This is an article I never thought I’d write, from a viewpoint I never thought I’d have. Being nerdy about historical music and instruments, I’ve been one of those people who have tutted and rolled my eyes in dismay when historical anomalies, inaccuracies and impossibilities appear in historical films and novels. I’ve played small parts in such films myself, playing historical music. My role as musician in one TV series marked my transformation from annoyed nerd to a more informed person about the multiple processes involved in creating such dramas, and the necessity of putting complete accuracy aside. This article explains how and why, and my realisation of the truth that everyone involved in living history is choosy about which parts we re-enact and which aspects of modernity we’d rather keep. As I’ll show, the same is necessarily true of film-makers, for more complex reasons.
In the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of 420 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary by King Alfonso X and his court, 1257–83, there is a large group of songs featuring statues of Mary which talk, move, give protection, heal, and enact terrible acts of violence.
This article, the last in a series of six exploring the Cantigas, describes these surprising songs of sentient statues, placing them in the context of medieval beliefs about holy effigies and the long history of mythical moving images, including the goddess Venus, the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, Pinocchio, and some current controversies.
We begin with a performance of Cantiga 42 on voice and vielle (medieval fiddle), in which a jealous Mary, inhabiting her statue, sends a man running terrified from his bed on his wedding night.
The 16th century song, Westron wynde, is an expression of longing to be with one’s love. It is just one verse and melody in a manuscript from the court of King Henry VIII. Much ink has been fancifully spilled over the meaning of its four lines. This article traces the history of its treatment through renaissance masses, folk music and 20th century pop music; attempts to elucidate its meaning without fancy; and presents an arrangement to renaissance musical principles on bray harp.
Calen o Custure me was a popular 16th century love song, published in a printed anthology two years after it was registered as a broadside, arranged multiple times for a range of instruments, and referenced by William Shakespeare in his play, Henry V. The song is something of a mystery: what does its repeated refrain mean, and what language is it? This article examines the claim that the mystery title originates in Irish Gaelic, then traces the use of the melody from the 16th to the 19th century; with a performance of the song by Alfred Deller and Desmond Dupré, and three other illustrative videos.
A 16th century broadside ballad recently found in Glamorgan reveals that William Shakespeare stole some of his best-loved and most famous lines from a song he must have known in his youth. The broadside ballad sheet was found folded into the back leaf of a household book, circa 1574. The book itself includes no music. This article includes a video performance of the ballad and an account of the plays in which the Bard’s borrowed lines appear.
This may seem like surprising material. Indeed, this article started out as a bit of silliness based on a few farty fragments, but soon became a serious study when I uncovered the surprising historical meanings behind flatulence in the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. A 17th century music society sang gleefully about it (for which there is a music video in this article); Thomas D’Urfey published several songs about it; and a buck does it in the earliest surviving piece of English secular polyphony. Plus there’s Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Edward de Vere’s bottom burp in front of Queen Elizabeth, and farting musical marginalia. So rest your cheeks, wind down, and let rip with a brief history of farting.
Surrounded by music, William Shakespeare used it to create moments of comedy and light relief; tension and menace; tragedy and tenderness. He incorporated songs about fortune and fairies, love and loss, going mad and growing up; together with jigs, masques and Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite dance. Yet in today’s productions, the songs he included, clearly indicated by “sing” in the script, are often said as if they were spoken verse, or set to a new tune when the historical melody is there to be sung. This short article gives a little background to a select few of Shakespeare’s songs and tunes to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death in 1616, including videos of It was a lover and his lass; Holde thy peace / Three merry men; and When that I was and a little tiny boy.
The trees they do grow high is an originally Scottish ballad about an arranged child marriage, also known as The trees they grow so high, My bonny lad is young but he’s growing, Long a-Growing, Daily Growing, Still Growing, The Bonny Boy, and Lady Mary Ann. The song was very popular in the oral tradition in Scotland, England, Ireland, and the U.S.A. from the 18th to the 20th century. Questions about its true age (medieval?), the basis of its story (based on an actual marriage?) and its original author (Robert Burns?) have attracted conjectural claims. This article investigates the shifting narrative of the story over its lifetime and sifts the mere claims from the substantiated evidence.
The rebec is a late medieval and renaissance gut-strung bowed instrument with 3 strings, its body carved from a solid piece of wood. Its sound has a nasal quality, unlike the more full-sounding modern violin, which shares some of the rebec’s characteristics: strings played with a bow, a fretless neck, a curved bridge to allow strings to be bowed singly, and a soundboard carved to have a gentle upward curve. Distinguishing the rebec from other medieval and renaissance bowed instruments, in particular the vielle (medieval fiddle), has been a matter of some contention until more recent scholarship re-evaluated the primary evidence.
Though the rebec has gained a reputation as a medieval instrument, it was still being played beyond the renaissance and to the end of the baroque period in western Europe, by now having fallen from grace from a regal courtly instrument to one of lowly street entertainment.
This article begins with a video of a rebec / gittern pairing, playing an early 15th century song.
The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune
Greensleeves is well over four centuries old and is, even now, still going strong. This is a song first published in 1580, its tune used for a wide variety of other 16th and 17th century broadside ballads; used as the basis for virtuoso lute playing; that William Shakespeare used for a sophisticated joke; a tune that John Playford published for dancing to; that morris dancers still jig and kick bottoms to; that has become a Christmas favourite; and that pop singers continue to sing. This is the second of three articles, looking at the song’s mythology, its true history, and video examples of its musical transformations.