Celtic Music as a Path to Reconciliation? Guest Post by Roger Newton (Part 3) – Poetry and Prayer for Thanksgiving

hildegard of bingenEarlier this month this blog featured the first two in a series of guest posts by Roger Newton on ‘Celtic Music as a Path to Reconciliation?’ Newton is a self-described 71-year-old, semi-retired, music-loving Lutheran pastor.

Today we continue with Part 3 in the series, which brings together a range of topics, including the contributions of poets to reconciliation (such as John O’Donohue), and music as a form of prayer for reconciliation.

This includes Newton’s reflections on parallels between Celtic Carmina Gadelica and German Wunderhorn. I’m intrigued by Newton’s conclusion that Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval German poet, mystic and musician, holds the key to the unity of the Wunderhorn and Gadelica spirits.

Today is Thanksgiving in Newton’s native United States, a day traditionally set aside for praising God and communing with family and friends. The music that Newton discusses today might provide a backdrop – and food for thought – for thanksgiving.

The last line of today’s post – ‘The music invites me to dance like David before the Ark in the Lord’s Holy City’ – certainly captures that spirit of Thanksgiving.

Roger Newton on Celtic Music as a Path to Reconciliation? (Part 3)- Poetry and Prayer for Thanksgiving

Poets, Priests and Soul Friends – Guiding us towards Reconciliation?

Like the musicians, Celtic poets will accomplish more than politicians and church leaders to bring about reconciliation among Irish Christians. Singer/harper Áine Minogue recommended John O’Donohue’s book Anam Cara to me shortly after his death. As I face health problems, I find comfort and spiritual refreshment in John’s book and in his poems which I read after reading Anam Cara, just as I find them in Áine’s music.

People have written both tributes and criticisms about John, a former priest. I believe that John strove to represent the best of what the Irish Catholic Church could have become had it not been for the misunderstandings which arose concerning the Synod of Whitby (664 A.D.). The Synod attempted to unify the practices of the church in the British Isles, but many people at the time, and later, saw it as the work of an authoritarian and rigid Roman hierarchy opposed to the more personal, loving spiritual mentorship of an anamchara.

Rome adopted the Irish practice of individual confession to a friendly priest in place of the former Roman practice of public confession. In the process people began to misunderstand individual confession as a legalistic requirement rather than the loving spiritual mentorship it was intended to be. The priest was considered an enforcer rather than an Anam Cara. This irony affected even my fellow Lutherans, especially in the US. We lost sight of the comfort and peace that believers should find in individual confession, although Martin Luther himself appreciated and advocated it.

John O’Donohue would have been at home as an Anam Cara in the Irish Catholic Church if Whitby had not been misunderstood. And perhaps the “Reformation” and the bloody period which followed and the current hatred between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland would never have happened and songs like “An Raibh Tu Ag an gCarraig” and “Roisin Dubh” could have remained love songs instead of hidden political and religious freedom songs.

Music as a Prayer for Reconciliation – Considering the Carmina Gadelica

The Carmina Gadelica emerge from the depths of Celtic Christian faith and from an even older Celtic spirit. We don’t know the original tunes, but the prayers have often been set to music. The Gadelica poets share ideas, feelings, emotions, legends, aspirations and spiritual heritage with the creators of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German songs loved by Mahler.

Music of Carmina Gadelica

“I Will Kindle My Fire,” which Elisabeth von Trapp sings so exquisitely, echoes the Wunderhorn poem which Mahler used in the choral movement of his Symphony #3. In “I Will Kindle My Fire” the poet is with the holy angels, among whom there is no fear or envy. And the fire of love goes out to friend and foe alike for the sake of Mary’s Son.

In the Wunderhorn song three angels celebrate the Lord’s forgiveness of St. Peter. Jesus asks Peter why he is crying. Peter replies that he weeps because he has sinned. Jesus tells him to fall to his knees and pray and love God and he will receive the blessing of heavenly joy.

Mahler used “Das himmlische Leben” from Wunderhorn as the finale of his Symphony #4. The song is like a child’s vision of Heaven, where worldly tumult never occurs. Everyone, including Saints Peter, John, Luke, Martha, Ursula and Cecilia, dances and sings. And, of course, St. Martha is the cook at the always plenteous feast. And St. Cecilia and the angels are the musicians! (By the way, the wine is free!)

Mahler Symphony No. 4

Gramophone magazine published a set of articles by various conductors about Mahler’s symphonies. David Zinman wrote that his greatest problem in conducting the Fourth was that it was so difficult to find the perfect soprano to sing “Das himmlische Leben.” I wrote to the editor about the relationship between the Wunderhorn songs and the Carmina Gadelica, and I suggested that the perfect soprano might be Méav ni Mhaolchatha or Hayley Westenra.

A few months after I wrote to Gramophone, Hayley released an album aptly titled Paradiso with Italian composer and conductor Ennio Morricone. On several songs Hayley’s exquisite soprano voice emerges subtly from the orchestral texture in a style similar to that employed so often by Mahler, exemplified by the soprano’s entrance as an awe-struck youth in “Das himmlische Leben.”

Compare “Das himmlische Leben” to “The Invocation of the Graces” from the Carmina Gadelica.

In “Invocation” everything, including fortune, goodness, wisdom, singing voice and even the wine, is grace. “Grace” means “free!” All the Christian saints and all the pre-Christian Celtic legendary folks are gathered. God the Father is there as a shelter, a fortress, and the joy of all joyous things. Jesus “the mild” is there and the Holy Spirit guides it all.

The Invocation of the Graces

In his Symphony #2, Mahler based the third movement, an instrumental scherzo, on a Wunderhorn poem about St. Anthony preaching to fish. In his Symphony #3, he based the third movement, another instrumental scherzo, on a Wunderhorn poem about a cuckoo and a nightingale. Those poems resemble this gloss written by an eighth-century Irish monk in the margin of a Latin manuscript:

“A hedge of trees surrounds me,

a blackbird’s lay sings to me,

praise I shall not conceal.

Above my lined book the trilling

of the birds sings to me.

A clear-voiced cuckoo sings to me

in a grey cloak from the tops of bushes.

May the Lord save me from judgment;

well do I write from under the greenwood.” (Olsen, pg. 91).

Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval German poet, mystic and musician, holds the key to the unity of the Wunderhorn and Gadelica spirits.

The visionary abbess perceived the communion among God’s Spirit, nature, life, and the Mother of Jesus. Her chant unites heaven and earth with upward and downward melodic leaps of intervals much greater than those heard in the common liturgical chants of her day. And she inspires sublime adaptations by Jocelyn Montgomery, Anúna and Elisabeth von Trapp. In “O Frondens Virga,” Hildegard reverently asks Mary, the flowering symbol of new life, to lift us from our evil ways. As Elisabeth von Trapp sings Hildegard’s antiphon, she accompanies her lovely voice with her harp-like guitar, while Erich Kory’s cello provides a Scots/Irish Uilleann pipe-like “drone” and Chris Peterman’s soprano saxophone represents the piper’s “chanter.”

O Frondens Virga performed by Noirin Ni Riain

Elisabeth adapts a melody by Ralph Vaughan Williams to interpret the Gospel-based poetry of Welshman George Herbert, “The Call.” (Vaughan Williams is considered English, but his music and his name reveal his Welsh heritage!) “The Call” goes out to Jesus, the poet’s Way, Truth, Life and Light, or, as the Wunderhorn poets expressed it, “das himmlische Leben” and “Urlicht.” And cellist Kory, in his accompaniment to Elisabeth’s “Jerusalem, My Happy Home,” emphasizes the double-triple (6/8) meter of an Irish jig by using a recording delay to make each dancing musical phrase echo from the left channel to the right.

The music invites me to dance like David before the Ark in the Lord’s Holy City.

Other Posts in the Series

Part I

Part II

(Image: Hildegard von Bingen)

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