Suggested Listening: “Las estrellas se ríen” by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla

Merry Christmas!  SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC is back in action.  Check out Las estrellas se ríen, composed by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, performed below by Ars Longa de la Habana (CU).

About the Composer:

When we think of the Baroque era, we think of Italy and France and Germany — the European powerhouses, chock full of ornate cathedrals and stunning artistic artifacts, the lands that produced guys like Vivaldi and Couperin and, of course, J. S. Bach.  When we think of the Baroque era, we think of the Old World — which is why the music of the Mexican Baroque so often goes under the radar.

Meet Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (1590-1664).  Born in Spain on the precipice of the 17th century, and trained in music at the Málaga Cathedral, de Padilla held the post of of maestro di capilla (the Spanish version of Kapellmeister or choirmaster, an illustrious church appointment that often brought fame to the musician in question) at a number of Spanish cathedrals for about a decade beginning in 1612.  At some point during this period, he was ordained as a priest, while continuing to administrate musical goings-on at his places of employment.  Then, in 1622, de Padilla set out for the New World to fulfill an appointment as cantor at the Puebla Cathedral, which was one of the most active colonial musical and artistic centers in the Americas at the time.

Mexico as we know it was then a part of New Spain, a viceroyalty that included segments of the Americas such as Guatemala as well as several Caribbean islands and even the far-off Philippines.  Spanish colonialism in the Americas was a violent, greed-driven system that resulted in the genocide and cultural erasure of millions of Indigenous people. The  colonial import of Catholicism to Mexico, and its missionary-driven spread to the Indigenous and enslaved people of the region, brought with it all the European art and music associated with church culture.  De Padilla would eventually rise to be maestro di capella at Puebla, and his enormous output of compositions for services at the Puebla Cathedral would be preserved for centuries to come — as would the traumatic legacy of the colonial system which he served.

About the Piece:

Las estrellas se ríen (“The stars are laughing”) is, essentially, a Christmas carol.  To be more technical, it’s a villancicoa type of poem-set-to-music that was hugely popular among Iberian composers in the 16th through 18th centuries — especially among church composers working in New Spain.  Today, if you type “villancico” into Google Translate, it spits out “carol” or “Christmas carol” — but a couple centuries ago, these songs were sung not just for Christmas, but for all holy days and feast days, as well on a daily basis at the service of matins.  Matins is the nighttime service observed by Catholic monks, ending just before dawn.  The service is divided into three segments called nocturns, and each nocturn includes three readings and songs; thus, every matins service provided nine potential slots for the singing of villancicos.  For this reason, de Padilla and other Spanish and Portuguese church composers were required to produce a constant outpouring of new villancicos to fulfill demand.  The villancico originated as a secular song style based on medieval dances.  However, this form was adopted by the Catholic church sometime in the 1500’s, because the accessible melodies and rustic, didactic texts were used to appeal to potential New World converts. 

The basic poetic form of a Spanish villancico (a Portuguese vilancete is slightly different) is an optional introduction followed by an estribillo (refrain) and coplas (verses) occurring in alternation.  The estribillo and coplas may be iterated in any order, any number of times, though usually outlining a rough ABA structure.  Check out the text below and notice how the different stanzas are organized.  Also notice that, though the text in part describes Christmas goings-on in Bethlehem, the overall tone of the poem is not religious, but rather generically festive — it’s like the 16th-century equivalent of Joy to the World, sacred in origin but often sung for purposes of cheer rather than worship.  The music itself reflects the text’s sacred and celebratory qualities, with alternating reverent and buoyant moods aided by musical contrasts: minor (“sad”) versus major (“happy”) keys; slow, chorale-like versus upbeat, percussive rhythms; bare-bones strings versus fanfare-ish percussion accompaniment.

According to the article “Latin American Baroque: performance as a post-colonial act?” by Geoff Baker (Early Music, 2008), the “prominent use of percussion and strummed guitars” in this and other recordings of New World Baroque music propagates the false notion of an innocuous confluence of European and New World cultures.  Baker reminds us that this music is the product of a dark colonial history, the repercussions of which still resonate in today’s systems of post-colonial oppression.  Regarding historically-informed performance practice of New World Baroque works, Baker writes:

It falls to performers to “historically inform” their audiences and dream up new possibilities for the realization of these works.  The challenge is to turn Latin American Baroque into more than just exoticized early music or early “world music”, more than just a search for novelty, a dash of rhythm, and a sprinkling of erotic charge.  It is to find a way of performing this music without abdicating ethical responsibility and turning a blind eye to its less palatable aspects.  It is to be up front about the history of this music and how this history may be challenged today.

Spanish Text

(courtesy of Belarmo via YouTube)

English Translation

(courtesy of Mauricio García Vergara)


Las estrellas se ríen,
los luceros se alegran,
la luna más hermosa
su resplandor ostenta.
Los racimos florecen
los prados y las selvas,
los corderillos saltan,
los pájaros gorjean.
Sobre Belén se escuchan
dulcísimas cadencias,
de voces que sonoras,
dicen de esta manera:


¡Afuera, afuera, afuera!,
que vienen caballeros
a celebrar la fiesta.
¡Aparta, aparta, aparta!,
que el cielo se ha venido
al aire a jugar cañas.


Al mejor mayorazgo
del cielo y de la tierra,
en su primera cuna
adoran y festejan,
al Príncipe nacido
y su madre la Reina,
les dan preciosas joyas
de aljófares y perlas,
los de Belén los miran
y con alegres señas,
airosos les aplauden,
bizarros los celebran.

Qué galas tan lucidas,
qué vistosas libreas,
qué plumas tan volantes,
qué garzotas tan bellas.
Qué graves se aperciben,
qué atentos se carean,
qué diestros se provocan,
qué corteses se encuentran.
Qué bien se alargan,
qué bien las cañas vuelan,
qué bien en fin se juntan,
qué bien corren parejas.


Qué bien se juegan,
qué bien se tiran,
qué bien se emplean,
vivas exhalaciones,
aladas primaveras,
ésta si que es
en todo la Nochebuena.


The stars are laughing,
the bright stars are happy,
the moon is so beautiful,
showing off its splendor.
The flower clusters bloom
the meadows and forests,
the little lambs jump,
the birds warble.
You can hear over Bethlehem
the sweetest cadences,
of sonorous voices,
that speak in this manner:


Go out, go out, go out!
The noblemen are coming
to celebrate the festival.
Make way, make way, make way!
The heavens have come
outside to play the game of cañas.*


To the best first-born son
of the heavens and of the earth,
in his cradle
they worship and celebrate,
to the born Prince
and his mother the Queen,
they give precious jewels
beads and pearls,
the people of Bethlehem look at them
and with signs of happiness,
very proudly they applaud them,
splendidly they celebrate.

What splendid robes,
what showy liveries,
what curly feathers,
what beautiful plumes.
How seriously they prepare themselves,
how attentively they look at themselves,
how skillfully they goad,
they meet in such a courtly manner.
How well they reach out,
how well the reeds sound,
how well they team up,
how well they run together.*


How well they play,
how well they throw to each other,
how well they use their abilities,
strong exhalations,
wingèd springtimes:
Such is the celebration,
throughout Christmas Eve.

*referring to El Juego de cañas, a game of Arab origin, popular in Spain from the 16th-18th centuries and consisting of a simulation of combat using canes as swords or arrows.

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