Music/Popular Culture

Today’s Christmas Songs–“Riu, Riu Chiu” and other Spanish gems

Medieval and Renaissance Spain and Portugal have given us music a bit different from the rest of Europe, even when written in European styles. This is the result of the unique blend of cultures that inhabited the Iberian peninsula for a number of centuries, up to the expulsion of the Moors and Jews by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (an important year for a number of reasons, as it turns out.) Christmas music from this region, then, often reflects this unique blend. In some cases, we also have compositions from the Spanish colonies in the New World, which reflect some of the indigenous musical traditions as well. What this has left us with is a lively group of Christmas songs, of which “Riu, Riu Chiu” is probably the best known. It’s a long song, with lots of lyrics (see here for a reasonably full set). Originally a Spanish Villancico, a vernacular song usually based on medieval dance forms, this early 16th century song (ascribed to Mateo Flecha, but probably not actually composed by him) is that rare thing—a song about the Immaculate Conception that you can dance to. Even rarer is the fact that it was performed on US television in 1967 by The Monkees, making it the only Renaissance song holding this distinction. Here’s a version from The Boston Camerata:

Another villancico with similar characteristics—a narrative told by a solitary singer, bracketed by a chorus, is “E la Don Don,” by that well known composer, Anonymous. Another folk tune of uncertain provenance, collected in the Cancionero de Uppsala (but published in Venice in 1556), and the same collection that gave us “Riu, Riu.” The lyrics (see here for a partial set) are a conversation between a shepherd who has heard the news of the birth of Jesus, and others who have not. Here’s a version from Capella de Ministrers.

Moving to the new world, here’s “Hanacpachap Cussicuinin,” attributed to the Peruvian Renaissance composer Juan Perez Bocanegra because he collated the collection this comes from, but clearly reflecting deeper native roots. This work is often used as a precessional, and has the distinction of being one of the first polyphonic pieces published in the new world. The lyrics derive from the Quechuan language. Lyrics can be found here. This version comes from Cappella Antiqva de Cantabria.

Finally, back to the old world with “A un Nino Llorando al Hielo,” from the Renaissance composer Francisco Guerrero—a stunning piece of choral interplay for five voices (lyrics here.) Guerrero was a master of this type of work. Here’s a version by Coro arteSonado of Madrid.

Categories: Music/Popular Culture

2 replies »