Celtic Music as a Path to Reconciliation? Guest Post by Roger Newton (Part 2)

celticcross2Last week marked the beginning of a series of guest posts by Roger Newton on “Celtic Music as a Path to Reconciliation?” In this second post Newton, a self-described semi-retired, music-loving Lutheran pastor, explores the connections between nature and Celtic music, makes some interesting links between Celtic music and the work of Antonin Dvořák and Harry T. Burleigh, and explores how Celtic music resonates with African American spirituals and American folk music.

I value this “broad church” approach to music, as it provides additional resources for helping people along their spiritual journeys.

Roger Newton on Celtic Music as a Path to Reconciliation? Part 2

Celtic Christianity grew from a pre-Christian love of life. The seasons, plants, animals, humans, angels and God’s (or the gods’) creative love found their way into poetry, mythology and music.

Early Celtic Christians, unlike Gnostics, did not despise or shun the created world. Nor did they want to dominate it. They loved nature. Mahler, in the movements of his Third Symphony (summer, the plants, the animals, mankind, angels and God’s love), reflects the Celtic influence on his musical genius.

Celtic monks viewed discipline and obedience as their way of working with Christ for the redemption of the fallen world which God had created good. To lay Christians the Irish monks offered a “Blessed Assurance” which I appreciate more and more as I grow older. The monks offered a distinctive form of sacramental forgiveness. Sinners confessed privately to a priestly mentor, rather than confessing publicly as at Rome. And they experienced genuine spiritual healing. The Celtic practice was based on the concept of the anamchara, or “soul friend.” (Ted Olsen, Christianity and the Celts, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003, pp. 93-95.) The universal Church adopted this practice but over time many Catholics came to consider it merely a legal obligation.

During the “Penal Law” times, the Irish created songs which on the surface were love ballads but which contained coded messages about religious and political freedom. The songs included “Roisin Dubh” (“Dark Rose”), recorded by Michael McGlynn, and “An Raibh Tu Ag An gCarraig?” (“Were You at the Rock?”), sung movingly by fiddler Máiréad Nesbitt.

The “disguised” Irish freedom songs remind me of the spirituals sung by Americans of African descent which Sir Michael Tippett included in his anti-Nazi, anti-war oratorio A Child of Our Time.

In the 1960s I sang in the chorus with the Baltimore Symphony as Sir Michael himself conducted his oratorio. He told us the spirituals were the closest nineteenth and twentieth-century equivalents he could find to the powerful chorales in Bach’s Passions, oratorios and cantatas.

The spirituals had earlier inspired Dvořák, who learned them from the young composer Harry T. Burleigh during Dvořák’s stay in the United States. In his New World Symphony and in his American Quartet, but most noticeably in his Cello Concerto, Dvořák wove magnificent musical tapestries combining his own Bohemian, Slavic, Celtic and Austro-German spiritual and musical heritage with what he had learned from Burleigh and from Native American music as well.

Listen to Yo-Yo Ma and the New York Philharmonic play Cello Concerto

Burleigh learned from Dvořák, too. Dvořák encouraged him to turn those spirituals into high art, which he did, and the result is a beautiful recording of Burleigh’s settings by American soprano Karen Parks on her CD Nobody Knows. I hear Dvořák’s influence in Michael Samis’ haunting cello obbligato to the title song, “Nobody Knows De Trouble I’ve Seen,” just as I perceive it in Eugene Friesen’s cello solos and accompaniments to Áine Minogue’s voice and harp on her CDs Celtic Lamentations and Celtic Meditation Music.

Chloë Agnew recorded the most well-known melody from Dvořák’s New World Symphony, “Going Home,” a pentatonic melody of a kind common to Native American, African American and Scottish music. Chloë later collaborated with the other members of Celtic Woman to perform the same melody with Italian words as “Non C’è Più.” Dvořák and Burleigh appear to have perceived the profound spiritual kinship between Celtic, African-American and Austro-German songs, if only implicitly.

Chloe Agnew: Going Home

Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants brought to America the glorious musical traditions exemplified by Nova Scotian fiddler Natalie MacMaster and American bluegrass fiddler and singer Alison Krauss, who together collaborate with the “universal” musician, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, to deepen my devotion to Jesus at Christmas as they sing and play the lovely Irish “Wexford Carol:” “Good people all, this Christmas time, consider well and bear in mind what our good God for us has done in sending his beloved son.”

Yo-Yo Ma’s music introduced me to the Irish-American bluegrass fiddler, classical violinist and composer Mark O’Connor. O’Connor’s Vistas for string trio rivals Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge for emotional thrill. O’Connor joins guitarist Sharon Isbin to reveal the inner unity among Irish, Scottish, English, bluegrass and jazz musical genres as they play his Strings & Threads Suite on Isbin’s Journey to the New World. Isbin plays Irish and Scottish folk pieces and joins Joan Baez, whose music challenged me during my youth and whose mother is from Scotland, to remind me that I am merely a “Wayfaring Stranger” as they sing and play the famous white spiritual which expresses the common humanity of early English immigrants, former African American slaves and the Celtic people of Appalachia.

Joan Baez: Poor Wayfaring Stranger

In the remainder of the series, Newton will draw together some of these threads and offer some personal perspectives on how music has aided him on his own journey.

(Image of Celtic cross sourced on flickr, by dmcneil)

Leave a Reply