A New Person's Guide to Music in the SCA
Written by HL Margareta vanden Velde, A.S. 37
Are you interested in doing music in the Society for Creative Anachronism but don't know where to start? Many people are in the same boat. Fortunately, SCAdians love music and cherish their musicians. "Bard" is the local term for someone who consistently provides lovely and entertaining music at events and other SCA functions. But how to be a bard? What are the parameters?
Most of the music we re-create in the SCA follows two broad generalizations: One, it is secular not sacred, and two, it is usually from late period, like the Renaissance, or Elizabethan periods. The reason for the first is that the SCA generally tries to avoid religious connotations, and the reason for the second is that most of the music available to us today comes from the later years of the Middle Ages when people were more literate.
There is a wide selection of music available, depending on whether you are singing alone or in a group. Some songs are suitable for both. There are a variety of texts available on different topics and in different languages (most SCAdians tend to stick to English, for obvious reasons). Texts cover courtly love, historic events, politics, drinking songs, and everything in between. Courtly love is probably the most common theme of the texted songs.
If you are looking for solo songs with thoughts of performing at feast, you must first consider how good your memory is, that is, how many verses you can safely memorize. Then consider the audience and what they might be interested in hearing about. Good sources for serious songs are the "airs" (sometime spelled "ayres") and "madrigals" of composers such as John Dowland and Thomas Morley. Although these songs are written for three to five voices, the melody will often sound lovely by itself. That will be the top line of music.
For less formal venues such as campfires or bardic parties, you may want less serious, easier repertoire. Elizabethans were very fond of singing rounds as drinking songs, and the nice thing about rounds is they can be sung alone or with a group. We know that the Elizabethans were also fond of bawdy or suggestive songs, which can be funny if the audience is in a silly mood.
In addition to the previously mentioned available songs, there is another body of songs in the SCA, made up by SCAdians themselves. Often these describe current events or historic events from an SCA viewpoint (detailing a scenic battle, or perhaps a humourous occurrence). Often the melodies for these songs have been borrowed from previously existing songs (a period practice) but sometimes they are new melodies. Various people in the SCA have made compilations which are available from time to time.
INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC :
A lot of the instrumental music that we do in the SCA tends to be music for the dancers. One, because the dancers are thrilled to have live musicians rather than "music in a box", and two, because the dance music also sounds lovely by itself as a performance only. Generally the music is sectional in regular divisions, and often the tunes are not that difficult to play. Also, when there is a strong melody (like the airs and madrigals!) then a musician can play alone if need be and still sound good. The dance tunes surviving from the Elizabethan period mostly did not have accompaniments, but there are many modern accompaniments available.
The music of the later Middle Ages that was written exclusively for instrumental performance tends to be in parts (written for four or five instruments), and doesn't usually sound complete with only one or two musicians; three would be about the minimum number. If you are fortunate enough to be playing in a group with a large body of musicians, you can play some of the best-quality instrumental music that was available at the time. This music is very lovely and more challenging than dance music.
The advantage of being an instrumentalist is that you can also play the tunes of vocal music, any you like. The airs, madrigals, rounds and drinking songs are all within your scope. Don't forget about mixed ensembles, such as singers and instrumentalists together. Even rounds will work this way.
Generally most SCAdians do not have access to "real" medieval instruments, so we use close approximations. The recorder is a favourite because (although we now buy them in plastic) it is a period instrument. Also, it is easy to learn, easy to buy, not too expensive, and comes in a variety of different sizes and sounds. Drums are another popular favourite, especially for dancing. There were a large variety of drums available in period and as long as your drum doesn't look or sound too synthetic then it is probably fine for the SCA.
Other common instruments found in the SCA are strings, such as the guitar family, and the violin family. Both have period antecedents and are not too far off what might have been used in period. Sometimes at events you will see re-creation instruments that people have made or acquired at more cost, such as lutes, shawms and harps. Although these are fabulous resources, do not let the lack thereof bar you from participation. Make music and be happy!
This is a stupendously large and well-organized online resource, go here before you buy anything.
Steven Hendricks is a music laurel from Ansteorra who is dedicated to the re-creation of period music.
The links page for the Avacal Bards site also has many SCAdian and period music sites