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Of Birds: Songs on texts from Medieval bestiaries | Steven Sérpa

Of Birds: Songs on texts from Medieval bestiaries

for SSAA (or SATB) a capella (2010)



Duration: 5 min.

English, translated and compiled by the composer
Aberdeen Bestiary (Anonymous English, c. 12th century); Naturalis Historia, Book X (Pliny the Elder); Etymologiae, Book XII (Saint Isidore of Seville)

SSAA Premiere:
May 21st & 23rd, 2010
Church of St. John the Evangelist, Boston, MA
Anthology: Anney Gillotte, Allegra Martin, Vicky Reichert and Michelle Vachon
SATB Premiere:
March 1st, 2014
St. Paul’s Church, Brooklyn
March 8th, 2014
St. Michael’s Church, Manhattan
Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble; James John, Artistic Director

1. Of the Night–owl
2. Of the Phoenix

Program Note:
Medieval bestiaries are a ridiculous amount of beauty and fun. They weren’t meant to be, but to modern readers, how could they not be? If you are not familiar with Medieval bestiaries, they are a sort-of encyclopedia of flora and fauna compiled by monk-scholars for the instruction of the Christian faithful. They are highly illuminated tomes, split into categories of plants, fishes, birds, and beasts, and each entry contains an allegorical connection to some aspect of Christianity. The “facts” contained in these encyclopedias were not collected through observation or any scientific gathering method. The results can be pretty entertaining. Take for instance the beaver. According to these learnéd monks, when pursued the beaver will bite off his testicles and toss them at hunters, who want these testicles for their medicinal properties. Who knew beaver balls make good medicine? And how self-aware of those beavers that they could save their own lives by sacrificing their privates? But really, the moral is that a man can save his own soul by sacrificing his carnal desires.

There are so many fascinating entries in these bestiaries, but for this work for the Boston-based, female-quartet Anthology, I concentrated on two birds, the Night-Owl and the Phoenix. I compiled the text to create interplay between darkness and brightness, with a little humor and exhilaration mixed in. The Night-Owl is a creature of dark and death, the Phoenix of fire and resurrection. The music I’ve composed also contrasts the two birds. The melodies of the Night-Owl slither in and out of interlocked Phrygian and Dorian modes, some of the darker modes of Western music. The music to the Phoenix, on the other hand, is built on interlocked major and Lydian modes and often cadences with an unexpected series of major chords.


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