‘Celtic Orthodoxy’: ancient or modern? (i)

One of the most remarkable phenomena in the area of the sacred arts that I have been observing over the course of the last few weeks and months is the emergence of which I can only describe as an East-West creative and spiritual ‘pincer movement’ (when seen from my vantage-point here in Paris). It seems that hardly a day goes by when I am not contacted personally by someone from the Eastern or Western extremities of Europe (the ex-Soviet Union and what can be called the ‘Celtic fringe’ of Ireland, Scotland and Wales) telling me about their pioneering initiatives in the field of sacred music. This is enough in itself to be somewhat uncanny, but what is perhaps most intriguing to me is the compelling evidence that these two groups – geographically distant from one another but interestingly close psychologically, have recently been working together in remarkable ways.

I already had an inkling of this during my two visits to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in Wales in 2009 and 2010; while I have already written about SDG’s collaboration in helping sponsor the festival’s Arvo Pärt retrospective last September, several other significant composers from Eastern Europe have also featured prominently in this Welsh event (Peteris Vasks, Giya Kancheli, Galina Grigorjeva, Helena Tulve…) where blurring the boundary between the sacred and the secular can be regarded as a distinctive tenet of artistic programming. [2]

However, striking further evidence of what I was sensing was provided by two CDs which I received last week, produced by the Louth Contemporary Music Society (www.louthcms.org) in Ireland, entitled ‘A Place Between’ and ‘Path’. I had actually come across the first of these during the research for my post on ‘Valentin Silvestrov’s New Sacrality’, when I heard an excerpt from ‘A Place Between’ (Silvestrov’s hauntingly limpid Ikon of 1982) played by the Callino String Quartet; a few days later the full CD arrived in my letterbox. Established in 2006 by Eamonn Quinn and his wife Gemma Murray, it turns out the LCMS has been doing ground-breaking work in bringing some of the leading composers of today to the small town of Dundalk in Ireland; although they hail from various regions of the globe and differing faith/philosophical traditions, Louth’s artistic programming seems to draw out elements of common spiritual ground uniting them in many ways.

While LCMS’s artistic partners are geographically diverse (Terry Riley, Philip Glass, John Tavener and Tan Dun have all been featured), it is clear that explicitly Christian music from the former Soviet Union has acquired a place of honour, with Alexander Knaifel, Valentin Silvestrov and Sofia Gubaidulina all having been personal visitors. Arvo Pärt, whose The Deer’s Cry was a response to a Louth commission on the text of St Patrick’s famous ‘Breastplate’, travelled to Dundalk in 2008,  also attending the RTE Living Music Festival in Dublin (the great historic centre of Celtic Christianity) where he was the focus of six concerts curated by that leading light of musical spirituality illuminating the ‘Celtic fringe’ over the last two decades, James MacMillan.

Four Evangelists, Book of Kells [3]

The two Louth CDs have little to do with notions of art as ‘entertainment’ or the display of virtuosity, primarily being invitations to meditation in which the notes are only ever as important as the silence from which they emerge and into which they fade. If ‘A Place Between’ focuses on the established figures of spiritual minimalism (Gorecki’s ‘Good Night’ providing the longest selection, standing alongside pieces by Pärt, Silvestrov, Tavener and John Cage), ‘Path’ explores lesser-known but extremely fertile Eastern European territory, with contributions by two composers born in Tashkent (Dimitri Yanov-Yanovsky and Polina Medyulyanova), the Georgian Zurab Nadareshvili’s powerful String Quartet n.1, and an arresting work for violin and electronics by the Serb Aleksandra Vrebalov.

Two questions naturally comes to my mind regarding this meeting of East and West is whether something deeper than the coincidental encounter of passing musical fashions might be going on here. Firstly, could it just be that there is an objective historical basis in this sense of identity shared between the Christian spirituality of the Celtic lands and that of Eastern Christianity? And why is this spiritual and artistic commonality emerging right now?

In this regard I found myself being taken back in my mind to the 2009 Reversèd Thunder Psalms conference at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, where I received a musical electrochoc when hearing contemporary Gaelic psalmody from the Hebridean islands for the first time. If you’re unfamiliar with this particular genre (and my guess is that at least 99.678% of those reading this blog probably are), then click here . This sound, with its incredible richness of quasi-improvised melodic inflection, is completely unlike anything in the Western classical tradition; close your eyes and you can easily imagine something like this in the middle East or perhaps a Coptic monastery, until you turn on the accompanying video and find yourself, seemingly incomprehensibly, in an all-white Scottish Free Church on the Isle of Lewis.[2] Faced with this musicological data, I began to ask myself whether this might not be a case of vestigial Christian tradition, dating back to a time of cross-fertilization between the Christian East and the far West of Europe, which had somehow survived in these outlying islands thanks to sheer isolation from other trends.

Blanket bog and lochan, Isle of Lewis. Photo: Robert Bone

In the 1920s Yeats already intuited an affinity between the Celtic lands and the (idealized) world of the Orthodox East in his two famous – and at times famously obscure – poems in praise of ‘the holy city of Byzantium’:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall.
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

(Sailing to Byzantium in The Tower (1928))

William Butler Yeats, 1933

The extent to which Yeats perceived a common heritage linking Ireland and the capital of Eastern Christianity can be judged from a paragraph which he wrote for a radio broadcast (subsequently cancelled) on BBC Belfast (8 Sept 1931):

‘Now I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to take his soul, and some of my thought upon that subject I have put into a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. When Irishmen were illuminating the Books of Kells and making the jewelled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilisation and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city’ [4]

At this point I would like to emphasize before continuing that I am fully aware that the Celtic world has probably been the object of more romanticizing mythologization than any other part of Western Europe. Yeats’s notion of a ‘Celtic Twilight’ realm of vision and imagination left untouched by the onward march of time, preserving the true European spiritual heritage, is just as easy to dismiss as a latter-day construct as his idealized view of Byzantine culture [4]. Nor is the attempt to reconstruct a mythical Celtic world restricted to Ireland;  the revival of Welsh ‘Druidic’ culture in the bardic circles of modern Eisteddfodau is more or less on the same level. As with similar phenomena elsewhere (some while ago I commented on the nineteenth-century restoration of Gregorian chant in France as an example), the intentional reconstruction of a distant historical past is not primarily a question of archaeological accuracy. Historical research is never undertaken in a vacuum – whether we acknowledge it or not, it seems obvious that what we seek to find in the past is the object of our current longings. In dreaming of a lost Golden Age, it seems obvious that cultures consciously or unconsciously try to fill aching voids that cannot be satisfied by contemporary reality. Acts of selective historical retrieval are primarily significant for the critique they offer of the present. The Celtic Revival of the early twentieth century can be regarded as an act of protest in the face of a rationalizing, mechanized modern world;  much the same can doubtless be said concerning the current resurgence of interest in Celtic culture.

In this revival there are of course substantial elements of back-projection and wish-fulfillment; what is definitely not fantasy, however, is the ancient connection between Celtic Christianity and the Christian East, as we will hopefully see in the next instalment of this post.


[1] Intriguingly, some American conference delegates pointed out the similarity between Gaelic Psalmody and the worship of Appalachian congregations in North America (such as the ‘line singing’ of Kentucky Primitive Baptists – judge for yourself here ), which has been accounted for in terms of the presence of Irish/Scottish missionaries in the eighteenth century.
[2] At the Vale of Glamorgan Festival there is a further interesting cross-connection with Asian-Pacific spirituality in terms of a long-standing link with the Sydney-born composer Ross Edwards (1943-) who terms his works ‘musical contemplation objects’ without however claiming allegiance to any specific religious tradition.
[3] Source: Wikimedia Commons. The Book of Kells is thought to have originated in the scriptorium of the Iona Monastery founded c. 561 off the Scottish west coast. It was brought by Columban monks to Ireland in 806 following a Viking raid on Iona; work on the Book was completed at the new monastery in Kells, County Meath. It is now held in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.
[4] Quoted in Alexander Norman Jeffares, A new commentary on the poems of W.B. Yeats (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1984), 213). A few months later Yeats commented to his publisher Frederick MacMillan that ‘there was great Byzantine influence upon Ireland […] in two Irish private collections there are wooden crucifixes entirely Byzantine in type and great beauty, and these crucifixes continued to be made in North Connaught and perhaps elsewhere till about 80 years ago’ (quoted in Robert Fitzroy Foster, W.B. Yeats: The arch-poet, 1915-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 326.


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