Medieval bestiaries combined descriptions of animals with religious and moral meaning. These collections of stories were very popular in the middle ages, and musicians expanded on the idea, creating musical works referencing one or more animals. Listeners were meant to not only reflect upon the animals, but to ponder the beasts within and recall lessons of right and wrong.
Here is a set of medieval music inspired by some of the animals in medieval bestiaries, including a sweetly singing nightingale, an envious cuckoo, and a beast with big feet—all preceded by a pastoral love scene.
From the Harmonia vault: Canticle of the Creatures
We’re exploring an animal theme on this edition of Harmonia. We’re also marking Harmonia’s 20th anniversary this season by looking back at some older episodes. Here’s an excerpt from a program in 2003 that included a piece of music using words written by St. Francis of Assisi, a Catholic friar famous for his love of animals.
One of the most famous poems of Saint Francis of Assisi is his “Canticle of the Creatures,” sometimes called the “Canticle of Brother Sun.” In this beautiful poem, Francis praises the natural world: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and so on, giving them all a character and celebrating their sacredness. Contemporaries of Saint Francis tell us that the Canticle was sung by Francis to his followers, but the music did not survive. Nevertheless, you’ll sometimes hear the canticle referred to as “the first lauda.” In fact, in one manuscript, the canticle was written underneath a musical staff; but unfortunately, the notes were never penned in.
Renaissance secular works, such as the romance, lied, chanson, and frottola were also filled with depictions of birds, beasts, and even insects. Of the three frottole known to have been composed by Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez, El grillo, or “the cricket,” praises the musical insect for his fine singing. El grillo’s lyrics state that, [quote] “. . . unlike the birds, who fly off when they’ve sung a bit, the cricket just stays where he is. When the weather is really hot, he sings solely for love.”
Featured recording: The Bestiary of Christ
Our featured recording is the inspiration for this episode. It’s the 2003 harmonia mundi France release Bestiario de Christo by medieval ensemble Alia Musica, directed by Miguel Sánchez. Alia Musica was formed in 1985 and has since been delighting the world with its interpretations of early Judeo-Spanish repertoire. The recording draws music from the Codex Las Huelgas and the Codex Musical del Monasterio de Santa Maria. Most of the pieces on the CD feature beasts described in medieval bestiaries.