Riddles of Saint Aldhelm

Programme Note

Saint Aldhelm wrote his Aenigmata, a set of 100 Latin riddles, in England in the 7th century AD. Having previously set Anglo-Saxon texts, I was interested to explore the post-Classical Latin written in England in the same period. I was attracted to the idea of the riddle as a short pithy statement intended to capture its subject matter succinctly and vividly; I was also drawn to the genre’s inherent playfulness. The subject matter of Saint Aldhelm’s riddles seemed perfect for my purposes. They are varied, evocative, and often quirky – sometimes magical and sometimes utterly mundane. Solutions to riddles not set include a pregnant sow, a dwarf elder and a loaf of bread.

Riddles of Saint Aldhelm sets 26 of these riddles, and groups them into themed sections arranged in a palindromic form; the sections go from ‘Natural Phenomena’ via a ‘Household Object-Musical Instrument’ sequence and some ‘Animals, Real and Imaginary’ to the central pair of two ‘Elements’ and then back again. The ‘even numbered’ sections each contain two songs. The ‘odd numbered’ sections contain steadily fewer songs as the piece goes on, in the sequence 8-6-4-2. Like the texts of the riddles themselves, however, the songs in the odd-numbered sections get steadily longer, resulting in four main sections of approximately equal length.

The moods of the songs are as varied as the subject matter of the riddles themselves. I hope that they share with the riddles a sense of joy, and a fascination with the sensory physicality of the world in which we live.

Aenigmata was shortlisted for the Tippett Medal 2020.



6th May – 24th December 2020
Michael Wood, Yijia Tu, Meg Holch, Sarah Tuttle, Natalka Pasicznyk (Voices); Thomas Hodgson (Arranger)
Online release of 10 songs as part of Aenigmata project

Year: 2020
Duration: 30′
Instrumentation: Soprano, Piano

1 – Natural Phenomena
– Terra (Earth)
II – Ventus (Wind)
III – Nubes (Cloud)
IV – Natura (Nature)
V – Iris (Rainbow)
VI – Luna (Moon)
VII – Fatum (Fate)
VIII – Pliades (Pleiades)

2 – Household Object – Musical Instrument
– Poalum (Bellows)
X – Barbita (Organ)

3 – Animals, Real and Imaginary
– Pavo (Peacock)
XII – Salamandra (Salamander)
XIII – Luligo (Flying Fish)
XIV – Apis (Bee)
XV – Acalantida (Nightingale)
XVI – Minotaurus (Minotaur)

4 – Elements
– Aqua (Water)
XVIII – Ignis (Fire)

5 – Animals, Real and Imaginary
– Hirundo (Swallow)
XX – Castor (Beaver)
XXI – Aquila (Eagle)
XXII – Monocerus (Unicorn)

6 – Household Object – Musical Instrument
– Cribellus (Sieve)
XXIV – Salpix (Trumpet)

7 – Natural Phenomena
– Fons (Spring)
XXVI – Nox (Night)