Pau (Pablo) Casals
Nigra sum

Born: 29 December 1876 in Vendrell, Spain
Died: 22 October 1973 in San Juan, Puerto Rico

{Biography} {Nigra sum} {Translation} {A Personal Note}


Most people probably know Casals as Pablo Casals, the famous cellist, but there’s more to him than that.  Plus his name was really Pau, as he was Catalan rather than Spanish.  That may sound odd, since Catalonia is part of Spain, but who knows how long that will last? 

Catalonia is the northeastern part of Spain, with Barcelona (fantastic city!) as its capital.  If you visit Barcelona after visiting other parts of Spain, you will probably feel, as I did, that you are in a different country.  The language is different, for one thing, even though both Catalan and Spanish are romance languages.  And there’s a very strong sense of Catalan identity, pride, and desire to be independent from Spain. 

Casals was born precisely at the time of burgeoning nationalism in Catalonia.  Earlier industrialization of the region had generated wealth and a cultural blossoming, which provides the excuse here for a very quick look at the spectacular architecture being produced as Casals grew to maturity. 

Catalonia’s most famous architect was the brilliant Antoni Gaudí, whose flowing, undulating designs remain as striking today as they were more than a hundred years ago.  His unfinished cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, is a must-see for any visitor to Barcelona, but so are the outdoor Park Güell, the Casa Milà “La Pedrera” apartment building, the early Palau Güell “home” and of course the magical Casa Batlló.  Every single one of these is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and deservedly so. 

But my favorite sight in Barcelona is by another architect altogether: Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and the building is the unbelievable Palau de la Música Catalana—the Palace of Catalan Music (also a World Heritage Site).  This glorious building is a concert hall, begun in 1905, and has been described as a “jewel of Catalan modernisme,” the architectural and decorative style that is the Barcelona version of art nouveau.  The building is elaborately decorated on the inside and the outside, with sculpture, mosaics, stained glass, ceramics, ironwork, and other visual attractions. 

The building was commissioned by—ready for this?—choral singers!  The Orfeó Català (Catalan Choral Society) was responsible for this gorgeous place, and the singers are immortalized in a giant mosaic at the top of the building that depicts dozens of men and women in elegant early twentieth century attire, each holding a sheaf of music.  I can only imagine what a thrill it must have been for them to perform in the stunning, light-flooded concert hall.  Standing there myself, in awe of what they had created, I was intensely proud to be a choral singer. 

The point of this excursus (besides getting to drool over all of that wonderful architecture) is that Casals grew to maturity at a time of exceedingly rich cultural life in Catalonia.  He came from a musical family and learned to play piano, organ, and violin before taking up the cello at the age of 11.  He studied in Barcelona, Madrid, and Brussels, and then played in a Parisian music hall briefly before returning to Barcelona.  Here he was principal cello at the opera house, but he also took part in chamber music and soon embarked on a major solo career.  He played a key role in establishing the cello as a respected solo instrument (his staggering talent was recognized everywhere), especially through his performance of the Bach unaccompanied suites.  He worked as well as an accompanist and conductor, and in 1919 founded the Orquestra Pau Casals in Barcelona. 

The Spanish Civil War changed Casals’s life forever, as it did for so many others (though at least he survived; had he not fled in 1936 he would likely have been executed).  The brutal conflict lasted from July 1936 to April 1939, and has been called a dress-rehearsal for World War II, given the level of international involvement.  The war pitted the Republicans (so-called because Spain at that time was a democratically-elected republic) against the Nationalists.  The liberal Republicans were supported by socialists, communists, and anarchists (and France, the Soviet Union, and others); the conservative Nationalists were supported by monarchists, the Catholic Church, and the military (plus the Fascist governments of Germany and Italy).  The military, in fact, began the whole thing.  Those in the arts on the side of the Republicans included poets W.H. Auden, Federico García Lorca, and Pablo Neruda; artist Pablo Picasso (his famous painting “Guernica” was in response to the horrors); filmmaker Luis Buñuel; writers Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and George Orwell; musician Casals; and lots of others.  Those in the arts on the side of the Nationalists must have been some....oh, playwright Pedro Muñoz Seca and poet Roy Campbell.  No, I’ve never heard of them either.  The war was won by General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist bullies; he ruled Spain as a vicious and repressive dictator until his death in November 1975. 

Because of the war, Casals moved to the Catalan village of Prades, just over the border in France, in 1936 when he was almost 60 years old.  Thereafter he refused to perform in countries that had supported Franco, and he returned to Spain only once, for a relative’s funeral.  When I was younger, I read stories of such exile without thinking much about them; now that I am older, I have a much greater appreciation of how wrenching—devastating—it must be to leave one’s country and home forever—and how generous the places are that welcomed and continue to welcome refugees. 

For the rest of his life Casals was passionately committed to peace and to helping others.  During World War II he gave benefit concerts and actively assisted refugees.  After the war he was closely involved in music festivals in Prades, Perpignon, and Puerto Rico (where he moved in 1956); he gave master classes internationally as well.  Special performances included playing at the United Nations in 1958 and at the Kennedy White House in 1961, and throughout his life he was the dedicatee of many works, including Fauré’s Serenade.  In 1962 he embarked on a world peace campaign that featured his oratorio El pessebre.  He died a few months shy of his 97th birthday.

To be honest, though, even if Casals had not been a leading cellist, teacher, and humanitarian, but had only composed Nigra sum, his life would still have been worthwhile.

Nigra sum

Casals is barely known as a composer today.  Wikipedia (that bastion of scholarly reliability) doesn’t even mention his compositional activity; more significantly, Casals is absent from Chester Alwes’s detailed two-volume survey of Western choral music.  But Grove’s Dictionary lists thirty-two works on a “selective” list that spans an impressive eighty years, from 1892 to 1972.  This activity is perhaps not surprising; Casals had studied composition in Madrid, and he came from an era when leading performers were sometimes composers as well—think Rachmaninoff, Busoni, Anton Rubinstein. 

A probable reason for neglect is that Casals was content to write in a traditional style during a period when most composers were chasing some form of avant-garde modernism in their music.  But despite that (because of that?), at least two of his works continue to be performed, O vos omnes from ca. 1932, and Nigra sum from 1942, written in his 66th year.  If he has other works as attractive as these, he deserves more attention. 

Nigra sum sets a collection of biblical verses that are used in various combinations in medieval liturgical plainchant and polyphonic works such as Jean Lheritier’s beautiful motet (check out the recording by the Tallis Scholars), a similar work by Tomas Luis de Victoria (ditto), and the delightful I am the Rose of Sharon by William Billings.  Casals’s work uses verses I:4–5 and II: 10–11 from the Song of Solomon, with an added Alleluia (a phrase that was typically tacked on to the end of plainchant compositions during the Easter season). 

It’s not clear what the Song of Solomon is doing in the Bible.  Some believe that the Bible is the literal word of God; some consider it symbolic and allegorical; some see it as a guide to living; some view it as a historical record.  It is undeniably a hodge-podge of different writings, with controversy as to what really belongs in both the (Jewish) Old Testament (the story of Jews as the Chosen People of God) and the (Christian) New Testament (recounting the birth, life, death, and afterlife of Jesus Christ as the son of God).  For example, the Apocrypha is a set of seven books that Catholics consider part of the Old Testament but Jews and Protestants do not.  And for the New Testament, the so-called “Gnostic” Gospels, which were discovered only in the twentieth century, provide very different views of Jesus and early Christianity (e.g., more inclusive of women) than the standard Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. 

The Song of Solomon is part of the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Bible.  Solomon was the son of and successor to King David and was renowned for his wisdom, the richness of his court, his many wives, and for building the Temple at Jerusalem.  The Song of Solomon, sometimes called the Song of Songs from its opening verse (“this is the song of songs, which is Solomon’s”), is one of the shortest books in the Bible, with a mere eight chapters.  It is also, hands down, the raciest, for the text is frankly erotic.  Sometimes in a woman’s voice, sometimes in a man’s, it includes physical descriptions of the beloved’s body in a passionate love song (“thy lips are like a thread of scarlet....”).

What in the world is this doing in the Bible?  Theologians have hastened to label the book allegorical: God’s love for Israel (if you’re a Jewish theologian), Christ’s love for his people/church (if you’re a Christian theologian).  But scholars free from needing a sacred explanation for its inclusion have seen it differently, assuming that, for ancient compilers, its text was just too beautiful not to be preserved. 

The Song of Solomon is part of the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketuvim.  Encyclopedia Britannica describes the Ketuvim as “a miscellaneous collection of sacred writings...not a unified whole.  It includes liturgical poetry (Psalms and Lamentations of Jeremiah), secular love poetry (Song of Solomon), wisdom literature (Proverbs, Book of Job, and Ecclesiastes), historical works (I and II Chronicles, Book of Ezra, and Book of Nehemiah), apocalyptic, or vision, literature (Book of Daniel), a short story (Book of Ruth), and a romantic tale (Book of Esther).”  For a lot of people, this is their favorite section of the Bible; it’s certainly the most literary.  Britannica also acknowledges the Song of Solomon as “the most entirely profane book in the Bible.” 

At this point one is tempted to utter that judicious assessment of any complex situation: “whatever.”  The gorgeous words of the Song of Songs have prompted gorgeous music over the centuries, and Casals’s motet is a very fine example of this.  It’s written for treble voices—usually just two, but sometimes divided into three parts—plus keyboard, either piano or organ.  The opening motive sets the tone for the entire work, as voices and keyboard present a rocking motive in parallel thirds; we are in E minor. 

After the opening phrase concludes in m. 4 with a classic suspension cadence, we grow into our second line, pausing briefly on a G major cadence in m. 13.  The melody is then richly soaring for the sopranos (“he brought me...”) before we wind back to a cadence on the dominant of E minor and then the repeat of the entire first section.  That repetition creates a nice structural balance with what is to come. 

A brief keyboard interlude (mm. 22–29) builds on the opening rocking motive and leads us to B major for our next phrase, unison Bs on “et dixit mihi” (he said to me).  On “rise up and come, my friend” (surge et veni amica mea) Casals gives us clear text painting as our melodies begin with rising lines and we begin to modulate as well, passing through G major and reaching E major by m. 41. 

Beginning at m. 48 and extending to m. 59, both the two brief keyboard interludes and our vocal lines build on successive appearances of the rocking motive in parallel thirds.  Casals is setting up for the presentation of key texts here: first “for lo the winter is past” (jam hiems transiit), then “the rain is over and gone” (imber abiit et recessit), and then again “for lo the winter is past.” 

At m. 65 Casals returns to the text “the rain is over and gone / imber abiit et recessit” but now emphasizes it by splitting the vocal lines into three parts for the first time, touching briefly on G major on our way to C major.  Casals gives even greater emphasis to the third and final appearance of “for lo the winter is past / jam hiems transiit” that begins in m. 75.  We are still in three parts, the dynamic is soft, and we move in slow homorhythm, with the half note used almost exclusively through m. 82.  Voices are in a first-inversion A minor triad, and our lines rise, first slowly, by thirds, and then dramatically: bottom voice and middle voice jump up an octave while the top voice gets a funky seventh leap so that we can arrive at a root position C major triad in m. 78.  Casals brings us back down slowly for “transiit” (is past) as we transition to the concluding section.  For those of us living in Rochester, the phrase “for lo the winter is past” deserves every bit of attention Casals lavishes on it. 

For the final section we are now solidly in E major, the parallel major to the opening key of E minor, and our joyful home and destination.  We sing in unison now, a beautifully shaped line that descends a fifth (dominant to tonic), leaps an octave to descend still further (to the dominant B below our tonic E) and then leaps twice (first to tonic E, then a poignant seventh up to A) before coming down slowly to our tonic E to conclude the phrase.  If you know your Vaughan Williams, you will recognize the opening of this melody as the beginning of his hymn For all the saints and also a key phrase in his Toward the Unknown Region (“Then we burst forth.”)  I wonder whether Casals knew either work? 

Thanks to our unison singing and the simple but effective shape of the melodic line, the text stands out nicely: “the flowers appear on the earth / flores apparuerunt in terra nostra” (note: the Tetra Music Corporation score misprints the word “terra” as “terrat.”) The relatively long note values (descending half notes) interspersed in the melody, and the move away from the largely syllabic text setting that has characterized the rest of the piece, contribute as well to making this happy text stand out.  After a very short keyboard transition (lovely line in the right hand!) we sing our final Song of Songs text, “the time of renewal is come / tempus putationis advenit” (the literal meaning of “putationis” is “pruning,” but the sense is very much that of the renewal that the end of winter brings).  We are in three parts now, and we stay there for our final rejoicing “Alleluia,” on a simple yet satisfying E major triad. 

What a piece!


Needless to say, the Bible was not written in English.  But it wasn’t written in Latin, either, the language of Nigra sum.  The Bible was written in Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament); the Song of Songs was originally in Hebrew.  In the fourth century, St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, a translation known as the “Vulgate.”  In Jerome’s time, Latin was the language of the common people, the “vulgar” language (obviously not the case now, or at any time since the development of Romance languages in the Middle Ages).  For the Catholic Church, the Vulgate was considered the only acceptable version of the Bible, so that when the hapless John Wycliffe (and collaborators) translated it into English in the fourteenth century, he received the animus of the Church as his reward, and was posthumously declared a heretic.  Part of the problem was that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is a medieval structure; there’s nothing in the Bible about popes, cardinals, priestly celibacy, and so on.  People who can actually discover that for themselves, without needing to learn Latin, are more likely to question the Church’s authority.  Wycliffe was an obvious predecessor to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, one of whose tenets was the use of the vernacular in all religious matters so that people could understand what was going on.

By the early seventeenth century, England too was Protestant, and one of the major accomplishments from the reign of King James I of England was the translation once more of the Bible into English—the King James Bible (1611).  Although modern scholars recognize that the translation is not scholastically the most sound, there’s universal agreement as to the beauty of its language, which remains accessible and moving (in contrast to Wycliffe’s translation into Middle English, not the most readable of tongues).  These days we have a zillion translations of the Bible available, give or take a few, and you can probably find one to suit your personal preferences (e.g. use of less patriarchal language, etc.) 

The translation below is in two columns.  On the left, each word is translated literally (like most singers, I enjoy knowing just what word I’m singing).  On the right is a poetic translation, much of it using the phrases of the King James Bible.

(Users with a small screen device may need to scroll horizontally or rotate the screen to display the two columns.)

Literal Poetic
Nigra   sum    sed   formosa
black   I am   but   comely
I am black but comely,
filiae      Ierusalem.
daughters   of Jerusalem
o ye daughters of Jerusalem.
Ideo        dilexit   me   rex
therefore   chose     me   the king
Therefore the King chose me
et    introduxit   me   in      cubiculum   suum
and   introduced   me   into    bedroom     his
and brought me into his chambers
et    dixit   mihi
and   said    to me
and said to me
surge     et    veni    amica    mea.
rise up   and   come,   friend   my
“rise up and come, my friend.
Iam   hiems        transiit
now   the winter   is finished
For lo, the winter is past;
imber      abiit           et    recessit.
the rain   has gone away   and   departed
the rain is over and gone.
Flores        apparuerunt     in   terra   nostra
the flowers   have appeared   on   earth   our
The flowers appear on the earth;
tempus     putationis       advenit.
the time   of the pruning   is come
the time of renewal is come.”

A Personal Note

I learned this piece as an undergraduate and sang it (by heart, as we did everything) with my college choir on our European tour the summer after my senior year—that trip a dream come true for me.  Although my work now takes me to Europe regularly, no visit will ever equal that very first one, with concerts in Germany, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Austria, what was then Yugoslavia, and what was then Czechoslovakia. 

There is a beautiful quotation by the twelfth-century visionary and composer St. Hildegard of Bingen.  Asked about her visionary experience, she described something she called “the Living Light,” and said, essentially, that when she experienced it, “all my sorrow and pain vanish...and I feel like a young girl again.”  That is how I feel when I sing this work. 

July 2019