The Kingfisher’s Carol


The Common Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis

When it comes to Christmas, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. My traditions may be idiosyncratic, but it just isn’t Christmas without pickled herring, a string of cranberries on the tree, bayberry candles, and Medieval carols. Pink and lavender trees, Mannheim Steamroller, and Elves on the Shelves will come and go, but I’m satisfied with my old ways, and probably always will be.

Still, there are times when something new emerges from the clutter and cacaphony of the season and attracts my attention. Last year, it was a snippet of song that stopped me in the yogurt aisle of a local grocery.  Light and rhythmic, it lilted through the store: a memorable melody with words sung in a language I couldn’t decipher.

With the advent of this new holiday season, the song came again to mind. A little searching revealed that, despite my fondness for ancient Christmas music, I’d missed knowing a song with an extraordinary history.

“Riu, Riu Chiu” is a part of the Cancionero de Upsala, also known as the Cancionero del Duque de Calabria or the Cancionero de Venecia, a volume of mostly anonymous Spanish music printed in Venice in 1556.

The only known original, held at the library of Uppsala University in Sweden. either was “highlighted by Rafael Mitjana y Gordon in 1904″ or “edited in 1909 by Rafael Mitjana,” depending on which source you prefer. Despite uncertainties about the date, Mitjana’s spelling of Upsala is correct, since the name of the town wasn’t changed to “Uppsala” until the major Swedish spelling reform of 1906.

That a collection of Spanish songs, printed in Italy, should end up at a Swedish university appears to be one of those delightful accidents of history. The volume may have been acquired as war booty when the Swedish army plundered Prague in 1631, or 1648, though how the manuscript traveled to Prague, I haven’t a clue.

In any event, “Riu, Riu Chiu” is part of a collection titled:

Villancicos de diuersos Autores, a dos, y a tres, y a qvatro, y a cinco bozes, agora nvevamente corregidos. Ay mas ocho tonos de Canto llano, y ocho tonos de Canto de Organo para que puedam aprouechar los que, A cantar començaren. Venetiis, Apud Hieronymum Scotum, MDLVI. 

My very slight knowledge of Spanish seems to confirm this translation:

Villancicos from divers authors, for two, and for three, and for four, and for five voices, now newly corrected. There are also eight tones of plainchant, and eight tones of organum for the benefit of those that are still learning to sing. Venice, by Hieronymus (Girolamo) Scotto, 1556.

Two other songbooks, the Cancionero Musical del Palacio and the Cancionero de Medinaceli,  contain all the richness and variety of the Spanish Renaissance in their collections of compositions for instrument and voice. On the other hand, the Upsala collection has preserved fifty-four villancicos.

Over time, villancico has come to refer primarily to Christmas carols, but the songs, rooted in village life, were much like our folksongs. Sung in Castilian Spanish, Catalan,  and Galician-Portuguese, most of the villancicos were secular, but twelve in the Cancionero de Upsala were meant for Christmas, including “Riu, Riu Chiu,” attributed to Mateo Flecha the Elder.

Just as Swedish spelling reforms cause occasional difficulty for people dealing with early documents, changes in the Spanish language have left room for interpretation when it comes to the lyrics of “Riu, Riu Chiu.”

Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, authors of The New Oxford Book of Carols, tell us that:

“Riu, riu chiu” was a traditional call of Spanish shepherds when guarding their flocks in a riverside fold. Elsewhere , the catchy tune is found in a variant form with a secular shepherd-song, and it may derive from a genuine example.

Jula Karolaro, on his Yuletide Carols site reports that “Riu, riu chiu” is the call of a nightingale, or the call of a shepherd to his sheep. As he puts it:

The first line in Spanish is ambiguous, as to whether the riverbank is protecting a nightingale, or a shepherd is protecting his  flock at a riverbank. So in both translations, I equivocated a bit in that first line by vaguely referring to a “riverside guardian”.

Lisa Theriot, in notes accompanying her own translation, says:

“Riu, riu, chiu” is meant to be onomatopoeia for birdsong, though the type of bird is still under debate. Leading candidates are the nightingale, for the beauty of his song, and the kingfisher, because of the concept of guarding the riverbank.

After listening to recordings of the kingfisher, Lisa found herself favoring its role as the anonymous bird. Given not only the kingfisher’s call, but also its willingness to aggressively defend its territory, I’m willing myself to consider “Riu, Riu Chiu” the “Kingfisher’s carol.”

Whatever questions remain about the villancico, we can be grateful for the graceful translation of the lyrics provided by the San Francisco Bach Choir, and the happy transmission of the melody through the centuries.

Versions of the carol abound today. Everyone from Chanticleer to the Monkees have given it a whirl. But in this age of the over-produced, the simplicity of four voices and a timeless song is thrilling. It makes the season shine.

 Cancionero de Upsala/Cancionero del Duque de Calabria ~ Atríbuido a Mateo Flecha el Viejo

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For Cats Who Love Christmas

Laugh at the antlers if you must, but laugh at your peril. That business-like look in the eyes of my beautiful calico is very real. Dixie Rose (short for Dixie-Rose-Center-of-the-Universe-and-Queen-of-all-She-Surveys) loves Christmas, and she intends to be ready when it arrives. I don’t advise standing in her way.

Dixie arrived on my doorstep fourteen years ago: an unloved, four-month-old stray who became my first pet. I did receive a small, painted turtle as a child, but it met an unfortunate end. A well-meant birthday puppy lasted only a few hours.  Tiny but exceedingly enthusiastic, the black Cocker Spaniel terrified me, and soon was sent packing by disconsolate adults.

Later, I raised a fox squirrel, and laughed my way through four years with a prairie dog, but my relationship to Dixie Rose is of a different order entirely. I believe her to be the most beautiful creature on four paws. Whether she’s the most spoiled remains up for debate, but she’s working at it — diligently. (more…)

Published in: on December 13, 2014 at 9:09 pm  Comments (93)  
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How the Grinch Stole Graphics

Most people in Blogville liked graphics a lot.
But the Grinch, south of Blogville,
would give them no thought.
The Grinch hated graphics! For every danged season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knew the reason.
It could be her head wasn’t screwed on quite right.
It could be, perhaps, that her shoes were too tight.
(I think that the reason most likely of all
may have been that her heart was two sizes too small.)
But whatever the reason, her heart or her shoes,
she stood there all Advent, still puzzled, confused.
She stared from her cave with a sour, Grinchy frown
at the warm, lighted windows below in their town.
She knew every blogger in Blogville beneath
was busily hanging a MySpace-type wreath. (more…)

Angels Passing

Arrayed across the page, the words evoke memories, pluck at threads of emotion as though determined to unravel their mystery.

If you do not believe in the ginn, you have only to look at the heavens for proof. That “shooting star”, as you call it, what is it but the stone thrown by one of the angels in heaven when an evil ginn approaches too near in order to try to overhear the conversation of Paradise and thus learn the secrets of the future?
Another custom is the way they mark one of those pauses in conversation which in England is sometimes denoted by the declaration that “an angel is passing”. After a moment of dead silence, one of the company will say, “Wahed dhu!” (“God is One”), and the whole company in a low murmur will repeat, “La ilah ilia Allah!” (“There is no God but one God”), and conversation will be resumed.
I made a note of all the proverbs I heard in these talks, for all conversation in the East is enriched with unending proverbs, as with a wonderful power of expression in poetic form and idiom.

Reading on in S.H. Leeder’s Veiled Mysteries of Egypt and the Religion of Islam, I realize I’ve encountered source material for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The diplomat Mountolive, whose name provides the title for the third volume of Durrell’s series, reflects on the customs of Egypt using remarkably similar language. (more…)

Hallelujah

Now that we have baked our cookies and trimmed our trees,
now that we have wrapped our gifts and planned our dinners,
now that we have hung stockings, sent greetings and set tables,
assembled toys, trimmed wicks, written Santa and hung wreaths,
the time has come to abandon it all,
if only for a moment.
Even as we anticipate our day of celebration,
Wisdom turns to extinguish the colorful strings of lights and dim the gleaming star.
Pinching out her candles
Wisdom sighs the music away, then brushes laughter off to rest in deepening drifts of silence.
Standing in stillness before her window,
Wisdom gazes toward the mystery of Christmas
And smiles at this truth – Christmas needs us not at all. (more…)
Published in: on December 23, 2012 at 1:12 pm  Comments (79)  
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