Foweles in þe frith (birds in the wood): mystery and beauty in a 13th century song

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 1156 B, folio 4r, 15th century. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

The 13th century song, Foweles in þe frith, is among the earliest that survive in the English language. The manuscript has two complete polyphonic voices but only one verse, and so the meaning of its nature imagery and lament for the “beste of bon and blod” has been much debated.

This article places Foweles in þe frith in the context of other surviving secular songs in English; then decodes and deciphers its words and debates its various interpretations: is it a lover’s lament; sorrow for a lost animal; or a song of religious metaphor?

The melody was written by the scribe in notation usually presumed to be non-mensural (non-rhythmic). I argue that the music shows rhythm, clearly written on the page according to medieval musical principles, performed in the video which begins the article.

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Bird on a briar (bryd one brere): constructing the missing voice

bryd one brerebird on a briar – is the earliest surviving English secular love song with a complete lyric, dated c. 1290–1320. The music was written on the back of a papal bull with a poor pen, so interpreting the notation is problematic in parts. A previous article (available here) addressed interpretation of the music and the poetic meaning of the words.

This article addresses a second problem of interpretation: the song was clearly intended for two voices, but the primary voice is missing, leaving us only with the second voice, the polyphonic accompaniment. Using the principles of medieval English polyphony, author Ian Pittaway has constructed three possible versions of the lead voice, based on the gymel, contrary motion, and the mixolydian mode. While we cannot know if any one of these constructions was the intention of the composer, the exercise serves as an illustration of the principles of English polyphony at the turn of the 14th century and an attempt to sing the song in the originally intended manner. All three two-voice versions of bird on a briar are sung in a multi-tracked illustrative video by Ian Pittaway.    

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