Will You Walk the Woods so Wild

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 music takes us back to the Renaissance. Over the past week or so, I’ve posted a couple of other pieces by English composer William Byrd (1540-1623). Today’s piece is a setting he did of a folk song of his time: “Will You Walk the Woods so Wild.” (Something that I think a lot of us currently in quarantine wouldn’t mind doing!)

As I wrote in my last post about Byrd, his interest in writing for solo stringed keyboard (as opposed to the organ) was unusual for his time. Most composers felt that the little stringed keyboards of the day were too limited to do more than accompany another instrument, or a singer. Byrd was convinced they had strengths of their own, and he set out to find what kinds of music would work best for them.

Dance music was an early choice for Byrd, because the little keyboards had a percussive sound and were good for maintaining a strong sense of pulse. Also, though, he quickly became interested in writing folk tune settings. In My Lady Nevell’s Book, the collection that today’s piece comes from, Byrd included many solo-keyboard arrangements of folk tunes.

A couple of notes about today’s piece. Byrd uses a theme-and-variations approach to writing “Woods So Wild.” You’ll hear the tune stated simply at the beginning. Then Byrd writes a series of variations on it where the tune becomes less and less clear, until it’s mostly just suggested by the harmony. Finally, at the end, he restates the tune clearly and strongly.

You may also notice that the harmonies in this piece strike your ear as a little unusual, or particularly “Renaissance-ish.” That’s because this old folk tune takes us back to a harmonic system that predates the one we’re used to. As modern listeners, we’re used to music that comes mainly in two “flavors”: major (bright/warm/happy) and minor (dark/sad). During the Renaissance, though, music “came in” seven different flavors called modes. Without getting into too much detail, each mode to our ears will sound very similar to major or minor, but as if there’s something a little off about it, maybe a single wrong note.

In the case of “Woods So Wild,” we’re hearing the mode called Lydian, which was very popular in folk music. Lydian mode is very close to major, but has a single note’s difference from a normal major scale. The result is a harmony that sounds unusual to us, and definitely evocative of an older time.

The words to the original folk song have been lost to history. As you listen, if you’d like, imagine what the song was about. Who is the singer speaking to? Is the message of the song cheerful or plaintive, or does it capture a different mood for you entirely? As always, you’re welcome to share your thoughts and responses to the music in the comments.

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