Parlement of Foules

The programme is loosely inspired by Valentine’s Day and more closely by Chaucer’s poem ‘Parlement of Foules’ (there’s a modernised version) – an account of the birds’ troubles having to choose a mate on St Valentine’s day, eventually resolved in a good-natured way. However, in our programme it’s the birds observing the humans and seeing a far less innocent picture. In a triptych of stories, we have on the ends two contrasting versions of a ballad rooted in the tradition of courtly love – ravens contemplate dining on a slain knight’s body with very different outcomes. In the middle of the triptych, the birds contemplate humans’ springtime dalliances as they turn into love and betrayal, then keep the wounded company in their time of despair, and even ease their passing. All the while, they welcome spring and go about their lives, even take sustenance from the aftermath of human tragedies – all still in a good-natured way.
Printed programme list; texts; and programme notes. And the flyer.
The three ravensThomas Ravenscroft (c. 1588 – 1635)
Spring birds
This merry pleasant springAnonymous 17th century
The nightingaleRichard Sumarte (fl. 1600 – 1630)
The nightingaleThomas Weelkes (1576 – 1623)
Earthly pleasures
En froylik wesonJacobus Barbireau (1455 – 1491)
Pastime with good companyHenry VIII (1491 – 1547)
Donna gentileHeinrich Isaac (c. 1450 – 1517)
Blow thy horn, hunterWilliam Cornysh (1465 – 1523)
Kemp’s jigAnon. 16th century
Tomorrow is St Valentine’s day (to the tune of Souldier’s life) – Anon. / text by W. Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
Robin is to the greenwood goneAnon. 16th century
Willow, willow Anon. 16-17th century
O Death, rock me asleep – Anon. / text attr. Anne Boleyn (c. 1501 – 1536)
Ah Robin, gentle RobinWilliam Cornysh
Pensive birds
Coockow, as I me walkedJohn Baldwin (before 1560 – 1615)
The nightingaleThomas Bateson (c. 1570 – 1630)
Sweet Suffolk owlThomas Vautor (fl. 1592 – 1619)

Programme notes

The Three Ravens

  • First published in Ravenscroft’s ‘Melismata‘, 1611
  • Thought to be related to the Corpus Christi Carol, and is (half of) one of our pairs of birds that inspired this programme.
There were three ravens sat on a tree,
Down a down, hay down, hay down
They were as black as they might be.
With a down
The one of them said to his mate,
'Where shall we our breakfast take?'
With a down, derrie derrie derrie down, down.

'Down in yonder greene field
There lies a knight slain under his shield;
'His hounds they lie down at his feet,
So well they can their master keep;

'His hawks they flie so eagerly,
There 's no fowl dare come him nigh.'
Down there comes a fallow doe
As great with young as she might goe.

She lift up his bloudy head
And kist his wounds that were so red.
She gat him up upon her back
And carried him to earthen lake.

She buried him before the prime,
She was dead herself ere evensong time.
God send every gentleman
Such hounds, such hawks, and such a leman.


The bird aspect of Chaucer’s poem was immediately appealing, since we have a sizeable ‘bird’ repertoire to work with. There was also an interesting duality in the perception of certain birds – such as the nightingale, who sounds like happily welcoming spring in most compositions, but others allude to its tragic mythological background (see later). Or the cuckoo: a herald of spring/summer, but also an emblem of treachery/unfaithfulness. And we have the pair of raven ballads – although (while ravens also appear in a varietly of roles in mythology and folklore), the contrast comes from the human element there.

This merry, pleasant spring

  • consort song and lute versions in various early 17th century manuscripts
This merry pleasant spring,
Hark, how the sweet birds sing,
And warble in the copse and on the briers.
'Jug jug jug jug jug!' The nightingale delivers.
'Yet, yet, yet, yet,' the sparrow sings his hot desires;
The robin doth record;
The lark, he quivers.
O sweet, sweet as ever,
From strains so sweet, sweet birds deprive us never.

The Nightingale

Richard Sumarte
  • From the Manchester Lyra Viol Book (available here)
  • Many of the pieces are compositions or arrangements of popular tunes of the time by the otherwise unknown Richard Sumarte.
  • This seems to have been one of those popular tunes, appears in other manuscripts as well, and was also set by Jacob von Eyck as the ‘English Nightingale’

The Nightingale

The Nightingale, the Organ of delight,
the nimble Lark, the Blackbird, and the Thrush,
and all the pretty quiristers of flight,
that chant their Music notes in ev'ry bush:
Let them no more contend who shall excel,
the Cuckoo is the bird that bears the bell.

En frolyk weson

  • from the Henry VIII manuscript
  • we played it instrumentally, although there’s more than one text to go with the tune – it was extremely popular back then, many arrangements were composed upon it (including a parody mass by H. Isaac)

Pastime with good company

  • From the Henry VIII manuscript, composed by him.
  • Henry VIII was very accomplished in chivalric pastimes both athletic (like jousting) and artistic (many pieces in the manuscript are composed by him), although in other aspects he didn’t quite live up to the courtly ideals – see his history with women.
Pastime with good company
I love, and shall until I die.
Gruch who lust but none deny,
So God be pleas'd thus live will I.
For my pastance, hunt, sing, and dance, 
my heart is set all goodly sport, 
for my comfort, who shall me let?

Youth must have some dalliance,
of good or ill some pastance.
Company methinks then best,
all thoughts and fancies to digest.
For idleness is chief mistress 
of vices all then who can say
but mirth and play is best of all.

Company with honesty,
Is virtue, vices to flee.
Company is good and ill,
but every man hath his free will.
The best ensue, the worst eschew,
my mind shall be virtue to use,
vice to refuse, thus shall I use me.

Donna gentile

  • also known as ‘La Morra’
  • pieces by Isaac are also featured in the Henry VIII MS

Blow thy horn, hunter

  • from the Henry VIII MS
Blow thy horn, hunter,
And blow thy horn on high!
There is a doe in yonder wood,
In faith she will not die:

Now blow thy horn, hunter,
Now blow thy horn, jolly hunter!

Sore this deer stricken is,
And yet she bleeds no whit;
She lay so fair, I could not miss,
Lord, I was glad of it:
Now blow…

There she go'th! See ye not,
How she go'th over the plain?
And if ye lust to gave a shot,
I warrant her barrain.
Now blow…                

He to go and I to go,
But he ran fast afore;
I bade him shoot and strike the doe,
For I might shoot no more.
Now blow…

To the covert both they went,
For I found where she lay;
An arrow in her haunch she hent,
For faint she might not bray.
Now blow…

Kemp’s Jig

  • Appears in various lute manuscripts. Funnily enough, one variant is called ‘The parlement’.
  • William Kempe –  famous comedian of the time, who worked with Shakespeare.
  • Jig – In theatres, beginning in Elizabethan London, a jig was a short comic drama that immediately followed a full-length play.

Tomorrow is St Valentine’s day

to the tune of ‘Souldiers Life’ / text by W. Shakespeare
  • Beside Chaucer’s poem, another detail stood out when looking into the tradition of Valentine’s Day in medieval / Renaissance Britain: Ophelia referencing it in one of her songs (Hamlet Act 4 Scene 5) – she’s not the heroine one would associate with the sugary-pink image of Valentine’s day, and indeed it’s the darker side of it she draws attention to.
  • There was a variety of Valentine’s day customs and superstitions in Shakespeare’s time – from drawing names on Valentine’s eve to be your object of attention for the year, to believing that you’re destined to marry the first person you see on St Valentine’s day, and perhaps taking measures to make sure it’s the person you want – which is what Ophelia’s song seems to refer to
  • ‘Souldiers life’ was one of the widely know ballad tunes of the time, found in a lute manuscript from the 1630’s. Variants of it were associated with the song in the play in later theatrical traditions.
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door.
Let in the maid that out a maid
Never departed more.

By Gis [Jesus] and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie, for shame!
Young men will do ’t, if they come to ’t.
By Cock [God], they are to blame.

Quoth she, “Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.”
(He answers)
“So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.”

Robin is to the Greenwood gone

  • One of those ballad tunes, one of the most popular ones.
  • Lute composition by John Dowland, arrangement based on that of Pellingman’s Saraband

Willow, willow

  • A ballad that Shakespeare used with slight alterations in Othello – Desdemona sings it before her death.
  • A willow garland was often used as emblem of the forsaken in and around Shakespeare’s time. Coincidentally, Ophelia’s death also involves a willow tree and a garland.
  • info about manuscript sources (among other things) on the blog of lute song duo Mignarda, plus a wonderful recording
The poor soul sat sighing
By a sycamore tree,
Sing willow, willow, willow,
With her hand in her bosom
And her head upon her knee,
Oh, willow, willow, willow,
Oh, willow, willow, willow,
My garland shall be.
Sing all a green willow,
Aye me, the green willow
My garland shall be.

The mute bird sat by her
Was made tame by her moans,
Sing willow ...
The true tears fell from her
Would have melted the stones.
Oh willow ...

Come all you forsaken
And mourn you with me.
Sing willow ...
Who speaks of a false love?
Mine's falser than he.
Oh willow ...

Take this for my farewell
And latest adieu;
Sing willow ...
Write this on my tomb
That in love I was true.
Oh willow ...

O Death, rock me asleep

anonymous / text attr. Anne Boleyn
  • Anne Boleyn was a victim of her partner in a different way than our imaginary heroine, but the sentiment is still fitting. Actually, it’s doubtful that she really had the opportunity to write the poem in her last days.
  • Passing Bell: Historically there were three bells rung around death; the first being the ‘Passing Bell’ to warn of impending death, the second the ‘Death Knell’ at the actual time of the death, and the last was the ‘Lych Bell’, or ‘Corpse Bell’, which survives today as the Funeral toll. (Wikipedia)
O Death, rock me asleep, 
Bring me to quiet rest, 
Let pass my weary guiltless ghost, 
Out of my woeful breast. 
Toll on the passing bell, 
Ring out the doleful knell, 
Let the sound of my death tell. 
    For I must dye, 
    There is no remedye, 
    For now I dye. 

Farewell my pleasures past, 
Welcum my present payne, 
I feel my torments so increase, 
That lyfe cannot remayne. 
Cease now the passing bell, 
Rung is my doleful knell, 
For the sound my death doth tell. 
    Death doth draw nye, 
    Sound my end dolefully,
    For now I dye.

Ah Robin, gentle Robin

William Cornysh
  • From the Henry VIII MS

Coockow as I me walked

  • The tune it’s based on (with a slight change) was also collected by Ravenscroft, published in ‘Pammelia’

The Nightingale

  • Based on Sir Philip Sidney’s poem.
  • Only the beginning was set to music, leaving the cause for the nightingale’s misery obscure. The rest of the poem references the myth of Philomela.
The nightingale, as soon as April bringeth 
Unto her rested sense a perfect waking, 
While late bare earth, proud of new clothing, springeth, 
Sings out her woes, a thorn her song-book making, 
And mournfully bewailing, 
Her throat in tunes expresseth 
What grief her breast oppresseth.

Sweet Suffolk owl

  • ‘Te-whit te-whoo’ is the contact call of tawny owls, and it is actually made by two birds. The first ‘te-whit’ is the female’s call followed immediately by the ‘te-whoo’ of the male.
Sweet Suffolk owl, so trimly dight,
With feathers like a lady bright,
Thou sing'st alone, sitting by night:
Te-whit, te-whoo…
Thy note, that forth so freely rolls,
With shrill command the mouse controls,
And sings a dirge for dying souls:
Te-whit, te-whoo…

The twa corbies

to the tune of ‘Adew Dundee’ / anon
  • While the human aspect is bleak, and the corbies are somewhat aware of this, for them it’s clearly a domestic scene, with talk about dinner and patching up their nest. They seemed to be the one happy couple in the programme – until we found out about the owl, see above.
  • collected by Sir Walter Scott, and possibly polished/embellished in the process, this text (in this form) is much later than its idealistic counterpart, or anything else in our programme, although some sources mention fragments of the ballad existing in earlier manuscripts.
  • We chose to believe that there indeed was an underlying oral tradition, and (since it was collected without tune) set it to the tune of ‘Adew Dundee’, found in a 17th century Scottish manuscript, to match both the time period of our programme and the Scots origins of the text.
As I was walking all alone
I heard two ravens making moan
And one unto the other did say,
Where shall we go and dine today?

Behind that old turf-wall
I know there lies a newly slain knight
And nobody knows that he lies there,
But his hawk and his hound and his lady fair.

His hound has gone hunting,
His hawk has gone to catch wildfowl,
His lady has taken another mate,
So we may make our dinner sweet.

You'll sit on his white neck-bone
And I'll bite out his beautiful blue eyes;
With many a lock of his golden hair,
We'll cover our nest when it grows bare.

Many a one will him mourn
But none shall know where he has gone
For his white bones, when they are bare,
The wind shall blow forevermore.