The Minstrel's Tale: Making Music for The Canterbury Tales

‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’

So begins the most famous piece of Middle English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. For the last four months my students and I have been preparing a stage adaptation of Chaucer’s unfinished story collection for performance at The University of Liverpool.

Geraint Williams as Chaucer in our production of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (photo: Meave Sullivan)

Surprisingly, theatrical versions of Chaucer’s Tales are rare. The bulky nature of the collection makes it difficult to stage in its entirety and some of the individual stories need a great deal of abridgement to make them work on stage. Bringing the imaginative power and scope of the tales to life in the theatre similarly provides a great challenge for even the most inspired director and stage crew. Not only do the fictional fourteenth-century pilgrims travel from London to Canterbury as they share their stories, but the tales they tell take us everywhere from Oxford to Asia, Northumberland to Syria, ancient Athens to the fairy-inhabited forests in King Arthur’s day.

Long ago and far away… Palamon and Arcite fall in Love with Emily ('The Knight's Tale)

Long ago and far away… Palamon (James Rooney) and Arcite (Charles Adey) fall in Love with Emily (Katie Overbury) in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ (photo: Meave Sullivan)

In Chaucer’s original work, we likewise embark on a literary journey, exploring a range of medieval genres which come with their own unique registers of language, tone, imagery, and pace, and a variety of scenes including everything from large battles, shape-shifting crones, epic boat journeys, and sex up a pear tree. So how does one start to lend coherence to Chaucer’s diverse story collection in performance? What can be done to make what works on paper work on the stage? Well, dear reader, here beginneth ‘The Minstrel’s Tale’…

Head Minstrel and Composer Alex Cottrell and I

Head Minstrel and Composer Alex Cottrell and I with The Liverpool University Players’ psaltery

Once I’d worked out what script I wanted to use – Mike Poulton’s brilliant adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company – the first thing that I discussed with Rio Matchett, the third year English Literature student that I asked to direct the play, was how we might use music to invite connections between the tales and flag up the different worlds and genres that the tales belonged to.

Chaucer’s narratives are littered with references to songs, music, and dancing, so the myriad of musical possibilities for illustrating the different tales was similar to the wide generic range of the tales. Having previously worked with composer Alex Cottrell on a stage adaptation of Goblin Market, I wanted to employ him as ‘Head Minstrel’ and composer; he has a fantastic way of capturing the essence of texts and their characters in his musical scores.

Charlie Wilson as Guinevere in The Wife of Bath's Tale

Charlie Wilson as Guinevere in The Wife of Bath’s Tale (photo: Meave Sullivan)

We asked Alex to keep the music medieval in flavour (but not necessarily historically accurate) and simple in style, working with the small group of instruments available to us (harp, psaltery, Irish flute, and bodhrán). In our abridged version of Poulton’s script, we had elements of the General Prologue and three types of tales: fabliaux (comic and bawdy stories), romances (tales of love and chivalry), and moral tales. We wanted a unifying composition to open and close the play, and repeatable themes to signify which literary genre was in operation. Alex’s themes would act as musical ‘bookmarks’ to invite comparisons with other tales belonging to the same genre and underscore what kind of language, characters and events the audience were about to see. This allowed us to exploit the breadth of the tales in the best possible way, and highlight the differences between them, without detracting from the pilgrimage and storytelling motifs that bound the whole together.

Several tales came with authentic medieval lyrics embedded within them, which we asked Alex to retain and link with the most appropriate style of music for the tale.

Chaunticlear and Pertelote singing love songs together, 'My lief is faren in londe'.

Chaunticlear (George Trier) and Pertelote (Imogen Wignall) singing the medieval lyric ‘My lief is faren in londe’

Armed with a psaltery, which he learnt to play in less than two weeks, our head minstrel developed several themes. The first was a ‘romantic’ and stately piece for ‘The Knight’s Tale’ and the start of ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, played on the psaltery. An a cappella lyric sung by Emily in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ (‘Of every kind of tree’) followed a similar kind of tune: simple but with a courtly aspect that wouldn’t be out of place in a royal household. Musical Director, Darren Begley, put the actors through a crash course in singing medieval tunes and things started coming together.

Nicholas (James Rooney) and Alison (Charlie Wilson) just before 'I have a gentle cock' is sung.

Nicholas (James Rooney) and ‘Naughty’ Alison (Charlie Wilson) just before ‘I have a gentle cock’ (photo: Meave Sullivan)

A spritely tune entitled ‘Tales Less Tasteful’ was composed to open and close the comic and bawdy stories like ‘The Miller’s Tale’. Using all of the instruments, but especially the flute for its lively melody, it evokes a bustling medieval market place or tavern. Two sombre pieces, more ecclesiastical in tone, were written for the psaltery to accompany ‘The Monk’s Tale’ and the ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, and Alex improvised a discordant piece to make the death of the Pardoner’s rioters more emotive (‘Thus fell all three’).

The Host, The Knight, The Miller and the Cook

The Host (Dominic Davies), Knight (Daniel Murphy), Miller (Shamus Cooke) & Cook (Alex Webber-Date) (Meave Sullivan)

He developed a jaunty but simple accompaniment for ‘I have a gentle cock’, which Alison’s suitors in ‘The Miller’s Tale’ sang with gusto, while the chickens of ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, Chaunticlear and Pertelote, serenaded each other with a slow simple rendition of ‘My lief is faren in londe’, which we recycled with a faster tempo for the chase scene that closes the tale.

My favourite piece by far was the introductory/closing piece written for the harp called ‘Aweccan’ (‘awaken’ in Middle English) because it captured perfectly the essence of spring and the ‘longing’ for pilgrimage felt by Chaucer’s pilgrims in the ‘General Prologue’. Opening with four bars that imitated church bells calling out the faithful, the positioning of the piece, as Chaucer opened speaking a few lines of Middle English and later closed the play with a plea to ‘pray for all poor pilgrims on the road’, worked beautifully and marked the play’s movement between the real and fictional worlds, the past and the present.

'Do not feed the minstrels'. Aweccan being performed on the harp.

‘Do not feed the minstrels’. Aweccan performed on the harp by a time-travelling harpist from the Italian Renaissance.

There are naturally lots of ways that the direction of the play, the set, the costumes, and the doubling or tripling of parts helped to invite parallels between the tales, as Chaucer did in his original text, but the incorporation of music and medieval songs equipped our modern audience with an emotional and moral barometer to aid them on their theatrical journey through the medieval tales.

Afterword: Happily, Alex was inspired to produce an album of neo-medieval tunes, inspired by  his compositions for the play. Several of the tunes, ‘The Knight’s Tale’, ‘Aweccan’, and ‘Thus fell all three’ appear on the album, alongside a new medieval remaining ‘1478’ and a pleasing reworking of ‘Summer is Icomen In’, which the pilgrims sang at the start of our play.

Read more about the composition process from Alex here.

Listen to, or purchase, Alex’s Canterbury Tales album ‘Untold’ below:

Watch a short feature about ‘The Music of The Canterbury Tales’: