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Translator's Note: The Song of the Birds

by Lydia Davis


Four years ago, I was in Spain at the time of the Madrid train bombings. Massive demonstrations were held throughout Spain on that Friday night, in mourning for those who had died and in protest against the terrorists responsible. The form of the demonstration where I was, in the small, ancient Catalan city of Girona, was a long march from the newer part of town across the river into the old.

The marchers were silent but for, every now and then, a wave of solemn clapping that rose, swelled, and died away. When the file reached the river, one could look up from the bridge and see people leaning from the open windows of their houses above the water, banging on pans. From speakers placed along the route came a very beautiful melody, performed on cello with piano accompaniment and repeated over and over.

I later found out that the piece was an old Christmas song, "El cant dels ocells" and the cellist was Pau Casals, as he is properly known in his native Catalonia. I learned that during Francisco Franco's long dictatorship, Casals, living in exile, would end many of his concerts—in honor of his homeland and people, and in protest against Franco—with a beloved traditional carol, "The Song of the Birds." He would, in fact, try to arrange to perform as close as possible to the border of Catalan Spain, in the Pyrenees, hoping to be heard by Catalans. This piece of music has, in consequence, acquired a second identity as, virtually, the Catalan national anthem. I have been told, by a neighbor of Antoni Gaudí's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, that it is played at noon every day on the cathedral bells.

The song is harmonically complex. It maintains its key, G minor, for the first three lines, though with a harmonic minor scale that gives it a moment of Middle Eastern color. It then rests startlingly on G major before broadening out into a succession of open and optimistic major keys before returning to end (a melancholy setting for the word alegría, "happiness" or "joy") in G minor.

The imperial eagle is a type of eagle native to southern Europe. Another, and the longest, version of the song, a full fourteen verses, includes all the other birds that come to sing at the Nativity.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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