. This marked the beginning of their lifelong work of musicological research. For almost half a century, the couple rediscovered and brought to light a lesser-known (even forgotten) musical repertoire. 

One example of the research by Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall is « el Cant de la Sibil·la », a musical poem from the 10th century, resurrected by the soprano in an almost declamatory style.

A humane and committed voice

Though the Western classical tradition has been institutionalised and transmitted through written manuscripts and scores, the early repertoires, on the other hand, have remained an oral tradition. As a result, the old and dusty scores found by Figueras and Savall are rare, lacking details and are require mainly improvisation.

These vocal works are also historical evidence: they describe the cohabitation between the Moors and the Spanish - l’Al-Andalus -, the influence and power of the lords during the Renaissance, and love at the time of the troubadours...

Montserrat Figueras founded two personal projects: Lux Feminae (1995) and Ninna nanna (2002). These discs focused upon the women of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, their daily lives and the surrounding legends, regrouping songs composed by female poets, princesses, and even texts evoking the destiny of various great female figures.

The lullaby Hor ch’è tempo di dormire was composed by the Italian Tarquinio Merula (1595-1665). The words are those of the Virgin Mary cradling baby Jesus and explaining to him his future suffering: "Sleep my child and cry not, for a time will come when you will have to cry".

Singing as a form of prayer

The voice of Montserrat Figueras gave European spectators a new form of lyricism, pure and spiritual. No excessive flourishes or ornaments in her voice, her voice resonated with homogeneity, a crystal-clear timbre and a seemingly "natural" musical phrasing, very declamatory in style. 

The singer approached the vocal art almost spiritually. "Music allows us to reach an almost meditative state", a state that allowed Montserrat Figueras to convey a powerful and emotionally-charged performance, despite the fact that the repertoire may appear simple. With only one note, one sound, the singer was able to convey a thousand emotions.