Bee music by ‘Swarmzy’ creates art show buzz

He was quite the Renaissance man … clergyman, grammarian and naturalist. Now music written by Elizabethan polymath Charles Butler is about to enthrall a new audience.

Australian artist Angelica Mesiti with her 2020 video installation Over the Air and Underground.

A remarkable composition by the man dubbed ‘the father of English bee-keeping’ will feature in an upcoming exhibition by leading Australian artist Angelica Mesiti.

The choral piece by the musically innovative Butler – something of a 17th century ‘Swarmzy’ – reflects the cleric’s fascination with the magical sound of bees in the hive.

Butler’s haunting four-part vocal harmony mimics a sound known as piping, which queen bees make during certain periods of their development.

Now Mesiti has brought Butler’s 400-year-old piece to life, editing the score to produce her own sound installation, The Swarming Song. The new artwork will be part of In the Round, which opens at the University’s Talbot Rice Gallery on 1 October.

Major works

Three major video and sound installations by Mesiti – focusing on themes of music, communication and translation – will also be part of the internationally acclaimed artist’s first major UK exhibition.

The University of Edinburgh’s extensive cultural collections have provided inspiration for much of Mesiti’s work in the exhibition. Around 50 artefacts from the collections, selected by the artist, will be shown.

Included in the collections is a 1634 edition of Butler’s groundbreaking beekeeping guide, The Feminine Monarchie, which contains a copy of the Hampshire cleric’s choral score.

In the first edition of 1609, Butler represented the piping noise using a system of musical notation. By the next edition in 1623, he had expanded this into a four-part vocal composition called The Bees Madrigal. 

Strangely modern

Although rooted in the musical style of its day, The Bee’s Madrigal seems strangely modern. It would be another 300 years before Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his celebrated Flight of the Bumblebee.

The book too is forward looking. In it, Butler challenges Aristotle’s view that a male governed the hive, proposing that bees are ‘ruled’ by a queen. Parallels with Queen Elizabeth I’s reign are implicit in the title.

The Bee’s Madrigal includes lyrics that extol the virtues of bees and a score that replicates the bees’ piping in G-sharp or A-flat.

Intense piece

It is a short, intense and complex piece. Each piping blast, which lasts about one second, is followed by a string of quarter-second pulses that represent the sound of rival queen bees. A trained musician will be able to spot semibreve rests in the score that indicate the bees are 'singing' in triple time.

Mesiti’s adaptation of Butler's score was recorded in the University of Edinburgh’s Reid Concert Hall. It comprises a singular female voice piping alongside a chorus of four accompanying parts.

The Swarming Song is reflective of Mesiti’s wider work, which is influenced by social observation and historical research and incorporates aspects of music, dance and performance.

Related links

The Swarming Song

Talbot Rice Gallery

Photo: Neil Hanna