El Cant de la Sibil·la, the chant or song of the Sybil, is performed in churches across Mallorca on Christmas Eve. Declared a masterpiece of intangible cultural heritage by Unesco on 16 November 2010, it is unquestionably one of Mallorca's most important cultural traditions - arguably the most important. And as well as deep-rooted tradition, it is a chant that is the stuff of legend, of prohibition, of rebellion and of rivalry.
Its origins are said to lie with a Greek acrostic poem of the fourth century - the Judicii Signum and its references to the Last Judgment. Acrostic refers to the giving of a prophesy or message, specifically to the prophecies of the Erythraean Sibyl. The "sibylla", this prophetess of Ancient Greece, was capable of all sorts of predictions: the Trojan War, for instance. The fourth-century poem thus relied on a prophecy that had been made several centuries earlier in the time Before Christ.
In mediaeval Europe there were all manner of religious dramatisations. The Sibil·la was very much to the fore in this regard. Liturgical theatre was at one time represented in a procession of prophets, and this ended with the Sibil·la. These dramas were at their most popular at Christmas and Easter, and they caught on across Spain, especially in Catalonia. The first documented evidence of the Sibil·la in Catalan noble circles is from the tenth century in Ripoll, Gerona.
Following the Catalan conquest of 1229, the Sibil·la crossed over the sea to Mallorca. There were different versions, and a codex manuscript of the fourteenth century is the first known evidence of the existence of the chant in Mallorca; and crucially, it was in Catalan rather than Latin or indeed Castellano. By the start of the sixteenth century, there were versions in the Catalan of Mallorca, i.e. Mallorquí. One was noted in the Breviarium Majoricensis of 1506.
The Sibil·la was subject to various bans. There was a belief that it sowed disorder and spiritual confusion. The Council of Trent decreed a general prohibition in 1568, but there was to be a form of popular rebellion against this in Mallorca which was to secure what there now is. With the exception of Alghero in Sardinia, Mallorca was the only place where the Sibil·la was maintained, even if it was in a different form; Joan Vic i Manrique, the Bishop of Mallorca, insisted in 1575 that it should be toned down.
It was not until 1692 that the church in Mallorca relented some more. Pere d'Aragó i de Cardona, the then bishop, approved a version on the condition that it was only to be performed at Christmas. The church was clear that certain "sermons" on the eve of some saints could cause confusion rather than devotion, and the bishop had the Sibil·la in mind. Nevertheless, the chant was given increased legitimacy by the church and it found its way into synodal law of that year.
It wasn't until the nineteenth century that it became clear how popular and widespread the Sibil·la was in Mallorca. The Archduke Louis Salvador was to refer it in 1871. His several-volume opus Die Balearen contains a transcript of the chant. This bore strong resemblance to a version provided by one Bartomeu Torres i Trias, which was to eventually be published in an album of Mallorcan musical compositions in 1894, and his version owed a great deal to a one-time master of the chapel at the Cathedral, Joaquim Sancho i Cañellas, who died in 1863.
The popularity was such that it spawned a certain rivalry over competing versions. Another one is that of Antoni Noguera i Balaguer, one of the foremost names in Mallorca's musical culture of the late nineteenth century. In 1893, Noguera produced a work on popular Mallorcan songs and dances, and his Sibil·la transcript was included. What was to then follow is more or less what there is today: two versions of the Sibil·la, of which the Noguera one is by far the more common.
There were to be further adaptations and also an additional final verse. Oh Humil Verge (humble Virgin) was the contribution of Catalan composer Francesc Pujol. It is the only verse which contains any reference to Christmas as such. But the two versions - those of Noguera and Torres - have survived mostly as they had been, and an odd aspect about the rivalry between the two has to do with location. The Torres Sibil·la has come to be associated with the Tramuntana mountains. At Lluc Monastery, it is the Torres version which is chanted. At Palma Cathedral and mostly everywhere else in Mallorca, it is the Noguera Sibil·la.