El Cant Dels Ocells

Christmas Music: El Cant Dels Ocells

Here at arslanlearning, we are getting into the spirit of Christmas earlier than usual, starting with some less well known Christmas Music: El Cant Dels Ocells. For this series, we will be looking at Christmas music from around the world. First up, we will listen to an amazing melody from Catalonia, the Song of the Birds. This song is of special interest to me for two reasons.

Firstly, I have a fascination with Catalonia, the north-eastern bit of the Iberian peninsula, home to the famous city of Barcelona. This area sits at the crossroads between various cultures because of its strategic position on the Mediterranean coast. Iberian, Celtic, Greek, Phoenician, Carthaginian and Arabic polities have all existed here at some point, often overlapping. There is a beautifully preserved Ancient Greek commercial town, as well as the legendary Sagrada Familia cathedral (the source of this article’s cover image and the images in the video below).

Catalan History

The Principality of Catalonia was historically in a dynastic union with the Crown of Aragon, which played a pivotal role in European history. One of my favourite books, Steven Runciman’s masterful treatment of the War of the Sicilian Vespers, captures the character of the Aragonese people. The tale is full of irony, world-historic events turning on conversations in darkened alleyways. The long and short of it is that these people helped the ailing Roman (Byzantine) Empire against the western aggression that would culminate in the eventual holocaust of Christians and Christianity in the East. I lack sufficient knowledge to comment on the contemporary Catalan Independence Movement. However, I see the role this region played in resistance to Angevin tyranny as one of the last beats of the authentic Roman heart in the west. I think that is reflected in the lyrics of the song we will be hearing shortly (more on that later).

The great cellist Pablo Casals made this song famous. After he left Franco’s Spain in protest, he would play the melody on his cello before each of his concerts. Here is one of his inimitable renditions, which he played at the White House in 1962 AD. It will come as no surprise to any of my readers that I take a rather dim view of this affair, but I can appreciate the music nonetheless:

The Viola

The second reason I have chosen to present this piece is that it’s perfect for the viola. I am currently teaching this piece to one of my best violin pupils, who is venturing into the world of the viola for the first time. We’ve discussed the qualities that make the viola so special before, but this piece really exemplifies them. The sonority of the viola is a natural fit for this somber, muscular melody. In the video, I’m playing on an instrument named for my sister, who has featured around here already. I spent an entire month’s salary on this viola as an infantryman in the National Guard, to celebrate one of my life’s greatest triumphs. My sister went on to glory the next day. The Lord gives, and He takes away, blessed be His name (Job 1:21).

The Text of the Song

The song itself is a traditional Christmas carol from the Catalan region. Because it is an artifact of tradition, we don’t know who wrote it, or if it was even an individual. We also don’t know exactly how old the song is. With my very limited Spanish I’ve been able to read some sources that claim a medieval origin. I find this plausible because of the melody itself. The song tells the story of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, from the point of view of an assortment of birds. There are fifteen short stanzas, each one with a different bird species as narrator.

The first bird to appear is an eagle, specifically the Imperial Eagle or Aquila, symbol of Rome both west and east. This Roman character is what I alluded to earlier. I find it interesting that this symbol appears in the folk music of a region whose kings showed such an affinity for the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) resistance.

This is speculative, but Roman nostalgia, which is nostalgia for antiquity, seems to have lasted longer in Iberia than in other parts of Western Europe. Nearby Aquitaine also appears to have held on to Roman institutions before its eclipse and absorption into the new Frankish power.

A Litany of Birds

The song is a kind of litany, with crucial Christian doctrines presented in little vignettes. Much like iconography serves as a visual catechism, music like this encapsulates the faith in an accessible and memorable way. The eagle, soaring above Bethlehem, tells us that Jesus has come to bring joy and liberation from sin. The finch comments on the beauty of the mother and child, while the thrush announces the conquest of death. A pheasant grapples with the fact that the splendor of the Creator is here, contained in a humble stable. This is the very same scandal of the particular with which every Christian grapples – the theanthropic principle whereby God enters time, space and flesh. The pheasant is giving voice to the awe – even horror, or scandal – with which man apprehends the almost unbelievable truth of the Gospel.

The partridge makes an appearance, which you’d expect, and uses his turn to focus on the trembling of the newborn baby. The hoopoe has the opportunity to sing to the Kingship of Jesus Christ. As an African I like this very much, because I have hoopoes outside my window almost every day. The owls close the song with awe, unable to gaze directly on the scene in front of them. This calls to mind Moses’ direct and yet mediated vision of God in Exodus, awaiting, prefiguring the Incarnation.

El Cant Dels Ocells: Lyrics

Al veure despuntar
el major lluminar
en la nit més ditxosa,
els ocellets cantant,
a festejar-lo van
amb sa veu melindrosa.

L’àguila imperial
se’n vola cel adalt,
cantant amb melodia,
dient: Jesús és nat,
per treure’ns de pecat
i dar-nos alegria.

Repon-li lo pardal:
Avui, nit de Nadal,
és nit de gran contento!
El verdum i el lluer
diuen cantant, també :
“Oh, quina alegria sento!

Cantava el passerell :
Oh, que hermós i que bell
és l’infant de Maria!
I li respon el tord :
Vençuda n’és la mort,
ja naix la vida mia !

Refila el rossinyol :
És més bonic que el sol
més brillant que una estrella!
La cotxa i el bitxac
festegen al manyac
i a sa Mare donzella.

Cantava el reietó
per glòria del Senyor,
inflant amb biçarria;
el canari segueix:
llur música pareix
del Cel gran melodia.

Ja n’entra el cotoliu
dient: Ocells veniu
a festejar l’aurora!
I lo merlot, xiulant,
anava festejant
a la més gran Senyora.

L’estiverola diu:
No és hivern ni estiu
sinó que és primavera;
puix que és nada una flor
que pertot dóna olor
I omple la terra entera.

Cantava el francolí:
Ocells qui vol venir
avui a trenc de dia
a veure el gran Senyor
amb sa gran resplendor
a dins d’una establia?

Ve cantant el puput:
Eixa nit ha vingut
el Rei de més grandesa!
La tórtora i el colom
admiren a tothom
cantant sense tristesa.

Picots i borroners
volen entre els fruiters
cantant llurs alegries;
la guatlla i el cucut
de molt lluny han vingut
per contemplar el Messies.

Cantava la perdiu
Me’n vaig a fer lo niu
dins d’aquella establia,
per a veure l’Infant
com està tremolant
en braços de Maria.

La garsa, griva o gaig
diuen: Ara ve el maig!
Respon la cadernera:
Tot arbre reverdeix,
tota branca floreix
com si fos primavera.

Xiuxiueja el pinsà:
Glòria avui i demà;
sento gran alegria
de veure el diamant
tan hermós i brillant
als braços de Maria.

El xot i el mussol
al veure eixir el sol
confosos se retiren.
El gamarús i el duc
diuen: Mirar no puc;
tals resplendors m’admiren!

In seeing emerge
The greatest light
During the most celebrated of nights,
The little birds sing.
They go to celebrate Him
With their delicate voices.

The imperial eagle
flies high in the sky,
singing melodically,
saying, “Jesus is born
To save us all from sin
And to give us joy.”

The sparrow responds,
Today, this Christmas Eve,
Is a night of good cheer!”
The greenfinch and the siskin
Say in singing, too,
“Oh, what joy I feel!”

The linnet sang,
“Oh, how lovely and beautiful
Is the child of Mary!”
The thrush answers:
“Death is conquered,
My life now begins!”

The nightingale twitters,
“He is more beautiful than the sun,
More brilliant than a star!”
The redstart and the stonechat
Celebrate the infant
And his virgin Mother.

The wren sang
For the glory of the Lord,
Inflating with fantasy;
The canary follows:
Its music sounds like
A great song from Heaven.

Now comes the woodlark
Saying, “Come birds
To celebrate the dawn!”
And the big blackbird, whistling,
Went celebrating
The greatest Lady.

The tit says,
“It is neither winter nor summer
But rather springtime;
A flower is born
That gives a sweet smell all around
And fills the whole world.”

The francolin sang,
“Birds, who wants to come
Today at daybreak
To see the good Lord
With all of his splendor
Within a stable?”

The hoopoe goes singing,
“This night has come
the greatest of Kings!”
The turtle dove and rock dove
Admire, and to all
Sing without sadness.

Woodpeckers and bullfinches
Fly between fruit trees
Singing their joys.
The quail and the cuckoo
From afar have come
To see the Messiah.

The partridge sang,
“I am going to make my nest
Inside of that stable,
To look upon the Infant;
How he trembles
In the arms of Mary.”

The magpie, mistle thrush, and jay
Say, “May is coming!”
The goldfinch responds,
“All the trees become green again,
All the branches flower
As if it were the spring.”

The chaffinch whispers,
“Glory today and tomorrow;
I feel great joy
To see the diamond
So handsome and brilliant
In the arms of Mary.”

The scops owl and little owl
Seeing the sunrise
Leave confused.
The tawny owl and eagle-owl
Say, “I cannot look;
Such splendors are in front of me!”

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