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Of Birds
Two songs on texts from Medieval bestiaries

for SSAA or SATB a cappella chorus (2010)

Duration: 5 minutes

Text: English, compiled and translated by the composer

Excerpts from Naturalis Historia, Book X by Gaius Plinius Secondus, called Pliny the Elder (23 A.D. – 79 A.D.), from Etymologiae, Book XII by Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560 A.D. – 636 A.D.) and from the anonymously penned Aberdeen Bestiary (England, c. 12th century).


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.


SSAA Premiere:

Anthology:Anney Gillotte, Allegra Martin,Vicky Reichert,

and Michelle Vachon
Church of St. John the Evangelist, Boston, MA

May 21st & 23rd, 2010

SATB Premiere:

Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble; James John, director

St. Paul’s Church, Brooklyn

March 1st, 2014

St. Michael’s Church, Manhattan

March 8th, 2014



1. Of the Night-owl

The night-owl is a bird that loves the darkness of night. It shuns the light, flying at night in search of food. It never flies directly where it wants to go, but travels slantwise from its course. Some say that it flies backwards.

It lives in decaying walls and sets up house in ruins, often found in caves or among tombs. It is a dirty, slothful bird that pollutes its own nest with its dung. It cannot be brought to the island of Crete, if it is, it will instantly die. The night-owl lets out a scream when it senses that someone is about to die.

When other birds see its hiding place, they noisily attack it to betray where it has hid. A crafty fighter, it will lie down on its back and bunch itself up, fighting with its beak and claws. When outnumbered and surrounded, it calls upon its ally the Hawk, which comes to aid the night-owl in combat with its enemies. If seen in the day, it is of dire portent.

2. Of the Phoenix

The phoenix is a bird of Arabia. There is only one of its kind in the whole world. It lives for upwards of five hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of frankincense, myrrh and other aromatic plants. And turning to face the rays of the sun, and beating its wings, it fans the flames and is consumed
in the fire.

From its marrow a worm arises and grows to maturity; and on the ninth day it acquires wings, and the phoenix rises from its ashes to fly.

"The Phoenix" Folio 55v from the Aberdeen Bestiary (early 13th century) The bestiary—a collection of descriptions and images of real and imaginary animals intended to provide readers with moral lessons—was one of the most important traditions to emerge from medieval England. Although bestiaries were a kind of medieval encyclopedia of animals, they explored the world of animals primarily in order to explain their significance within the Christian worldview. Male lions were seen as worthy reflections of the God the Father, for example, while the dragon was understood as a representative of Satan on earth.


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