When I was asked to perform for the Original Song (Period Style) war point for the First Bardic War, I was so excited that I instantly said yes. But… I didn’t actually have anything to sing. Most of my songs, so far, have been composed from innate sense without any sort of research; the closest I had, Caedmon the Cowherd, is half-stolen from Bede. I also had a very limited timeline; I only had final confirmation of my assignment around two weeks before it was due, right at the busiest time of the year for me. So the timeline of creation went like this:
- Week before it’s due: Decide I wanted to do something inspired by plainsong about Rædwald, the most likely candidate to be buried in Sutton Hoo. Spend the whole weekend reading broadly and widely across the interwebs.
- Tuesday before it’s due: Write the Modern English words.
- Wednesday: Translate into Old English and bash out a tune.
- Thursday: Pin down the tune, write up some really bad notation so I can remember the tune, record the song at 11 PM at night.
- Friday, lunchtime: Panic when I realize I was off by a semitone for the whole song. Realize I can’t get the lyre accompaniment to match. Re-record during my lunch break.
- Friday afternoon: Edit the recording together.
- Friday evening: Put together a set and record video in seven takes (three for placing grave goods, four for singing).
- Friday night: Edit the video.
- Saturday: Go drink mint juleps with my friend Lucy.
- Saturday evening: Write four pages of last-minute documentation (copied below), upload video to YouTube, discover there’s an error in the video, re-edit quickly, re-upload, submit everything.
So that was the process! I’ve included the documentation below. I will also be creating some video documentation for this project; watch this space for updates!
Some Very Brief Documentation[*] on
Lament for Rædwald
My persona is a 6th to 7th century Northumbrian Angle, but unfortunately there is no extant music from that time and place. However, I wanted to take this opportunity to expand my repertoire of at least somewhat persona-appropriate music, so I turned to the earliest relevant music theorists I could find, Boethius and Hucbald (filtered secondhand by the Internet due to time constraints). The tune itself was inspired by plainsong, especially melismatic elements. In an attempt to prioritize early medieval plainsong, I attempted to keep the majority of the tune in D Dorian and emphasized intervals such as fourths and fifths as well as the tetrachord (first four notes of the scale).
Since my inspiration, King Rædwald of East Anglia (see “Text” below), is recorded as keeping both Christian and pagan altars, I wanted to get close to early church music while violating it in ways that would seem more natural to a new (or hesitant) convert versed in Old English tradition. For this reason, the opening and closing “Eala/Alas!” are in D Aeolian, and I incorporate some gentle chords from my Germanic lyre throughout.
The text’s form is Old English alliterative verse. The Modern English version also incorporates an ABAB rhyme scheme to be more palatable to the modern ear. I wrote the Modern English lyrics first and then translated them into Old English.
The inspiration for the text was King Rædwald of East Anglia. Rædwald (d. 625) is the chief contender for the occupant of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, and I wanted to compose a piece commemorating his death. In the first verse, I include items that were found in the ship burial (helm, mail shirt, sword, and belt), and in the second verse, I state that Rædwald was left-handed, which is suggested by the position of the sword in the Sutton Hoo ship burial.
Rædwald also had a significant impact on Northumbria (at that time the semi-united kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia) but defeating Æthelfrith, king of Deira and Bernicia, in battle in 616 and installing the exiled Edwin, formerly the king of Deira, as Æthelfrith’s successor. For his political power, Rædwald was referred to historically as both bretwalda (ruler/overlord/high king of Britain) and Rex Anglorum (king of the Angles).
Old English Lyrics
Se Bretwalda beorhta innan beorge liġþ.
Gaderiaþ græf-gafol geafa for þæm cyninge:
Beadugrima on byrnan þæs bremenes þegnes
Brand ond belt aboren fram beah-gifan.
He read Æþelfriþ arærde winstre,
ond ahte arlice to Edwine Deira
Iċ sang soþspell sace ond herewordes
se æfen in eahte mid Regi Anglorum.
Hwa bodian mot mid bene and hearpan
ond besingan ure sorġe mid Suttun Ho?
Eala! Sċiepe hearpe-snera of min hære
On leċgaþ meċ to.
Modern English Lyrics
The Bretwalda bright in barrow is lain!
Gather grave-goods as gifts for the king:
helm and hauberk of the honorable thane,
blade and belt born by the giver of rings.
He ended Aethelfrith, left hand raised,
and delivered Deira dearly to Edwin.
I sang the story of strife and praise
that evening in assembly with Rex Anglorum.
Who shall herald with harp and prayer
and sing our sorrow at Sutton Hoo?
Alas! Make harpstrings of my hair
and bury me too.
The video was inspired by all those fantastic pictures that keep circulating of people in garb with appropriate grave goods. I chose grave goods that meant quite a bit to me and represented me including and beyond my bardic abilities.
- a plaid scarf that I spun and wove as well as yarn that I spun and dyed
- a gift-cup from a dear friend and the cup I won in my first bardic competition
- rings I’ve received as gifts and rings that I’ve forged myself
- a basket I picked up on international travels
- a penannular brooch gifted by another dear friend
- my favorite purchased brooches, comb, scissors, and bone shuttle
- Reynard, the fox pelt I got when I worked in a sword shop in Edinburgh, Scotland (true story)
- Avagiefu, the Germanic lyre that another dear friend gifted to me when I became the King’s Bard of Atlantia in 2020
- coins received as tokens, including one from my first bardic circle and one from Jorvik Viking Centre in England
- a feather I won in my first poetic competition
- amber that I am slowly shaping into a period amulet
- my seax
- and a cloth gifted to me by my first spinning and weaving mentor.
For garb, I wore the Anglian garb that I created for the Atlantian Royal Bard competition in 2020.
Music was recorded using a Blue Yeti microphone and edited using Ableton Lite. Video was recorded using an iPhone 7 and edited in DaVinci Resolve.
What I’ll Do next
This was my first attempt at a song inspired by plainsong, and combining that with Old English alliterative verse (including translation!) and a video was a huge task! I want to continue my dive into early music by digging more into primary texts, especially Boethius and Hucbald (at minimum in translation!). I’d also like to expand my lyre skills so I can blend that with plainsong-inspired music in a more holistically syncretic creation mediating between reconstructed Old English performance (a la Benjamin Bagby) and known plainsong.
This Is Not a Bibliography
This is just a whole bunch of links that I read in preparation for this project (I sincerely love writing bibliographies, but time was not my friend on this one). Don’t worry; I take Wikipedia with a huge grain of salt, and primarily used it to refresh knowledge I’d already had and forgotten.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_d2rVzK3Y0 (if you look at any of my sources, please look at this one to admire this wonderful gentleman absolutely shredding on an ancient Greek lyre)
[*]Yes, it’s four pages. Trust me, this is brief for me.