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The Bard’s Tale: Connecting Renaissance Keyboard/Lute Music to Modern Video Games

For every musician that has made a transition from contemporary music to historical performance, there will inevitably come a time where someone asks you, “What made you want to switch?” The answers vary; from the instruments to the composers, from the music to the history, we all have something that drew us to this field.

The answer, for me, is video games. When I first heard the harpsichord played live, it immediately reminded me of Final Fantasy IX, a game set in a medieval fantasy world. I first played Final Fantasy IX as a child, its setting and music were so captivating and left a long lasting impression on me. To say this in public, though, was often embarrassing. Instead, I would cite J.S. Bach as my reason for switching to the harpsichord.

This backstory is simply to preface something I’ve noticed in my extended gaming time due to the quarantine: a lot of Western fantasy video games like to incorporate bards into their musical sphere, and some of games even directly incorporate early music sources in their soundtracks. Games including The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Dragon Age: Inquisition draw on a medieval/renaissance setting. Public establishments (mostly bars and taverns) feature bards singing, either acapella or with a lute. The song texts often reflect the current political climate of their region, celebrate national heroes, or tell entertaining stories.

Bard Maryden Halewell performing at Herald's Rest in Dragon Age: Inquisition

In Dragon Age: Inquisition, there are (at least) three songs that have roots in early music sources. “Once We Were” describes a nation uniting against an invading force in order to protect their homeland. I mentioned this song very briefly in my blog about the clavichord (which you can find here!), but I’ll include the video below as well.

“Once We Were” comes from the old Irish traditional waltz “The South Wind”, dating back at least to the 18th century. Originally a fiddle tune, it also appears as a song in Edward Buting’s 1809 publication “Collection of Irish Folk Music”. David Bennett has an interesting page of information on “The South Wind", click here if you'd like to learn more.

“Enchanters” is a song meant to inspire the public to fight against injustice. The tune comes from an Irish hornpipe “Humours of Tullycrine”, though it features some rhythmic variation. I haven’t found much information on the piece (I discovered the musical connection in the middle of writing this post!) but I did find that the hornpipe is closely connected to blind piper Garrett Barry (1847-1899).

Finally, there is “Oh, Grey Warden”, which paints an indeterminate picture of a national war hero (or villain, depending on your point of view). This song is based off the “Packington’s Pound”, a Renaissance piece reportedly found in the “New Book of Tablature” by William Barley in 1596. The piece also reappears as a virginal work in Recueil de pièces pour virginal, published ca. 1635-1650, and in the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book as a set of variations.

These are only a small number of instances where “Packington’s Pound” appears, but it is clear that the tune enjoyed a healthy popularity similar to “Greensleeves” at the time. Looking at the many inclusions “Packington’s Pound” enjoyed, I’m happy that the song can now add 21st-century video games on its list.

I’ve only listed three songs here that originate from an early music source, but I hope to continue to find more. It has been exciting (and also a little vindicating) to see that my preferred field of classical music is connected to my favorite genre of video games. My only wish is that video games were more forthcoming about their sources for these songs. Every connection I’ve discovered so far has come from watching Youtube videos and their comments, and reading through the forums on Reddit.

Regardless, this kind of information is always fun to bring out for concerts, and I’ll be sure to do so the next time I can. Below is a video I found by The Menagerie, whose amazing renditions of these bard songs inspired my interest in their background.


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