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 greatest colonial musical and artistic centers in the Americas at the time.  Back then, Mexico as we know it was in fact 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 resulted in the import of Catholicism and its missionary-driven spread to the indigenous people of the region — and with Catholicism came all the 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.

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 was (and is) the nighttime service observed by Catholic monks, ending just before dawn.  The service was divided into three segments called nocturns, and each nocturn included 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 — basically, a pop song, dance party music of the 1400’s.  However, this form was adopted by the Catholic church sometime in the 1500’s, largely because the accessible melodies and rustic, didactic texts appealed 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… The one constant, however, is that the music is completely, thoroughly beautiful.

Spanish Text

(courtesy of Belarmo via YouTube)

Attempted English Translation

(via Google Translate, help from my Spanish-speaking friend, and my own rudimentary knowledge of Romance languages*)

[Introducción]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.

[Introduction]The stars are laughing,
the bright stars are happy,
the moon is so beautiful,
showing off your splendor.
The flower clusters bloom
the meadows and forests,
the mountains leap,
the birds warble.
You can hear over Bethlehem
the sweet cadences,
of sonorous voices,
that speak in this manner:


Go out, go out, go out!
The caballeros are coming
to celebrate the festival.
Make way, make way, make way!
The heavens have come
outside to sound music from the reeds.


At the birth of the first son
of the heavens and of the earth,
in his first cradle,
worshipped and celebrated,,
the Prince was born
and his mother the Queen,
giving him precious jewels
beads and pearls,
the appearance of Bethlehem
and the signs of happiness,
airs and applause,
celebrating the extraordinary event.

What splendid robes,
what showy liveries,
what feathers that fly,
like beautiful egrets.
How seriously they prepare themselves,
how attentively they interact,
how skillfully they goad,
they meet in such a courtly manner.
How well they reach out,
how well the reeds sound,
how well they finally unite,
the couples together, hand in hand.


How well they play,
how well they spin,
how well they engage,
lively exhalations,
wingèd springtimes:
Such is the celebration,
throughout Christmas Eve.

*If you would like to provide a better translation, e-mail  You will be fully credited in this post!

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