"Los infants, qui nats no seran, dins en les mares cridaran; y diran tots plorosament: ajuda’ns, Déu omnipotent", proclaims the kid wielding a sword larger than him and dressed as a sibyl from the throne of the dark and cold temple in the longest night of the year, Christmas eve throughout the European Mediterranean geography. This and up to a dozen other poetic and dramatic images are the terrible and absolute signs of the end of the World’s arrival, the “Jorn del judici”; sung in a sober plain singing since the 10th century, in Latin first and in vernacular languages like Occitan, French, Catalan, Spanish, etc. afterwards.
Before this, however, the text originally written in Greek had a long journey over time within the Mediterranean geography. Firstly, Saint Augustine translated it to Latin and attributed the words to Eritrean Sibyl’ in De Civitate Dei, written while he was bishop of Hippone (present-day Annaba, Algeria) between the years 412 and 436. Later, Quodvultdeus († c. 450), Bishop of Carthage (present-day Tunisia), quoted it in the sermon Contra Iudaeos, Paganos et Arianos or Sermo de symbol de Quodvultdeus. This sermon was chosen as one of the lectures for the Christmas morning service. As said before, sibylline verses were sung in the 10th century along various distant monasteries such as Saint-Oyan abbey (Jura, French Burgundy) and Saint Martial de Limoges (Occitania), with types of music that were quite similar to each other.
The chosen child scene, singing this text filled with apocalyptic images ––"lo sol perdrà la resplandor, la terra tremirà de por", "les montanyes se fendran", "del cel gran foch devallarà", "la gent haurà molt gran terror", "hom no haurà de res desig, sinó solament de morir", etc.– is answered in each stanza with the chorus “Al jorn del judici parrà qui aurà fet servici” and it constitutes what nowadays is known as a liturgical drama of the Song of the Sibyl. It is a scene of great visual, poetic and musical power that influenced on many generations of Christians from Latin countries up to the celebration of the Council of Trent (Italy, 1545-1563).
A forbidden song, a Catalan tradition
The ecumenical Council of Trent was the answer of the Catholic Church to the challenge –in fact, the schism– that the Protestant Reformation meant. One of the side effects of this schism was the prohibition of the Song of the Sibyl that derived from the Reform of the Roman Liturgy requested by the Council to the Pope in its twenty-sixth and last session held on 3-4 December 1563.
Pope Pius V (Cardinal Ghislieri, 1504-1572) would complete this reform by promulgating the new Breviarium Romanum in 1568. The new breviary took the lecture of the Quodvultdeus sermon out of the morning service and thus the Song of the Sibyl as the Christmas Eve ritual.
The prohibition meant the disappearance of the Song of the Sibyl from most of the churches, monasteries and cathedrals where it had been sung so far. The loss was more or less gradual, however, in some temples the prohibition was not attended and the child continued to announce year after year the arrival of the end of the World, the day of the judgment and all the disasters and sufferings that it implies.
Perhaps the spirit of the Catalan language –a mixture of dissent, resistance and maybe even transgression, or perhaps just a conservative spirit and the power of tradition– made that the representation of the Song of the Sibyl remained as a Catalan living tradition in Mallorca and Alghero (Sardinia, Italy) half a millennium after its prohibition; almost five centuries after disappearing in Latin and in the rest of vernacular languages in which it was adapted and sung.
One representation of El Cant de la Sibil·la
The strong resistance of tradition to disappear despite the veto, the ingrained fragility of tradition’s immaterial character, and perhaps also the movement to recover the Song of the Sibyl in the Catalan Countries that took place in the last decade of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st, turned the Council of Trent prohibition into the declaration of this liturgical drama Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, during the intergovernmental committee held in Nairobi (Kenya) in November 16th 2010.
The connection of today’s public with a secular tradition
A year before the mentioned proclamation, Barcelona Cathedral and the Choir Francesc Valls restored the tradition at the Catalan capital city with an investment for the tradition in the contemporaneous side of the Song of the Sibyl, and not with an archaeological reconstruction of it.
The child is replaced by a young girl; the clothing is reinterpreted (keeping the sword); the liturgical context in which the song was traditionally interpreted (the morning Christmas service) is reconfigured; and perhaps the most unique and contemporary change – the music of the chorus “Al jorn del judici parrà qui aurà fet servici” is assigned to a different composer every year with a double intention: to allow the connection of today’s public with the secular tradition, and promoting the creation of new choral repertoires.
As a result of these aggiornamento of tradition, ten composers (including the most relevant Catalan names of composition from the turn of the millennium and two great international figures like Vic Nees (1936-2013) and Johan Duijck (*1954)) wrote the chorus of the Song of the Sibyl that the choir Francesc Valls has released (the rest are sung as plain song) at the end of each play during the last ten years.
Now the choir –along with Capítol Catedral de Barcelona and FICTA Edicions– releases a volume with the ten chorus, the plain song in Latin and Catalan and two complete and exhaustive texts of the two main scholars of Christmas liturgical drama in Barcelona (Josep Baucells i Reig, pvre. and Maricarmen Gómez Muntané). The authors of the music, besides the aforementioned Flemish composers, are Jordi Cervelló Garriga (*1935), Josep Vila i Casañas (*1966), Narcís Bonet (1933-2019), Xavier Pagès i Corella (*1971), Bernat Vivancos (*1973), Joan Magrané i Figuera (*1988), Josep Soler i Sardà (*1935) and Carles Prat i Vives (*1985).
This publication along with the audiovisual recording soon to be released, are going to be documents of great value to promote a very ancient tradition that becomes alive, present and renewed every Christmas Eve, and that any community and artist in the World will be able to adopt.
Martí Ferrer Bosch, cofounder of FICTA Edicions