Wednesday, December 3, 2014

CAROL : riu riu chiu

To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, 
that I should bear witness unto the truth. 

I cannot get this carol out of my head.  

I've loved it for so many years without knowing what the words mean, buying CDs just because they had this carol included.  I heard it first on my public radio station and only caught the repeated refrain of the title, so for years I've sung along in a kind of riu-riu-chiu nah nah nah nah-nah, dutta dutta duh-duh duddadudda duh duh RIU-RIU-CHIU!
Riu-riu-chiu the riverbank keeps,
as God from the wolf keeps our lamb.

The rabid wolf wants to bite her
But Almighty God knows to defend her
He made her impervious to sin
Even original sin this Virgin did not have.

He comes to give to the dead life
and comes to repair the fall of all.
The light of day is this Child.
He is the Lamb of whom St. John spoke.

This One who is born is the Grand Monarch,
Christ, the Patriarch, clothed in flesh.
We have redemption from Him making Himself small.
Himself limitless, limited He made Himself.

Usually this shepherd's song is performed with a main voice singing clear and brave, unaccompanied until a catchy medieval drumbeat leads forth a glorious splashing froth of several other voices foaming up around the solo voice at the refrain.

Even without knowing the words, the close rhymes have always enchanted my ear.  Every version I've heard I've loved, but I have to say hearing the lines pronounced by someone who can sing Spanish and give each word the richness of the world's most beautiful language -- and do it so earnestly and richly as this young man -- increases the beauty of these lines ten-fold.  Listening I think I can catch an echo of a young Catalan shepherd singing above the roaring of the river, beneath the twittering call of the kingfisher.

Because riu-riu-chiu is a bird's call (some say the nightingale -- because, I suspect, when in doubt, assume the nightingale).  Some also say it's the call of the shepherds, clucking at their flocks, steering them from danger.  But I'm going with the evidence (including the kingfisher call in link above) (and including the kingfishers' habit of standing sentinel high above riverbank before flashing forth and down to catch a fishy dinner) that argues the bird in question is the kingfisher.

And isn't it delightfully apt that just as in Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem, "As Kingfishers Catch Fire," where
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
. . .  myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

so too in this sixteenth century villancico, probably written by the Catalan poet Mateu Fletxa el Vell (aka Mateo Flecha el Viejo, or Matthew Feathered-Arrow the Elder), the call of the bird is its name -- as if we were to say Cock-a-doodle wakes the farm at dawn and Hiss-hiss slips secretly through the grass and Baa-baa feeds in green pastures, so Riu-riu-chiu guards the riverbank.

It only adds to the delightful aptness of it all that this bird's self-naming call means exactly what it is.  Riu  (like its Spanish cognate rio) is Catalan for river.  I can't discover what chiu means in Catalan, but in closely related Portugese, chiou means "hissed" and chio means "squeak" which suggests a short, high-pitched cry (take your pick: peep, cheep, squeal, tweet).  So the riverside sentinel is also the river itself, the River Chirrup, guarding its own bank with a sharp high cry, incarnated in the bright-winged bird in heaven's blue.  

I suspect this doubling may have been the very symbolism Old Mateo was after to describe his understanding of the unified tri-part Godhead and the wonder of the Great Creator descending into His own creation which the carol makes explicit in a later verse:

El quera su padre hoy della nascio
Y el que la crio su hijo se dixera.

He that is her Father is today of her born
And He of whom she is the child is called her Son.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the kingfisher is the ordinary bird is also the river is also a picture of Christ's incarnation.  Or as Gerard Manly Hopkins already wanted to tell us:
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
But, wait . . who is influencing whom here?  Is Old Mateo fletching his song's arrow with shimmers of light he heard Hopkins sing? or is it the other way around? or have we entered one of those folds in the fabric of space that the powerful black holes of symbolism allow us to enter? as T.S. Eliot describes:
After the kingfisher's wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness
And I am only on the first line of this carol.

Maybe a whole day I could spend, unpacking the interwoven lines and images.

Tracing the interlinking rhyming pattern that picks up half-line rhymes like some kind of musical interlace decorating a page of the Book of Kells   . . .  which, I hadn't realized until just this very minute searching for an example to show you, has as its most famous page the illuminated letters Chi-Rho:


which coincidentally (or not) sound not unlike Riu-chiu (though the ch is harder here, more solid and real) and which coincidentally (or not) are the first two letters of Christ's name and the opening words of "The Word Made Flesh", or as described in today's Independent:
One of [the Book of Kell's] finest pages illuminates the Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapter 1, verse 18. The Latin verse begins "Christi autem generatio sic erat" – "this is how Christ came to be born". The page dwells almost entirely on the name of Christ, or rather on its traditional abbreviation into the "Chi-Rho" symbol (say it kai-roe).  Chi and Rho are two letters of the Greek alphabet, the first two letters of "Christ".  . . .
In this illumination the Chi is the dominant form, an X with uneven arms, somewhat resembling a pair of curvaceous pliers. The Rho stands in its shelter, with its loop turned into a spiral. There is also an Iota, an I, the third letter, passing up through this spiral. All three letters are abundantly decorated, their curves drawn out into flourishes, embellished with discs and spirals, filled with dense tracery and punctuated with occasional animals and angels.
But put like that, it sounds as if the letters came first and the decoration after. The three letters, though visually distinct, are nowhere just letters. They have been shaped with a view to the patterns they will be part of, and they are themselves filled and formed by ornamental elements . . .

I begin to suspect that in a hundred days I would not exhaust this carol and its interwoven currents of meaning.

Better to enter the carol whole -- that place of miracle where

Yo vi mil Garzones que andavan cantando
Por aqui volando haciendo mil sones
Diciendo a gascones Gloria sea en el Cielo
Y paz en el suelo pues Jesus nasciera

I saw thousands of Boys/ Herons that were singing
Flying around, making much music
Telling the shepherds, "Glory in the Heavens
And Peace on earth for Jesus is born. 

Where it doesn't really matter if the Boys are Herons or the Angels of the various translations (garzones is modern Catalan for "waiter," garsa is "heron").  Or maybe they are all the same: flying boys, servants of God bringing the gospel feast to the table, familiar riverside birds, all part of a miraculous creation, centered on, radiating out from the miraculous Creator of miracles, our Savior Jesus Christ:

Todos juntos vamos presentes llevemos
Todos le daremos nuestra voluntad
Pues a se igualar con nosotros viniera

Let us all go together to present Him gifts
Let us all give our wills to Him
Because He made Himself equal to us.

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