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Birds, Beasts, and Battles

Time capsule for this episode: Vienna Zoo

Birds: The noble falcon

Birds, beasts, and battles are three subjects that Renaissance and Baroque composers loved to explore.

One of the many birds we find at the center of poetry and song is the noble falcon, an ancient symbol of power associated with European nobility and known for exceptional vision, boldness, and speed.

Beasts: The cyclops Polyphemus

One such “beast” from Greek mythology is the monster Polyphemus, a one-eyed cyclops made famous in Homer’s “Odyssey.” A son of the god Poseidon and the sea nymph Thoosa, Polyphemus was also the giant responsible for breaking up the relationship between Acis and Galatea, according to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Poylphemus’s lust for Galatea eventually led him to kill Acis by throwing a boulder on him.

Ovid’s story, a favorite of Baroque composers, was set to music twice by George Frideric Handel. Known as the “Italian Acis,” Handel composed his first setting as a masque while still in his twenties. He depicted Polyphemus as a crazed beast, easily provoked into anger, and capable of doing anything in order to gain the affections of Galatea.

Battaglia: Imitating the sounds of war

It might come as no surprise that music depicting the sound of battles was a common subject with composers from the 16th century onward. After all, war between political powers was not at all unusual during these times in Europe.

Battaglia, or battle music, was not the kind heard in actual battles, but was designed to imitate the sounds of rallying-cries or fanfares. Titles of compositions might even suggest a dedication to a particular event. Battles music can be found in many settings, from chansons and madrigals to instrumental works for lute or organ.

Featured release

Our featured recording is the inspiration for this episode—a 1992 Channel Classics release of virtuoso violin music entitled “Birds, Beasts, and Battles” with the European Union Baroque Orchestra.

Directed by Monica Huggett, the recording includes Carlo Farina’s Capriccio Stravagante, a vivid piece which imitates the sounds of the bowed lyre, the little fife, the trumpet and drums, as well as hens cackling, cocks crowing, cats fighting, dogs barking, not to mention the flute, and the strumming of the Spanish guitar. In effect, it brings birds, beasts and battles all together in one work.

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