Sunday, December 20, 2009

Corners of the World: Christmas in Many Languages

Corners of the World is a feature here that many of you may have never seen. It is my occasional series on world music. This time, I would like to wish you all a joyous holiday season in multiple languages.

Gaudete: Steeleye Span


Let’s begin with Latin. Gaudete is a song that I first learned as a performer. I was once in an amateur chamber choir. Our conductor held us to a high standard, and presented us with a wonderfully varied repertoire. Gaudete, then, was a song we learned for one of our holiday concerts.

The song was written for church services, and the earliest known publication was in a collection of Finnish and Swedish carols from 1582. The song is most likely quite a bit older than that. The lyrics are a joyous announcement of the birth of Christ.

Bruce Cockburn: Riu Riu Chiu


I learned Riu Riu Chiu for that same chamber choir, in a set with two other old Spanish carols. Bruce Cockburn says this about the song:

"This is a Spanish composition of the type known as a 'villancico', dating from the sixteenth century. The language is archaic, some words being unfamiliar to my Hispanic friends and not found in at least the basic dictionaries...”

I was able to find a translation. The words Riu Riu Chiu do not mean anything, but are meant to mimic the sound of a nightingale’s call. The lyrics alternate between various birds proclaiming the birth of Christ, and God’s promise to protect his Son.

The Chieftains with Kate and Anna McGarrigle: Il Est Ne/ Ca Berger


The Irish Chieftains invited the bilingual Canadian McGarrigle sisters to perform these two French carols with them. This is not as strange as it may sound. There are still remnants of Celtic culture to be found in France, especially in Brittany. Il Est Ne and Ca Berger fit together beautifully. Both songs concern the shepherds and others who gathered at the stable to witness the birth of Christ.

Mary McLaughlin: Seacht Suilce na Maighdine Muire (The Seven Joys of Mary)


Speaking of Celtic culture, here is a Christmas song in Gaelic. The lyrics devote one line to each of the joys of Mary, and in this way, manage to tell the story of the life of Christ. This narrative device is often found in the pre-Christian bardic poems of Ireland and Scotland.

Kopela Brodow: Zdrowaś Maryja, Bogarodzico


In Poland, religious songs had to go underground during the communist era. Much traditional culture was also lost. Kopela Brodow is a group that is trying to revive the folk music of Poland. They have recorded an entire album of kodely, or traditional Polish carols. This selection is not from that album, because the songs on that album were performed in English. Zdrowas Maryja Bogurodzico comes from an album of praise songs to the Virgin Mary. Kodely are also found in some of the countries which border on Poland. Remember that this is a part of the world where national boundaries have been redrawn a number of times in modern times.


Anonymous said...

greetings from corner of the world;)

I mean Poland.

"religious songs had to go underground during the communist era"
Well, in 50ties - yes, in 60ties not quite, in 70ties commies tried to compromise with working class (after killing protesting...), in 80ties commies lost. Hooray. However I can recall from my childhood in aerly 70ties kolędy beautifully sung by Irena Santor, from legally issued LP.


Curt Shannon said...

Great stuff - such a welcome change from the normal crap Christmas music that bombards you during the season!