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