The Kennedy Center

Song of the Birds, traditional Catalan folk song

About the Work

Pablo Casals Composer: Pablo Casals
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Pablo Casals was, of course, one of the greatest musical figures of the 20th century, a cellist of peerless musicality who was acclaimed throughout the world and who brought Bach's incomparable solo suites into the modern repertory, but he was also a man widely admired for his passionate stand on world affairs. When Francisco Franco assumed authoritarian rule of Casals' native Spain in 1939, the cellist not only moved to France but also refused to play in his homeland or in any country that supported its fascist regime. As what he called a "song of the exile," he made an arrangement of the old Catalan Christmas song El Cant des Ocells — "The Song of the Birds" — which tells of how the eagle and the sparrow, the finch and the lark, come to serenade the Christ Child in the Manger, and used it frequently as a heart-felt encore at his recitals. He played it on an international broadcast from London in July 1945, the first that many of his fellow Catalonians could have been expected to hear since Franco came to power, saying that he hoped "these sounds may be like a gentle echo of the nostalgia we all feel for Catalonia. These sentiments must make us all work together … with the hope for a tomorrow of peace, when Catalonia will again be Catalonia." He played The Song of the Birds at the United Nations in 1958 and 1971, and used it to close his historic concert at the White House on November 13, 1961, his first appearance in America since 1939, to which he had agreed out of respect for what he stated, in an open letter to The New York Times in March, he saw as President John F. Kennedy's opposition to fascism and dedication to world peace. President Kennedy reciprocated that admiration in his introduction of Casals at that event: "The work of all artists stands as a symbol of human freedom and no one has enriched that freedom more signally than Pablo Casals." The spirit of The Song of the Birds lingers still in Casals' homeland, where it was played on March 11, 2005 at the memorial service marking the first anniversary of the bombings at Madrid's El Pozo train station.