Mythical creatures and everyday animals alike all have their own symbolic nature and explanations. Often times, these creatures represented various Christian beliefs. Even the pelican, which was believed to give birth by tearing open its chest, represented Christ’s death on the cross and giving eternal life to all who believed in Him. Similarly, the lion, whose offspring was born dead, had no life until the mother breathed on them, representing Christ’s spirit breathing life on humanity. More humanlike symbolism can be found in the stories of ants who walk like soldiers, gather grain for the harvest, and sort their grain into barley and wheat. Quite literally, we can see here how important working for the common good is. Other explanations of ants’ behavior also highlight the importance of separating more important from the useless or inaccurate.
Wild and domesticated birds of all varieties also make up a significant portion of creatures documented in bestiaries and sung about in this evening’s program. From discussing how to pick out a good fat goose, the importance of honoring St. Martin with it, and, in God’s name, eating it with beer and wine; to the melodies of the nightingales, swans, and cuckoos, birds seem to have captivated the imaginations of all sorts of artists for as long as we’ve been singing and writing. The swan, more specifically, with its elegant neck and tragic mortality portray the fleeting beauty of life, singing its sweetest song only one time, and then never again, “farewell all joys, o Death, come close mine eyes.” Perhaps it is because of this fleeting beauty that more geese than swans can be found; what we have left are more fools than the wise and beautiful. An eccentric and light-hearted story is that of the cricket who is just moved beyond reason to sing, especially when the weather is warm. The cricket can be found singing so much that it forgets to eat, and ultimately gets itself caught because his song gives him away. Like the swan, the cricket is singing until its dying breath.
All of these beasts and their stories served as a sort of inspiration for musicians and artists of all sorts, and tonight we welcome you to an auditory exploration of our book of beasts. Opening with “Foweles in the Frith,” we are met with a medieval English poem containing birds in the forest and fish in the floods. This was discovered scribbled in the margins of a Papal legal document. Interpreters of this poem have yet to reach a consensus on what is going on. Was it an example of an early animal rights activist, a religious or amorous poem? Do these walks in the forest drive the narrator mad? At any rate, the program progresses with song after song about any number of assorted birds and their mannerisms; the sweet and gentle swan which only sings before it dies; the chickens gossiping back and forth with one another and flirting with the owner of the farm; and finally picking out and eating a good fat goose in honor of St. Martin— it would be inappropriate, almost dishonorable not to eat this meal with a brave pour of beer and wine. Whether you yourself are an activist, a seeker of religious truths in allegory, or a connoisseur of fine fowls, there is something here to leave us all feeling "full.”
Program Notes: Book of Beasts
Since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, people have been fascinated with documenting the Earth’s wildlife and sharing this knowledge with the world around them. This can be seen with Aesop’s fables and Ovid’s poetry, various bits of local folklore, illuminations in religious texts and other manuscripts, and even etchings on the walls of churches and chapels. Books collecting this information are known as bestiaries. Chief among the creatures found in these books, and more specific to our musical purposes here, are the various birds found out and about including pelicans, geese, swans, and assorted fowls. We also encounter smaller creatures including fleas, ants, and the ever-musical cricket. Even more exotic, we will encounter ocean life including flying fish and stories of oysters, which at the time were a delicacy which people spent hours cultivating for the wealthy and elite. In these books of beasts there were also mythical creatures such as the unicorn and phoenix whose rising from the ashes represents rebirth and growth.