Siete canciones populares españolas

by | Last updated Jan 16, 2018 | Published on Feb 6, 2017 | Composers portraits | 2 comments

Siete canciones populares españolas (“Seven Spanish Folksongs”) is a cycle of traditional Spanish songs. Filtered and re-arranged for soprano and piano by Manuel de Falla in 1914, it quickly became one of the most popular set of Spanish songs.

Originally dedicated to Madame Ida Godebska, who hosted regular gatherings for Parisian artists (like the Mallarmé tuesdays) and arranged for the first edition of the songs, the cycle was performed for the first time in 1915 in Madrid, for the first concert of the Sociedad Nacioal de Musica, and is one of the most transcribed in music history since the times of Bach: there are arrangements for solo piano, voice and guitar, piano and cello and two versions for orchestra.

Manuel de Falla was born in Cádiz, Spain, on November 23, 1876

All the songs in the Siete canciones populares españolas set derive from different regions of Spain, maintaining their original character and appeal without ever falling into a cliché. All of them deal with love and everything that comes with it, joyful or painful.

As it usually happens with great composers, De Falla added his own twist to the original songs, thus making them more interesting.

In all honesty, I think that in popular song, the spirit is more important than the letter. The essential features of these songs are rhythm, tonality, and melodic intervals. The people themselves prove this by their infinite variations on the purely melodic lines of the songs.

Manuel De Falla

Manuel de Falla

Manuel de Falla was born in Cádiz, Spain, in 1876. His mother was his first music teacher. A skilled pianist, Falla studied in Madrid and moved to Paris from 1907 to 1914 where he met a number of composers who greatly influenced his style, such as Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and Paul Dukas.

De Falla returned to Madrid at the beginning on World War I, then moved to Granada in 1921. A fervent catholic, his religious beliefs brought him more than some trouble with the Franco’s regime. In 1939 he accepted an offer for a series of concerts at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, settling then permanently in Argentina where he died in 1946.

Siete canciones populares españolas

Siete canciones populares españolas - El paño moruno

El paño moruno (The moorish cloth)

This song originates from the Murcia, in the Andalusian province in south-eastern Spain. The story is fairly trivial: a shop reduced the price of a cloth because it had a stain on it.

The accompaniment is what makes this piece really interesting: with a series of rhythmic variations, the tone of the song changes, the underlying material that is usually “just” an accompaniment gains more importance than it would normally have. The “trick” used by De Falla is at the same time simple and brilliant. Folksongs are usually accompanied by the guitar: so why not translate the typical guitar figures on the piano? It gives an immediate feeling of the provenience of the material, remaining true to its roots while elevating it to classical standards: the technique reminds of the punteado (when a guitar player plucks the notes one by one), while a mix of the two hands in arpeggios, upwards and downwards,  evokes a classic of the Flamenco, the rasgueado.

Genuinely, the singer’s last line is a typical lament on the word “ay”, with crescendo and diminuendo indicating the suffering for the diminished value of the cloth.

For a more technical score analysis of  El paño moruno you can refer to this post.

Al paño fino, en la tienda,
una mancha le cayó;
Por menos precio se vende,
Porque perdió su valor.

The fine cloth in the shop
got stained;
It will be sold at a cheaper price
Because it has lost its value.

Siete canciones populares españolas - Seguidilla murciana

Seguidilla murciana

Second song of the Siete canciones populares españolas, the seguidilla is an old dance form in quick triple time. The name is a diminutive of seguida (from seguir, “to follow”).

It originated either in the region of Don Quixote (La Mancha) or in Andalusia and subsequently spread over Spain with a number of variants: manchega (from La Mancha), sevillana (from Seville), murciana (from Murcia). A very popular dance, it can be found in flamenco as well as opera, like in Bizet’s Carmen or Offenbach’s La Périchole.
The short lyrics begin with a tell-off and move on to compare the person who somehow hurt the speaker to a coin that gets passed from hand to hand till it is consumed and has lost all of its value.

What really dominates the entire piece is, once again, the piano: an almost constant pedal of repeated C fills the song from the beginning to the end. De Falla makes it more interesting by adding a chromatism to the pedal, enriching the harmony and keeping the tension. The rhythm in triplets of the piano reminds once again of the guitar technique of the punteado. It is also very similar to the horses’ hooves as well as to the tapping of the seguidilla dance.

For a more technical score analysis of Seguidilla murciana you can refer to this post.

Cualquiera que el tejado
Tenga de vidrio,
No debe tirar piedras
Al del vecino.
Arrieros semos;
¡Puede que en el camino
Nos encontremos!
Por tu mucha inconstancia
Yo te comparo
Con peseta que corre
De mano en mano;
Que al fin se borra,
Y créyendola falsa
¡Nadie la toma!

Who has a roof
of glass
should not throw stones
to their neighbor’s (roof).
Let’s be muleteers;
It may happen that on the road
we will meet!
Because of your great inconstancy,
I compare you
to a coin passing
from hand to hand;
which eventually is consumed, and,
believing it false,
no one accepts it anymore!

Siete canciones populares españolas - Asturiana


Both text and music of Asturiana come from a folk song of the Asturias, in the northern part of Spain. It’s the delicate story of a tree, sympathetically crying along with the hero.

The piano is, once again, set on a pedal, almost for the entire length of the piece. The left hand adds sorrow to the melody through the use of a few dissonances. These limbs of pain never fall into rage: a deep sense of sadness permeates the entire piece, ending hopelessly on the lowest F of the keyboard.

I adore this piece: of the Siete canciones populares españolas is the one that best depicts the sentiment of desperation. There is a sense of immobility and inevitability from the beginning to the end. The tree looks at the sadness of the hero from the outside: empathizes with his sadness, but is helpless in front of it and can not help but accept its own impotence.

For a more technical score analysis of Asturiana you can refer to this post.

Por ver si me consolaba,
Arrime a un pino verde,
Por verme llorar, lloraba,
Y el pino como era verde!

In the seek of some comfort,
I leaned against a green pine,
It wept for my weeping,
and how green was that pine!

Siete canciones populares españolas - Jota


A very popular dance from the north east of Spain, specifically from the province of Aragon, the Jota is one of the most renowned triple meter forms and probably the most famous of De Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas.

Traditionally, this folklorist dance is sung and danced accompanied by the castañuelas (castanets) and the interpreters are dressed up in regional costumes. Originally, in Valencia and Cataluña, it was performed at funerals ceremonies. The piano winks again at the guitar, imitating the punteado and rasgueado techniques. After a substantial introduction, De Falla drops this motive at the entrance of the singer, leaving room for a freer phase and virtually bringing in the picture the tambourine as well, another instrument often used to accompany this dance.

The upbeat rhythms can “trick” the listener into thinking that this is a very cheerful song: fact of the matter is that this is a tale of secret love and of melancholic farewell. After all, as mentioned above, the Jota was originally performed in not so cheerful situations. But then again, sadness can have many faces. Dynamics fade away to pianissimo, painting the increasing distance between our hero and his lover’s house.

For a more technical score analysis of Jota you can refer to this post.

Dicen que no nos queremos
Porque no nos ven hablar;
A tu corazón y al mio
Se lo pueden preguntar.
Ya me despido de tí,
De tu casa y tu ventana,
Y aunque no quiera tu madre,
Adiós, niña, hasta mañana.
Aunque no quiera tu madre…

They say we do not love each other
Because they do not see us talking;
To your heart and mine
They can ask that question.
And now I bid you farewell,
to your window and your house,
And even if your mother does not want to,
farewell, my dear, until tomorrow
Even if your mother does not want to…

Siete canciones populares españolas - Nana


And then came Nana, one of the most beautiful lullabies ever written. Heard from the composer by his own mother when he was a child, Nana is an Andalusian song, as tender and soothing in the words as it is sad in the melody.
The piano sets of the cradling movement intertwining the rhythms between left and right hand.

The voice line adds melismas at the end of each phrase, thus stressing the Spanish musical idiom. Notice how the composer writes ‘mormorato’ for the voice: a whisper, to which a few bars later a diminuendo is added. The song begins pianissimo (pp) and ends even more piano (ppp). Only the second time around there’s a small crescendo to a mf, but it is toned down immediately, gradually soothing the child into sleep and leaving the mother carrying the weight of her own fears.

For a more technical score analysis of Nana you can refer to this post.

Duérmete, niño, duerme,
Duerme mi alma,
Duérmete, lucerito
De la mañana.
Nanintu nana

Sleep, child, sleep,
Sleep, my soul,
Sleep, little ray
Of morning light.
Lulla, lullaby

Siete canciones populares españolas - Cancion


“Canción” literally means ‘song’. Of the Siete canciones populares españolas this is the only one that does not come from a particular region of Spain, but is based on a melody largely known throughout the State. It’s, once again, about love, lost and betrayed. The focus is on the betrayed lover, and on his regained strength once he decides to finally bury his feelings. Reading through the lines though, we learn the bitterness that is left in him when he throws a curse at the person who left him.

While the singing line is built on short and syncopated notes, giving it a playful character, the piano accompaniment unifies the piece with (again) a guitar-like arpeggio. The piece remains in G major throughout, but even with its uplifting key and rhythm there’s a sort of anger pervading it, which only fades away at the very end, when the feelings of the lover are buried in the lowest G of the keyboard.

For a more technical score analysis of Canción you can refer to this post.

Por traidores, tus ojos, voy a enterrarlos;
No sabes lo que cuesta,
“Del aire” Niña, el mirarlos.
“Madre a la orilla”
Niña el mirarlos
Dicen que no me quieres,
Y a me has querido…
Váyase lo ganado,
“Del aire”
Por lo perdido,
“Madre a la orilla”
Por lo perdido,

As traitors I should bury your eyes
You don’t know what it costs,
“From the air”
Darling, to look at them,
“Mother, at the shore”
Dear, to look at them
They say you do not love me
and you’ve wanted me
Take what you earned,
“From the air”
“Mother, at the shore”

Siete canciones populares españolas - Polo


The last song of the Siete canciones populares españolas, Polo, has its roots in Andalusia: its brisk and lively accompaniment in repeated notes are a direct reminder of the zapateado, a Spanish dance rich in flamenco rhythms and foot stomping.

A passionate song, the continuous repetition of rhythmic patterns in the piano part unifies the entire piece while the melody plays on the word ‘Ay’. This word is, in fact, a harsh cry which mixed with the gipsy melismas of the singing line and the guitar-like accompaniment, makes ‘Polo’ quite unique right from the start.

The melody, unlike the other songs, is not repeated, but changed from one section to another, though it is, naturally, built around the same material. Its length is also irregular, keeping away from patterns, both inside the phrase and between the sections. The melody, the melismas at the end of each phrase or semi-phrase, the final melisma in the coda, they are all wrenching expressions of a broken heart that cannot find liberation except through screaming its head off.

For a more technical score analysis of Polo you can refer to this post.

Guardo una, iAy!
iGuardo una pena en mi pecho
Que a nadie se la diré!
Malhaya el amor malhaya, iAy!
iY quien me lu dió a entender!

I have, Ah!
I have a pain in my heart
That I will not tell anyone!
Love be damned, be damned Ah!
And who taught me to understand it!

Arrangements and recordings

The Siete canciones populares españolas became very popular almost immediately. A number of transcriptions where composed over the years by notable performers and composers: the great guitarist Andrés Segovia was the first to bring this popular set to the audiences. It’s not quite clear, however, if Segovia did the transcription himself or in collaboration with De Falla.

The songs were also transcribed for full orchestra by Luciano Berio as well used for numerous arrangements like this one for cello and piano.

Here’s a link to a full performance by Conchita Supervia, one of my absolute favorite recordings of this piece.

The Siete canciones populares españolas fit a male voice just as well: listen to Jose Carreras’ interpretation here.

What’s your favorite recording?


Siete canciones populares españolas: Archivo Manuel De Falla

Dance and instrumental diferencias in Spain during the 17th and early 18th century, vol. II, by Maurice Esses

Lorca in tune with Falla by Nelson R. Orringer

Manuel De Falla photo portraits are available in Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons: Manuel De FallaManuel De Falla con bastón (by Archivo Manuel de Falla).

For an analysis of the Siete canciones populares españolas with sheet music examples please see these posts: El paño moruno, Seguidilla murciana, Asturiana, Jota, Nana, Canción, Polo

Cover photo by Ivan Peplov from Moscow, Russia (Dega’s “Four Dancers”) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Numbers background graphic Designed by Freepik

About the author

Gianmaria Griglio

Gianmaria Griglio

Composer and conductor, Gianmaria Griglio is the co-founder and Artistic Director of ARTax Music.

Interested in some more music? Take a look at this series!

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