Ríu Ríu Chíu

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Ríu Ríu Chíu, also known as Ríu Chíu, is a Spanish villancico that has attained some contemporary fame as a Christmas carol.


The villancico is attributed by some sources[1] to Mateo Flecha the Elder, who died in 1553; it has also been described as anonymous.[2] The song also bears a strong resemblance to another villancico, Falalanlera, by Bartomeu Càrceres, a Catalan composer.[3] It is known from a single source, the Cancionero de Upsala, published in 1556 in Venice; a unique copy is preserved at the library of the University of Uppsala. The song appears as the fortieth song of that collection.[4] Daniel R. Melamed described the song as "redoubtable", and mentions it as a contender for the best known piece of Renaissance music.[5]

The apparently nonsense syllables ríu ríu chíu are often taken to represent the song of a nightingale,[6] but are more appropriately heard as the predator call of a kingfisher.[7]

Riu translates as river in the Catalan language, in agreement with the birth place of the accredited composer, and was translated as river by The Monkees, where the roaring river prevented a wolf from crossing to attack sheep.

In Italian language chiu is a root verb meaning close as shown in conjugation of the infinitive. At the time of publication Mateo Flecha was employed by the Duke of Calabria who had a claim to the throne of Naples, which at that time was a kingdom in Italy. The title Riu, Riu, Chiu can be expressed with multiple meanings.


The basic theme of the song is the nativity of Christ and the Immaculate Conception. The refrain which gives the villancico its title goes:

Ríu, ríu, chíu, la guarda ribera,
Dios guardó el lobo de nuestra cordera.[8]

"[With a cry of] Ríu, ríu, chíu, the kingfisher, God kept the wolf from our Lamb [Mary, spared of original sin at birth]."

The Immaculate Conception is mentioned in the lyrics:

El lobo rabioso la quiso morder
Mas Dios Poderoso la supo defender
Quísola hacer que no pudiese pecar
Ni aun original esta virgen no tuviera.

"The raging wolf sought to bite her, but God Almighty knew to defend her; He chose to make her so that she could not sin; no original sin was found in that virgin."

The song also mentions themes of the Incarnation and Christmas:

Éste que es nacido es el Gran Monarca
Cristo Patriarca de carne vestido
Hamos redimido con se hacer chiquito
Aunque era infinito finito se hiciera.

"This one that is born is the Great King, Christ the Patriarch clothed in flesh. He redeemed us when He made himself small, though He was Infinite He would make himself finite."

Yo vi mil Garzones que andavan cantando
Por aqui volando haciendo mil sones
Diciendo a gascones Gloria sea en el Cielo
Y paz en el suelo pues Jesús nasciera.

"I saw a thousand boys (angels) go singing, here making a thousand voices while flying, telling the shepherds of glory in the heavens, and peace to the world since Jesus has been born"[9]


Classical and early music performers of the song include the Boston Camerata and the Oxford Camerata. The song has crossed over to popular performance, and appears on Christmas themed collections, including David Archuleta's Christmas from the Heart, Sixpence None the Richer's The Dawn of Grace, Bruce Cockburn's Christmas, Terry McDade and The McDades' Midwinter, Fred Penner's The Season (1990), and Bradley Joseph's Christmas Around the World.

The song appears on The Kingston Trio's 1961 album Goin' Places, listed as "Guardo el Lobo," and credited to musicologist Erich Schwandt.

In 1967, the Monkees performed the song live on a Christmas episode of their TV series entitled "The Monkees' Christmas Show". A studio version was released on subsequent compilation albums (and later on the 2018 album Christmas Party). It is likely the Monkees learned the song from their producer, Chip Douglas, who himself had performed it with his former band, the Modern Folk Quartet, on their 1964 album Changes.

The song also appeared on the 2003 Chanticleer album "A Portrait", and is on the "A Cappella Magic" album by the Basilica Choir of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, in Orlando, Florida.

The song appears on Canadian singer Patricia O'Callaghan's Christmas album "Deepest December".

The song was performed in Spanish at King's College, Cambridge in a 1992 Christmas Eve broadcast service entitled "Nine Lessons and Carols".[10]


  1. ^ Cancionera de Upsala at ChoralWiki, below
  2. ^ Pegram Johnson III and Edna M. Troiano, The Roads from Bethlehem: Christmas Literature from Writers Ancient and Modern (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993; ISBN 0-664-22157-2), pp 130-131
  3. ^ Bartomeu Càrceres, Opera omnia, (Biblioteca de Catalunya, 1995; ISBN 84-7845-121-8), pp. 79-81
  4. ^ Cancionero de Upsala at ChoralWiki
  5. ^ Daniel R. Melamed, "Who wrote Lassus's most famous piece", Early Music 1998 XXVI(1):6-28.
  6. ^ Riu Riu Chiu at allmusic.com.
  7. ^ "guarda rivera" ("he guards the riverbank") is analogous to "guardarrio" ("he guards the river"), a current and older Spanish word for "kingfisher". The European Kingfisher nests in riverbanks and aggressively defends its young against predators. This kingfisher behavior would have been familiar to anyone in rural 16th century Europe.
  8. ^ This line is frequently misquoted as “Dios guardó del lobo a nuestra cordera”, but the original text is as given here. See Càrceres, Bartomeu. Opera Omnia. Biblioteca de Catalunya, Jan 1, 1995. p.80.
  9. ^ Paco Marmol and Manolo Casaus, eds, "Riu Riu Chiu"
  10. ^ University, Cambridge. "Riu, Riu, Chiu". King's College Choir. Retrieved 21 August 2019.

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