Voices from the 17th Century: A Colombian Christmas Play

8

June
2010

The 17th-century villancico* often depicts various kinds of scenes from everyday life—painting musical portraits of celebration—like singing, dancing, and all manner of social interaction. It offers historical accounts of recurring literary and musical themes found in Spain and the New World.

The villancico Vengan, vengan, que lo plegona la negla, conserved in the archives of Bogotá Cathedral (pictured), reveals a wonderful and humorous setting of a Christmas play. Written in an afro-hispanic dialect, the piece describes events before the play begins as well as the performance. It includes an unusual amount of detail regarding the actors, costumes, and props used on stage.

Neither the author of the text nor the composer are known.

Come, come, come, come,
The black woman is announcing
With a voice like a shawn
And see a new comedy
In which she is going to act
About a new-born Child
And his beautiful mother.

It’s going to start now
Silence, silence,
They are about to enter and sing.

Canario bona
De rufa y fa
That the newly-born God
Brings me life.

So Francisca can begin,
I’ll sing do re mi fa sol
Miguel brought a music stand
And a three-voice motet.

Antonia came proudly
To sing the first copla
Dressed in a tunic
With a pipe and tabor, and a guitar.

With a rebec, a metal mortar,
And to the accompaniment of a hurdy-gurdy,
And with a tenor shawm.
To do what? Just to help!

The book of Alonso de Mudarra
Stuck in his pocket
Spurs and leather shoes
And a nightgown.

Canario bona…

Little Francisca, on tip-toes,
Plays the male lead
Dressed in finery with stockings
And a Magistrate’s ruff.

He carries a yellow cap
With Garzota and Martinete plumes,
And a machete from Biscay
To clear the way.

The comedy and the plot
Were both very beautiful
About a virgin who became a mother
In the city of Bethlehem.

The mule acted her part
Without asking for anything
The ox spoke and said ‘mu’
And could say no more.

Canario bona…

(Translation: Egberto Bermudez and Bernard Gordillo)

Listen to a performance of Vengan, vengan, que lo plegona la negla with Ensemble L’AURA:

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*The villancico was to Spain and Portugal what the chanson was to France and the madrigal to Italy—musical and poetic forms in the vernacular that were reflections of their cultures.

In the 17th Century, it was  almost exclusively composed for church use, yet still set in Spanish (as opposed to liturgical music which was set in Latin). Villancicos were written for many a church celebration, like Christmas or Easter, and were very popular. Hundreds upon hundreds survive in archives and collections throughout Spain and Latin America.

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