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Down On The Farm

Polish chicken.

We'll start with some colonial-era dance tunes performed by Early Music New York. The concluding tune, Lord Macdonald's Reel, is attributed to Sir Alexander MacDonald-no the farmer, but an avid amateur fiddler.

His reel, first published near the turn of the nineteenth century, caught fire in the new world. It even managed to travel to the Arctic! The polar explorer William Parry, concerned about entertaining his men, brought along a mechanical barrel organ that played Sir Macdonald's reel and other tunes.

Hens and swans

Let's think about springtime! One great place to enjoy the warming weather and budding trees is down on the farm…the musical farm, that is!

Composers from many centuries have found inspiration-and humor-in the barnyard, and this hour we'll feature the mewls and squawks of a musical menagerie. We've got sheep and cats, frogs and foxes, and a whole brood of chickens!

Let's start with the henpecked husband of Pierre Passereau's chanson "Il est bel et bon."

Passereau, a sixteenth-century French singer and composer, wasn't much given to seriousness: his chansons are rich with nonsense and obscenity. "Il est bel et bon" captures the sound of pecking as the dutiful husband feeds the household's hens!

We'll hear a brief vocal rendition by The King's Singer's, followed by Paul O'Dette playing an arrangement of the same tune for lute.

[To see a full list of the music played, please click on the "music on this episode" tab at the top of this post.]

More chickens–of both sexes–peck their way through Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber's Sontata Representativa for violin and continuo.

Biber takes advantage of the violin's flexibility to imitate a host of animals, including cats, frogs, nightingales…and poultry.

We'll hear "Die Henn & Der Han," or the cock and the hen, followed by "Die Wachtel," or the quail, and finally an animal-free allemande.

One last bird…and it's a mean one! Swans are aggressive birds. But you'd never know it from Orlando Gibbons's famous madrigal, "The Silver Swan."

Silent in life, the swan, dying, finally cries out:

Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!

More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.


Sheep are an ever-ready source of musical inspiration. They wander, they frolic, and, perhaps most famously, they graze…safely in J.S. Bach's perennial favorite, "Schafe können sicher weiden," or "Sheep may safely graze."

The aria is frequently performed out of context, but it's part of a secular cantata composed in 1713 and nicknamed the "hunting" cantata for its title, "The lively hunt is all my desire."

The cantata is also known as the "birthday" cantata. It was purportedly a birthday present from Bach's employer to a fellow nobleman, Duke Christian of Sachsen-Weissenfels.

In the "schafe" aria, the animals are kept safe by the watchful presence of the shepherd –probably Duke Christian, the birthday boy.

Spring is lambing season: though you wouldn't know it from the musical world, which uses lambs year-round to represent the sacrifice of Christ, the "Lamb of God."

We'll hear two invocations of the "lamb" by a pair of composers who are frequently confused with one another: the sixteenth-century English composer John Taverner and the contemporary British composer John Tavener.

The Tallis Scholars are well-known in the world of early music, but they've also explored the music of contemporary composers like Tavener. Let's listen to the Scholars singing Tavener's "The Lamb," a setting of a poem by William Blake.

In the poem, Blake uses the image of the lamb to explore the connection between the earthly and the divine:

Little lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee,

Gave thee life, and bid thee feed

By the stream and o'er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight,

Softest clothing, woolly, bright?

[To see a full list of the music played, please click on the "music on this episode" tab at the top of this post.]

Frogs and cats' paws

We're down on the farm this hour, sampling music inspired by sheep, quails, swans, chickens…and their predators.

The Glogauer Liederbuch is a fifteenth-century collection of partbooks, featuring music that's…well, fun!

So much of music passed down to us from the fourteen hundreds has a serious purpose-meant to be played in church or during a public ceremony. The Glogauer Liederbuch contains some music meant to be lighthearted, including several pieces inspired by animals!

Let's listen to three pieces: one about "the adder's tail," one about "the fox's tail," and finally, an intricate, pouncing piece of music inspired by the cat's paw!

One last musical creature this hour: the frog! It's hard to imagine how the croaking of a frog could be transformed into music, but if anyone could do it, it would be the prolific and musically indomitable Georg Phillip Telemann.

Telemann never shied away from unusual combinations of instruments, nor, it seems, from unusual inspiration. Let's listen to the first movement of Telemann's Violin Concerto in A major, dubbed, appropriately, "the frogs."

The faithful shepherd

We've been over the hills and through the woods, out in the pasture and on the farm this hour communing with croaking frogs, swooning swans, grazing sheep.

And on our featured release-a 2014 recording from the ensemble Amarillis-we'll hear from a caretaker of animals, Le berger fidèle, or The Faithful Shepherd.

This French cantata by Jean-Philippe Rameau is one of only two by the composer published during his lifetime. It tells the story of a shepherd in love, but that love is threatened by a cruel quandary: Diana, goddess of the animals and woodland groves, must be appeased with the sacrifice of the Shepherd's beloved.

But don't worry! After a moment of despondency, the Shepherd offers to die in his lover's place; Diana-impressed by the selfless act-changes her mind, and love wins out.

Break and Theme music

:30, Gibbons: Consort and Keyboard Music – Songs and Anthems, Rose Consort of Viols / Red Byrd / Timothy Roberts, Naxos 1994, Tr. 19 Fantasia No. 1 a 3 for the Great Double Bass (excerpt of 4:29)

:60, Dancing in the Isles, Musica Pacifica, Solimar 2010, Tr. 2 Rufty Tufty (trad. English Country dance) (excerpt of 1:30)

:30, Gibbons: Consort and Keyboard Music – Songs and Anthems, Rose Consort of Viols / Red Byrd / Timothy Roberts, Naxos 1994, Tr. 16 (A Mask (The Fairest Nymph) (excerpt of 1:29)

Theme:Â Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal

The writers for this edition of Harmonia are Anne Timberlake and Janelle Davis.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.

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