Monday, 11 December 2017

Anglo-Saxon Music

Over the course of this year I've invited a number of authors to write about the music that inspires them, either to write, or while writing. I suppose it's now time for me to do the same!

Some of the authors chose music which came from the period in which their novels are set. It's not so easy for me to do this, as my writing is all set in the pre-Conquest period. I do have a CD, however, which attempts to give the flavour of the music of the time, and it can be quite useful for creating atmosphere.

Sanctus seeks to recreate the sounds with which Bede might have been familiar, taking traditional plainchant and adding harp and pipe.
Factor est cum Angelo
It's fair to say, though, that this is probably not a true representation of the music of the time. Few musical instruments have been unearthed from this period, possibly because they were mainly made from wood. Flutes made from applewood and hawthorn were unearthed from the Anglo-Scandinavian levels at York [1] but where the soil composition is not so conducive to the preservation of such items, they will have been lost. The sound would be more sonorous than those made of bone:
Sheep Bone Flutes (Youtube)
Some flutes were also made from the bones of swans' wings.

The other main musical instrument that we know about is the lyre, referred to in the sources as the harp. The most famous of all these finds is probably the Sutton Hoo lyre, but it is rather more ornate than those which would have belonged to a 'jobbing' musician, or scop. It was made from maplewood, and had six tuning pegs. The sound board was secured using pins cut from a strip of sheet copper alloy [2]
Anglo-Saxon Harp (Youtube)
The highest level of woodworking skills were required to make the instruments. A lyre has two main elements, the sound-box and the yoke into which the tuning pegs were seated. The lyre at Sutton Hoo had a 16mm deep soundbox carved from a single piece of maple. The soundboard, 3mm thick, was nailed over it, and the joints used to fix the yoke to the arms of the sound box were 'bridle joints', not 'mortise and tenon' [3]

Replica Lyre at Sutton Hoo - authors' own photo

Scops, the poets and singers, would have played the harp, but it seems that others were expected to have playing skills, too. Important occasions were marked by feasts, accompanied with music and entertainment. According to Bede, "When a cause for celebration had been determined ... they must all sing with a harp in turn."

However, stage fright appears not to be a modern phenomenon. "Whenever all those present at a feast took it in turns to sing and entertain the company, he would get up from the table and go home directly he saw the harp approaching him." [4]

Another instrument was the handbell, made from iron and primarily used for cows, but also used by Irish monks in the early Christian period. The figures below are depicted at Edward the Confessor's funeral (Bayeux Tapestry)

Much mention is made of the power of song. "That every day he heard the pleasure loud in the hall, the scop's clear song." (Beowulf 1.86-9)

It seems that there were different types of song: giedd (narrative and often sad), the leoð (also narrative), folcræden (tribal tradition) [5]

It's possible that as well as being played and sung in the hall in the evening, the scop's music was also used to rouse the slumbering warriors the morning after - a precursor to the alarm clock!

It's clear that music, and particularly song, was important. From Widsiþ:
...and I with a bright voice, raised a song for our victorious lord. Loud with the harp the sound mellowed, when many men, proud with mead, spoke their words,who well knew, that they had never heard a better song."

 We can't be sure what any of this music sounded like, but we have a little information dating from the end of the period. The Winchester Troper dates from around AD1000 and includes possibly the oldest written music, designed to be performed in Winchester Cathedral. A sample can be heard on YouTube.

Winchester Troper

Here's a recreation of what multi-instrumental music might have sounded like:
Anglo-Saxon Folk Music - "Wælheall"

and a demonstration of music played on replicas of instruments found together as grave goods.
UR Pipes & Lyre

The theme of this series of blog posts has been Writing to Music. For all the reasons stated above, it's hard for me to do this in the way that some authors can. If music inspires me, it's usually the lyrics which spark my imagination. Lyrics, for me, are a bit like the poetry of Tennyson: an elegant yet simple summation of the things we all feel, but struggle sometimes to put into words. Songs often dig down and expose the centre of my characters' situations. If you've read my books, then you'll know who I'm talking about:

Chasing Cars - Snow Patrol: sums up how Æthelred of Mercia feels when he's tired of the struggle and wants his wife to just be with him, supporting him. (To Be A Queen)

You're Beautiful - James Blunt: simply  a perfect way to describe how Alvar feels when he first meets Káta. (Alvar the Kingmaker)

Leaving the Land - Mary Black: a wonderful expression of Káta's belief that you can't go forwards in life if you're always looking behind you. (Alvar the Kingmaker)

I can't make you love me - Bonnie Raitt:  a pivotal moment in the lives of Edwin and Carinna. (Cometh the Hour)

Angel - Sarah McLachlan: this track happened to be playing while I was writing one of the saddest scenes of Cometh the Hour. If you've read it, you'll know.

None of these tracks is remotely medieval in sound. But emotions are timeless, aren't they? However, there is something which bridges the gap between authentic Old English music, and the atmosphere conjured up by those artists and writers attempting to recreate the past. So, fianlly, enjoy this video and the accompanying music.
Wedding (Wardruna)
Amazon Author Page

[1] Wilson, 1976, (Quoted in The Mead-Hall - S Pollington)
[2] [3] Anglo-Saxon Crafts - Kevin Leahy
[4] Cædmon's Vision, Translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland
[5] Bloomfield & Dunn 1989


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I recently set Caedmon's song to music, and hope to record it in on my next album. Jill Rogoff

    1. Thanks for stopping by Jill - I've just been listening to some of your songs. You have a gorgeous voice and the music is wonderful!

  2. Music reaches deep into an emotional core, especially important for writers. Thanks for sharing the music that inspired your writing, Annie.

    1. Thanks Cryssa - music is also so important to culture that it's important to try, if possible,to get a glimpse of period by hearing what they were listening to, because as you say, it reaches so deeply, that to know what folk were listening to helps the novelist to get to 'know' them.

  3. I will have to check out the Anglo Saxon music - thank you for the details on the instruments! If the scene is 'angry' or battle driven, a nice bit of Heavy Metal (Saxon!!!) is perfect. And that Bonnie Raitt song! - well ANY Bonnie Raitt song is great for me, but the lyrics on that one are so poignant. (Check out her 'Spit of Love' - the slide solo is demonic!!!)

    1. I think I'd have to go for a bit of The Who for 'angry' (well, they're my all-time favourite group anyway, so theres a fair chance that at any given moment, they are on the 'turntable' anyway!) I was amazed to discover, relatively recently, that Bonnie Raitt didn't actually write that song. She sings is to poignantly that I always assumed that she also wrote it.

    2. I saw something on TV recently where they featured the writers of the song - can't remember the programme, probably on BBC 4. Saw her sing it live a few years ago in Birmingham.Just love Bonnie! Won't get fooled Again is a great Who track.

    3. It is, I think, my favourite track of all time. Saw them do it live, twice, and it's amazing. Would love to see Bonnie Raitt live! Also, while I don't know her music quite as well, Sarah McLachlan has a beautiful way of singing, and of singing about stuff you know you feel, but weren't aware that you felt it...

  4. Is there any music sung in Old Anglo Saxon recorded? King Alfred was so keen on putting things in the native tongue of Anglo Saxon, I wonder there is no music recorded except in Latin Church music from before the conquest?

    1. Hi Patricia - I suspect not, or at least, not that we know of. The Winchester Troper is possibly the oldest written music to have been unearthed. I think there's no doubt that music was sung and played in the mead halls but if it was written down, we don't have it. We do have a collection of riddles - some of them rather bawdy - and there are some examples on Youtube of Anglo-Saxon words and poems being set to music by modern musicians playing on replica A/S instruments (links don't work in these comment boxes but you should be able to do a search) but Church music would always have been sung in Latin.

  5. Мesmo princípio se aplіcca ɑo universo digital.

    1. Yes, it is - and in some ways, that's a really good thing :-)