Music of the Midnight-verse

The Midnight Queen

The pavane and bourrée that Sophie plays in chapter I might appear in any suite of dance-inspired keyboard pieces by almost any Baroque composer (J.S. Bach, Telemann, Scarlatti, Purcell, Rameau, Couperin, and Handel, among others, all wrote keyboard music of more or less this type), or even improvised based on such examples by Sophie herself. A pavane is a slow processional dance, and a bourrée quicker and livelier; both are in duple time. Suites of dances often took their melodic themes from popular songs.

Oleg Kozlov / Shutterstock

Photo by Oleg Kozlov / Shutterstock

The song Sophie and Gray sing in chapter IV is of course Robert Burns’s “Ae Fond Kiss,” written in 1790 or 1791 to what appears to be a traditional Scots melody, “Rory Dall’s Port” (although it’s now more usually sung to a different tune). In the world of the book, Burns is a poet of the Borders – the part of England just south of Hadrian’s Wall, which forms the Kingdom of Britain’s northern border with its not-always-friendly neighbour, the Kingdom of Alba, and the native country of Gray’s mother, Agatha Marshall (née Graham). There are probably hundreds of recordings of this song – vocal, choral and instrumental; I first heard it as part of a Toronto Symphony Orchestra / Toronto Mendelssohn Choir concert at Roy Thomson Hall at some point in the mid-1990s, with Bramwell Tovey at the piano. [Listen to a duet of “Ae Fond Kiss” here.]
The “gloomy tale of lost love” that Sophie sings in chapter XXI is, or at any rate was inspired by, the Somersetshire ballad “The Trees They Grow So High.” There are several versions of this rather odd song; the one I know best (known to ethnomusicologists as Version Two, and beautifully set for voice and piano by Benjamin Britten) is narrated by a young woman whose even younger husband marries her at sixteen, has fathered a son at seventeen, and is dead and buried at eighteen (we are not told the manner of his death, but in one of the other versions of the song it’s clear that he is killed in battle). “I’ll sit and I’ll mourn his fate until the day I die,” she sings, “and I’ll watch all o’er his child while he’s growing.” [Listen to Sarah Brightman singing Britten’s setting of “The Trees They Grow So High” here.]
Sophie’s song-spell in chapter XXXI – which Gray recognizes as an “Erse melody in the Mixolydian” (the Mixolydian mode, that is) – is the haunting Irish song “She Moves Through the Fair,” or something like it. I first remember hearing a version of this song on Loreena McKennit’s album Elemental (1985); it was famously recorded by Fairport Convention on their 1969 album What We Did On Our Holidays. It’s one of those tunes that gets into your very bones, which is perhaps why it occurs to Sophie in extremis. [Listen to Loreena McKennit’s rendition of “She Moved Through the Fair” here.]

While writing I listened to — among other things — a variety of “country dances” (contredanses), including a 2001 recording by the Parley of Instruments called “Michael Praetorius: Dances from Terpsichore,” and two albums by the wonderful British folk group Magpie Lane, “English Country Songs and Dances” and “Oxford Ramble.”

Lady of Magick

In our world, the student song “Gaudeamus Igitur” (chapter IV) — which means “let us rejoice, therefore” — dates to the early 18th century. The lyrics — some versions have a LOT of verses! — cover a range of exhortations from “We won’t be young forever, so let’s have fun!” through “Long live our professors!” to “May our king and country prosper!” The version Gray and his friends would have learned at Merlin substitutes references to Elysium and Hades for the original’s references to heaven and hell. I first encountered “Gaudeamus Igitur” in 1992, when I sang the version that forms the finale of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture as part of a massed choir at the Aberdeen International Youth Festival. I particularly like the version on the album “Goin’ Home” by Choir Leoni Men’s Choir, which is on my MidnightVerse playlist. That one’s not on YouTube, but here’s the men of the Robert Shaw Chorale instead! [Listen to “Gaudeamus Igitur” here.]

The song Sophie learns from Donella MacHutcheon, and later performs at Mór MacRury’s request at the Chancellor’s dinner-party, is “Ailein Duinn” (in English, “Dark-Haired Alan”), a lament written by a young woman in late-eighteenth-century Scotland whose betrothed died at sea. The composer was Annag Chaimbeul (Annie Campbell). [Listen to Mairi Morrison sing “Ailean Duinn” — and explain its origins — here.]

Also at the Chancellor’s dinner-party, Mór MacRury sings another song composed by a young woman for her seagoing fiancé: “Fear a’ Bhata” (in English, “My Boatman”). This one has a happier story behind it; although the composer feared that her beloved had been lost at sea, he did in fact come back and marry her. The composer was Sìne NicFhionnlaigh (Jean Finlayson). This piece is more anachronistic than any of the others that appear in the book, as it was composed in our world’s late 19th century, but I couldn’t resist including it because I have such a personal connection to it: I’ve performed it myself (with verses in English), and have two versions of it on my MidnightVerse playlist. [Listen to Karen Matheson sing “Fear a’ Bhata” here.]

A Season of Spells

A song featured in Lady of Magick, “Fear a’ bhàta,” is reprised by Sophie, at Gray’s request, in chapter IV. Indeed, most of the songs in this book are callbacks to the previous two volumes in the series — because, like anyone, the characters like what they like!

There are some exceptions, though: an English song, “The Oak and the Ash” (aka “The North Country Maid”), in chapter IV; two Welsh songs, “Suo Gân” and “Llwyn On” (“The Ash Grove”), in chapter XI; and a Scots song (another Robbie Burns poem!), “O Whistle and I’ll Come To Ye”, also in chapter XI.

The Oak and the Ash” is the contemplations of a young woman from the north of England who wishes she weren’t living in London, which is why Lady Maelle references it when a frustrated Sophie seeks refuge amongst the nearest available trees. (Fun fact: this song supplied the title and epigraph of Mary Stewart’s 1961 novel The Ivy Tree.) [Voice & guitar performance by Brodgar of “A North Country Maid” here.]

Suo Gân” will be familiar to you if you have ever seen the film Empire of the Sun, which opens with the young protagonist singing it as part of a boys’ choir. “Suo Gân” is a lullaby (hence the title) which may explains why it has so many verses and why the lyrics are so repetitive — and is, obviously, why Sophie and Gwendolen choose it for their purpose in Chapter XI. The real-world lyrics are heavy on angels and Heaven; in the Midnight-verse, of course, they instead reference kindly local deities and guardian spirits. [There’s a lovely choral version, sung in Welsh by a male choir with a treble soloist, here; and a bilingual Welsh/English version for soprano solo and piano, performed by Angela Lafontaine and Jim Leonard, here. (Special bonus fun fact: About 20 years ago, Angela and I were in the first soprano section of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir together.)]

Both “Llwyn On” (“The Ash Grove”) and “O Whistle and I’ll Come To Ye” are love songs, but they’re diametrically opposed in character: “Llwyn On” is introspective and tragic, whilst “O Whistle” can only be described as cheeky. Again, the characters choose them for specific (and opposing) purposes in the chapter where they appear. To say more would be super spoilery! [Choral arrangement of “Llwyn On” performed in Welsh by Cor Meibion Treoci Choir here; in this video, two young women perform (in English) an improvised duet version, exactly as Sophie and Gwendolen do in chapter XI, except with harp instead of piano.] [Fun choral arrangement of “O Whistle” performed by the National Youth Choir of Scotland Girls’ Choir and the BBC Scottish Symphony here.]