El Cant dels Ocells: Not Just an Earworm Anymore

Arguably the single piece of Catalan music that is most recognizable to classical music fans around the world is the Catalan Christmas carol, “El Cant dels Ocells”, i.e. “The Song of the Birds”. The earliest known musical transcription of the carol dates from about 1600. While I am no musicologist, I would not be surprised if the original tune is of a somewhat earlier date than the lyrics, and may in fact be of Catalan Sephardic origin.

The Catalan cities of Barcelona and Girona in particular had significant Jewish populations up until the time of the Expulsion in 1492, and Catalonia was never dominated by the Moors as was much of the rest of the Iberian peninsula. Barcelona’s “Call” or Jewish Ghetto, lies in the most ancient part of the city, and the music seems well-suited to the incredibly narrow streets. In some places one can actually reach out with outstretched arms and touch the buildings on either side of the street at the same time.

An English translation – of sorts – appears below:

The Song of the Birds

1. Upon this holy night,
When God’s great star appears,
And floods the earth with brightness
Birds’ voices rise in song
And warbling all night long
Express their glad heart’s lightness
Birds’ voices rise in song
And warbling all night long
Express their glad heart’s lightness

2. The Nightingale is first
To bring his song of cheer,
And tell us of His gladness:
Jesus, our Lord, is born
To free us from all sin
And banish ev’ry sadness!
Jesus, our Lord is born
To free us from all sin
And banish ev’ry sadness!

3. The answ’ring Sparrow cries:
“God comes to earth this day
Amid the angels flying.”
Trilling in sweetest tones,
The Finch his Lord now owns:
“To Him be all thanksgiving.”
Trilling in sweetest tones,
The Finch his Lord now owns:
“To Him be all thanksgiving.”

4. The Partridge adds his note:
“To Bethlehem I’ll fly,
Where in the stall He’s lying.
There, near the manger blest,
I’ll build myself a nest,
And sing my love undying.
There, near the manger blest,
I’ll build myself a nest,
And sing my love undying.

Once you get this tune into your head, it is very, very difficult to get out, making it one of the strongest earworms I know. Therefore, be forewarned before clicking on the following music video clips. The first is the tune itself, played by early music specialist Jordi Savall, whose work in early music (particularly with the violoncello CORRECTION viola da gamba) was highlighted by his recorded performances used in the 1991 Gérard Depardieu film “Touts les matins du monde”:

The choral version of “El Cant dels Ocells”, as performed by the Escolania or Boys Choir of the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat, appears below:

Internationally, “El Cant dels Ocells” achieved wider recognition largely through the efforts of legendary cellist Pau Casals, who went into self-imposed exile after the Spanish Civil War and used to close his concert appearances with this piece. The mournful tone of the music was something which Casals used effectively to express his longing for his native Catalonia, a place which he felt he could not return to under the Franco regime. Over time the piece became as associated with Casals himself as J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” are with Glenn Gould: one names the piece and immediately thinks of the artist.

In America, one can almost mark the year in which the tune started to achieve a wider dissemination into Christmas concerts, hymnbooks and choral repertoires. This watershed was 1961, when Jackie Kennedy invited Casals to give a concert in the East Room of the White House, and set the tone for a more elegant standard of entertaining at the mansion (admittedly raising the bar was not difficult, since for most of its history taste and style have been unknown commodities at the President’s House), as reported by Time Magazine at the time. The album released subsequently, with its famous cover photograph of Casals bowing and JFK, Jackie, and the assembled bon vivants beaming in appreciation, captures vividly the myth that was the Kennedy Camelot:


The title of this most famous of Catalan Christmas carols is now also the title of a 2008 film by up-and-coming Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra, which is finally starting to make the rounds on this side of the Pond. The rather unfortunate translation of the title for English-speaking audiences as “Birdsong”, rather than “The Song of the Birds”, makes me think of The Supremes. The film follows the Magi on their trek across barren landscapes to reach the Christ Child, a subject which has been addressed many times in film with various levels of success.

In this particular film, Serra used an interesting conceit of shooting the entire thing on colour film, that was then desaturated to black-and-white. He shot exclusively on location, using only whatever natural light was available. The visual impact is astounding, reminding me of the small tableaux one often sees in Burgundian and Flemish altarpieces, with swirling landscapes and tiny figures appearing behind the main action, as can be seen in this clip of the Three Kings crossing a mountain range:

From film stills and short clips like these, the most obvious cinematic point of reference for Serra, and an inevitable comparison given his meditative treatment of a Biblical subject in a stripped-down, black-and-white format, is clearly Pier Pasolini. However, from reviews I have read thus far there is a Catholic mystic tone to the film, lightened with bursts of humor. This is a VERY Catalan thing to do, and typical of Catalan spirituality. After all, since at least the 17th century Catalans have placed the figurine of a defecating peasant known as a “caganer” hidden somewhere in their nativity scenes. (More on our pooping friend as we enter Advent.)

I intend to keep my eyes peeled, and fingers crossed, for the film appearing hereabouts at E Street Cinema.

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4 thoughts on “El Cant dels Ocells: Not Just an Earworm Anymore

  1. >You have an award to collect here.This award is given in recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing.I hope that you will accept it.In Domino,Phil Andrews

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  2. >Just so you know, the instrument that Jordi Savall plays in this clip — and on which he is probably the world’s greatest virtuoso at present — is the viola da gamba, not the ‘cello. If you watch the closeups, you can see the seven strings (six is more usual), the frets, the way he holds the bow, and how the instrument is gripped between his legs (the source of the name) instead of standing on a tall peg as you can see in the picture of Casals. All of these things, as well as the resulting sound, of course, distinguish the members of the viola da gamba family from the members of the violin family, to which the violoncello belongs. Savall is a proud Catalan himself and founded a choir called La Capella Reial de Catalunya.

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  3. >Ponte Sisto, thank you so much that was very gracious.And thank you also nbm – that was a slip on my part, I’ve made the correction. I have several recordings of him with the C.R. and Montserrat Figueras and love the early Catalan stuff.Thanks to both of you for your visit!

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