A Light in the Darkness: Villancicos for Christmas

Posted on Updated on

by Colleen Baade

“De la virgen,” Luis Venegas de Henestrosa, Libro de cifra nueva (Alcalá de Henares, 1557)

Around this time of year, a short video clip from the 1967 Christmas episode of The Monkees TV show circulates on social media. If you’ve never heard The Monkees sing “Ríu Ríu Chíu,” I encourage you to watch it. I, along with majority of people who’ve posted comments to the video on YouTube, find their performance of the centuries-old Spanish Christmas carol charming.

“Ríu Ríu Chíu” was published in Venice in 1556 in a small book of songs titled Villancicos de diversos autores, also known to music scholars as the Cancionero de Upsala (Uppsala Songbook) for the university library in Sweden that holds the single surviving copy. At the time of its publication, “Ríu Ríu Chíu” and other villancicos like it were fast becoming what could rightly be considered the most important (and certainly the most popular) musical genre in the Iberian Peninsula and its New World colonies for several centuries. Villancicos — religious songs characterized by dance rhythms and words in the vernacular instead of Latin — were heard in churches all over the Iberian world at all sorts of occasions from saints’ days to nuns’ professions. Early in the 17th century, music theorist Pietro Cerone chided impious churchgoers, normally too lazy to get out of bed, who “when they know there will be villancicos, there is no one anywhere more devout or more vigilant than they are… nor does it bother them to get up at midnight, regardless how cold it may be.”

Some 400 years later, Dulces Voces delights in singing these lively and theologically profound sacred songs from Iberia, two of which are featured on this years’ Christmas program. The anonymous “De la virgen” (“Of the Virgin”) comes from a collection of keyboard music published in Alcalá de Henares just one year after the Uppsala Songbook (and ten years after Miguel de Cervantes was born in that same city). “De la virgen” poses the question “¿De quién?,“ that is, “Of whom [is the Virgin worthy to be mother]?” The answer affirms the Divine Motherhood of Mary, who bore “the eternal God, equal to the Father.” Pedro de Cristo’s “Es nascido” (“He is born”) was likely composed around the same time Pedro Cerone was scolding villancico fans. Its author was a Portuguese monk who served as chapel master at Augustinian monasteries in Coimbra and Lisbon. Like the earlier “De la virgin,” “Es nascido” tells the Christmas story in dialogue form to people who demand to know—“Dinos quien” (“Tell us who”) — just who has been born. The reply explains that the one who is born is the same one whose birth was foretold by the Zechariah, “whose signs are the manger and the stable,” and who is “born into our poverty, so as to give us His riches.”

“De la virgen” and “Es nascido” are featured in A Light in the Darkness, Saturday, December 8, 2018, 7:30pm