The Maiden’s Song

Welcome! 🙂 I hope the daily music posts here on the blog are giving you a boost, in these strange and unsettling times. If you’re new to the series and would like to check out earlier posts, you’ll find the first one here.

Today’s piece is one of my favorites by English Renaissance composer William Byrd (1540-1623). This is one of Byrd’s folk-tune settings, in which he took a popular melody of the time and wrote a series of variations on it for solo keyboard. The song, called “The Maiden’s Song,” is gentle and contemplative, a little bittersweet. Byrd’s variations on it start out simple, and then get gradually more intricate before he returns to the original theme at the end.

I’ve posted before about Byrd’s harmonies, which can sound unusual to our ears as modern listeners because they’re based on an older tonal system. You can read more about the seven “modes” of Medieval and Renaissance music in this post. “The Maiden’s Song” also has an unusual feel to it, harmonically, because it’s in one of the modes that we don’t run into much anymore. This mode is called Mixolydian, very similar to major but with one note that sounds a little “off.” (If you have a piano or keyboard, you can hear the Mixolydian mode by playing from one G to the next G, one note at a time, using only the white keys. As you see, it’s a lot like G Major except for the F natural instead of F sharp.) Mixolydian was one of the most commonly used modes in folk music, and to our modern ears, it gives this particular piece its particularly Renaissance flavor.

As you listen, let the music take you back in history to a quieter time, with less ambient noise, clearer skies, and fresher air. See if this piece conjures up any particular images or ideas for you. As always, you’re welcome to share your thoughts and responses to the music in the comments.

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