The 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.

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

Most of the songs featured or mentioned in A Season of Spells are reprised from the previous two books, but there are a few exceptions:

In  chapter IV there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to a song called “The North Country Maid” (or else “The Oak and the Ash”, depending — most folk songs have a variety of versions, but this one takes the biscuit, in my experience). This song is about a young woman who’s in London and wishes she weren’t. [Listen to Brodgar sing “The Oak and the Ash” here; or, if you prefer rowan trees to ivy trees, Heather Woodhead’s version is here.]

In chapter XI, Sophie and Gwendolen collaborate on two contrasting love-songs and a lullaby. The love songs are “Llwyn Onn” (known in English as “The Ash Grove”), which is Welsh and sad; and “O Whistle and I’ll Come to Ye”, which is Scots, happy, flirtatious. The lullaby, also Welsh, is “Suo Gan”, and if you’ve ever seen the film Empire of the Sun, you’ve heard it. [The Cor Meibion Treorci Choir sings “Llwyn Onn” in Welsh here; for a slightly more Sophie-and-Gwendolen experience, although it’s in English, go here. There’s a fun choir-and-piano version of “O Whistle”, performed by the University of Southern California Chamber Singers, here. And here is one of approximately 50K versions of “Suo Gan” — it’s for chorus, solo, and instruments and is performed by the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir.]