July 20, 2024


I Fall For Art

Mediaeval Baebes, Salva Nos (1997): Song Meanings and Origins

The Mediaeval Baebes are the first name on the lips of every music lover who appreciates a lush, heady medieval atmosphere. They’ve featured prominently in the soundtrack of almost every party I have hosted. I am fiercely passionate about medieval music, and most of my friends can tell you about how I’ve cornered them after a few drinks to tell them about the true origins about this or that Mediaeval Baebes song. So I decided it was time to commit some of this geeky enthusiasm to the page, get it out of my system, and save my friends from my ranting and raving.

My next series of articles will explore the Mediaeval Baebes’ discography, briefly discussing the origins and history of the music they have drawn upon to create their classic recordings. I hope you enjoy them.

To begin, let’s take a look at their first album, Salva Nos, released in 1997.

1. Salve Virgo Virginum

This is an early medieval Gregorian chant praying to the Virgin Mary. The Baebes have approached it from a conservative, historically accurate angle.

2. Now Springes the Spray

This is an English song, circa 1300, and an early example of the chanson d’aventure. The chanson d’aventure features a male narrator wandering in the countryside who winds up overhearing or interrupting a private moment. In this case, the singer overhears a maiden cursing her loved one who has spurned her.

3. Ah! Si Mon Moine

Though this song supposedly originated in France, in the 16th century or earlier, my Canadian readers will be delighted to know that our earliest written version of it comes from 19th century Quebec. It’s a playful, punning song about a dancing monk. The word “moine” means both “monk” and “spinning top”.

4. Adam Lay Ibounden

The lyrics to this song are 15th-century English, set to music by founding Mediaeval Baebe Katharine Blake. The result is ominous, powerful, and gorgeous. Blake did a beautiful job with the setting. I want to take a moment, though, to acknowledge how beautiful and important the lyrics are. The first two stanzas describe Adam, the first man, being bound for a thousand winters as punishment for taking the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden. In the third and fourth stanzas, however, the poet praises humanity’s sin and ejection from the garden as events without which Mary would never have become Queen of Heaven, therefore “Blessed be the time that apple taken was!” This is a powerful message that remains very relevant today. When we learn to make peace with our origins, we are better equipped to move forward.

5. Foweles In The Firth

This is another beautiful original setting by Katharine Blake. The lyrics are simple, anonymous, and heartbreaking, originating in late 13th-century England. It survives in but one manuscript where it is buried under a lot of legal writings. Interestingly, the manuscript has music with the text, but for whatever reason, the Baebes chose to use original music for this recording.

6. So Treiben Wir Den Winter Aus

This is an instrumental version of a 16th-century German folk song about driving the winter out. Though the lyrics are omitted, one might consider it conspicuously pagan, considering the songs that follow.

7. The Coventry Carol

This is a very well-known song, and certainly the darkest of all the Christmas carols. The Baebes did a lovely job of remaining true to the 16th-century transcription while making the melody and rhythm sound natural. The result is simply perfect.

8. Gaudete

This recording is a triumph. The text along with the music for the refrain comes from a 16th-century Scandinavian manuscript and the verses were set by Mediaeval Baebe Ruth Galloway. I love this synthesis of vital creativity with reverence for the past.

9. Adult Lullaby

This is a haunting and deeply sad solo song set by Katharine Blake. The text is Old English, but I have not been able to find any information about its origins. If you know something, please leave a comment.

10. Veni, Veni

Another beloved Christmas carol (or rather Advent carol), more commonly called by the name “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, but sung in the original Latin. The true origins of this song are shrouded in mystery.

11. Salva Nos

“Save us, star of the sea and queen of Heaven!” This is a mid-13th-century Anglo-Norman devotional song. The Baebes have added instrumentation to emphasize the rhythm and drive the song forward.

12. Verbum Caro

This is another Christmas song which appears in a 14th-century Florentine manuscript. Again, the Baebes have added some simple instrumentation to enhance the rhythmic interest.

13. Lo, Here My Hert

Another hauntingly beautiful composition from Katharine Blake. The lyric is a 12th-century English poem, just one stanza in length, portraying Christ suffering on the cross.

14. Binnorie O Binnorie

This is a Scottish ballad of which twenty-four versions survive and which dates back to the 17th century. It tells the oft-retold story of the “cruel sister”. One sister drowns the other in order to marry the sister’s man for herself, and her bones are found and made into a harp, which sings the truth about the murder. It is interesting that the Baebes chose to record it as an instrumental piece. For those who know it, the words hover behind the music, like the subtle voice of a murdered girl singing her truth after death.

15. This Ay Nicht

This English song is properly called the Lyke-Wake Dirge, and deals with the journey of the soul after death. It was first written down in the 17th century, but is thought to be a good deal older. It is chilling and powerful and has been worked and reworked by countless poets and musicians through the centuries.

16. Miri It Is

This is a 13th-century English song about the sorrow that sets in with the cold weather when summer is done. An interesting choice to end an album that consists mostly of songs for the winter season.