Contemplative Music 2 : Chopin, Dowland, Herbert Howells, Janet Baker

And breathe again!

Janet Baker is an artist of the highest order.

 

Her utter technical command and her ability to unerringly find emotional truth resulted in a legendary career garlanded with landmark recordings and never to be forgotten stage performances.

Her performance of, ‘Che faro senza Euridice’ will live with me always as I make my journey through the dark wood.

Spirit refreshing music courtesy of John Dowland who can genuinely be described as a Renaissance Man in view of the time he lived in and the depth of his talents as a composer, Lutenist and singer.

His works will enter your consciousness like a pebble dropped into a pond with ever widening circles of effect.

Julian Bream is another musician with, ‘The Touch’.

Music played by Bream flows purely and naturally from his fingers to our hearts.

 

Devotees of Chopin and his piano works, especially The Nocturnes, can spend long hours debating which great pianist has searched their depths most successfully.

I have never wavered in my conviction that the magical recordings made by Claudio Arrau must wear the crown.

His version of The Nocturnes has the quality of meditative prayer.

 

Herbert Howells music has an English reticence which belies the oceanic depths of feeling it can summon from the listener.

His, ‘A Spotless Rose’ especially when sung with the aching purity of The New College Oxford Choir tenderly ushers the cosmic into our mortal consciousness.

For music to take you away from the daily tumult I offer you a precious work of the heart.

‘A Stor mo Chroi’ as performed by The Voice Squad (Phil Callery, Fran McPhail and Gerry Cullen) insists that we each attend to what is truly important in all our lives; the love we offer and the love we share.

Where else is your treasure to be found?

 

Jukebox Jive 

This is the last Post of 2017.

Many thanks to all my readers and followers and especially those who take the time to comment.

I was touched by so many good wishes at Christmas and for New Year and such kind words about The Jukebox.

When I started The Jukebox I little thought I would find so many kindred spirits!

Contemplative Music 1 : Arvo Part, Kathleen Ferrier & Bill Evans

And breathe!

To initiate the contemplative mood I turn to the contemporary Estonian Composer, Arvo Part with his luminous, liminal setting of Mary’s eternal prayer, ‘The Magnificat’.

Part has been labelled a Minimalist and a retro Medievalist.

I prefer to think of him as having the gift to make time past, time present and time future bloom before us through his music.

When Kathleen Ferrier recorded, ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ the shadow of death was looming over her.

This is music making of the very highest order.

Here Kathleen Ferrier does not so much perform a song as become the song.

The rare emotional reach of her extraordinary voice bringing flesh and spirit to Mahler’s masterwork touches something very deep and unnameable within humanity.

Bill Evans was the supreme lyric poet of the piano.

Listening to Bill’s unique sense of musical time and weight I find my spirit awakened, refreshed and released.

‘Blue in Green’ showcases the amazing precision and delicacy of his touch as a musician.

He is always instantly recognisable – the hallmark of true greatness.

This version of what has become a Jazz standard is from the Christmas 1959 session issued as, ‘Portrait in Jazz’.

You have to believe in telepathy when you hear Bill Evans play with Scott LaFaro (bass) and Paul Motion (drums)

This trio remains the benchmark for all piano trios.

 

From the Hebrides.

The Christ Child’s Lullaby or Taladh Chriosda in Scots Gaelic is full to the brim with maternal feeling for the vulnerable new born.

Mother and child, once one, now two, create together a sacred space where love and mutual regard dwells.

The standing stone vocals of Mae McKenna and Mairi Macinnes, switching fluently between languages, supported by the pellucid instrumental playing of William Jackson and Tony McManus casts a timeless spell.

 

 

 

Now Heart stilling music composed by one of the most extraordinary figures of the Middle Ages (indeed of all Ages!).

Hildegard of Bingen was a Benedictine Abbess whose haunting compositions refelect her mystical experiences and her philosophical beliefs.

I vividly recall the first time I heard this music in Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus in London. As the gorgeous vocal lines enchanted me I knew, at once, that this record would be a life time companion. And so it has proved.

The majestic soprano Emma Kirkby wonderfully complemented by The Gothic Voices under the direction of Christopher Page takes us into mystical terrain where every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.

Terrain where Hildegard’s vision of herself as a feather on the breath of God makes perfect sense.

We are all feathers on the breath of God.

Happy Christmas 2017 from Bob Dylan, Judy Garland, Charles Dickens & The Immortal Jukebox!

Traditions must be maintained!

An Etching by Rembrandt

A Literary extract from Charles Dickens

Music by Bob Dylan, Judy Garland & Shostakovich conducted by Rostropovich, played by Maxim Vengerov.

Our painting today is by Rembrandt who may be the most searching anatomist of the human heart who has ever lived.

rembrandt

There is such depth of humanity in Rembrandt’s etching of Mother and Christ Child.

The scene glows with immediate and eternal love and intimacy.

Our first music selection today is one of the great works of the 20th Century.

Shostakovich lived through dark times yet, perhaps because of this, his work while never denying the darkness always returns to the light.

Maxim Vengerov is a musician to his fingertips and urged on by Rostropovich he wrings every scintilla of emotional power from the work.

Onward!

So, at last – the twelfth day of our Sleigh’s journey and it’s Christmas Eve!

I hope you have enjoyed the music and reflections on the way here.

I have agonised over the music choices in this series and have many years worth stored up for Christmases to come (you have been warned!).

But today’s choices were the first I wrote down and were my inevitable selections for the day before the great Feast.

First, the Keeper of American Song, Bob Dylan, with his inimitable spoken word rendition of Clement Moore’s, ‘The Night Before Christmas’.

It is safe to say that Bob’s pronunciation of the word ‘Mouse’ has never been matched in the history of the dramatic arts!

Of course, in the process of his more than 50 year career Bob has continually been reinventing himself and in so doing has gloriously renewed American culture.

The clip, above comes from his wonderful, ‘Theme Time’ radio show where over a 100 episodes he displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge of twentieth century popular music and a wicked sense of humour.

Bob also recorded for the season at hand the deeply heartfelt, ‘Christmas In The Heart’ album which gets better and more extraordinary with every hearing.

It is clear that Bob, who is well aware that it’s not dark yet (but it’s getting there) is consciously rounding out his career by assuming the mantle of the grand old man of American Music tipping his hat to every tradition (hence the deeply stirring Sinatra covers CDs).

The only safe thing to say about Bob is that he will have a few surprises for us yet!

And, indeed he recently assumed, in a typically enigmatic way, the mantle of a Nobel Laureate.

The man never known to make a foolish move managed by not attending the investiture ceremony to harvest more publicity than all those who did!

In his nicely judged acceptance speech he managed to be both filled with humility and unblinkingly directly compare himself to Shakespeare!

Now that’s the one and only Bob Dylan!

Now we turn to Judy Garland with a Christmas song without peer, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’. Her singing on this song seems to me to be almost miraculous.

It’s as if her singing really came from the secret chambers of the heart all the rest of us keep under guard.

No wonder she has such a deep impact on us – we know she is expressing a profound truth about the human condition – our need to love and know we are loved.

Judy Garland paid a high price in terms of personal happiness for living her life and art with such an exposed heart and soul but she fulfilled a vocation given to very few and left an indelible mark on her age and will surely do for aeons to come.

Today, not a poem but the concluding passages from, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by the incomparable Charles Dickens – a writer for all seasons and situations.

‘Hallo!’ growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?

‘I am very sorry, sir’ said Bob, ‘I am behind my time,’
‘You are?’ repeated Scrooge. ‘Yes. I think you are. Step this way, sir, if you please.’
‘It’s only once a year, sir,’ pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. ‘It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.’

‘Now I’ll tell you what my friend, said Scrooge, I am not going to stand that sort of thing any longer. And therefore, he continued, leaping from his stool and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again, and therefore I am about to raise your salary!’

Bob trembled and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.

‘A merry Christmas Bob! said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. ‘A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!’

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards, and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!

And who am I to do anything other than echo Mr Dickens and Tiny Tim?

So, to all the readers of the Jukebox I wish you a peaceful and joyous feast – however you choose to celebrate it.

God bless us, Every One!

 

 

Happy Christmas from Bob Dylan, Charles Dickens, Judy Garland & Immortal Jukebox!

 

Twelfth Day:

An Etching by Rembrandt

A Literary extract from Charles Dickens

Music by Shostakovich conducted by Rostropovich, played by Maxim Vengerov, Bob Dylan and Judy Garland

Our painting today is by Rembrandt who may be the most searching anatomist of the human heart who has ever lived.

rembrandt

There is such depth of humanity in Rembrandt’s etching of Mother and Christ Child.

The scene glows with immediate and eternal love and intimacy.

Our first music selection today is one of the great works of the 20th Century.

Shostakovich lived through dark times yet, perhaps because of this, his work while never denying the darkness always returns to the light.

Maxim Vengerov is a musician to his fingertips and urged on by Rostropovich he wrings every scintilla of emotional power from the work.

Onward!

So, at last – the twelfth day of our Sleigh’s journey and it’s Christmas Eve!

I hope you have enjoyed the music and reflections on the way here.

I have agonised over the music choices in this series and have many years worth stored up for Christmases to come (you have been warned!).

But today’s choices were the first I wrote down and were my inevitable selections for the day before the great Feast.

First, the Keeper of American Song, Bob Dylan, with his inimitable spoken word rendition of Clement Moore’s, ‘The Night Before Christmas’.

It is safe to say that Bob’s pronunciation of the word ‘Mouse’ has never been matched in the history of the dramatic arts!

Of course, in the process of his more than 50 year career Bob has continually been reinventing himself and in so doing has gloriously renewed American culture.

The clip, above comes from his wonderful, ‘Theme Time’ radio show where over a 100 episodes he displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge of twentieth century popular music and a wicked sense of humour.

Bob also recorded for the season at hand the deeply heartfelt, ‘Christmas In The Heart’ album which gets better and more extraordinary with every hearing.

It is clear that Bob, who is well aware that it’s not dark yet (but it’s getting there) is consciously rounding out his career by assuming the mantle of the grand old man of American Music tipping his hat to every tradition (hence the deeply stirring Sinatra covers CDs).

The only safe thing to say about Bob is that he will have a few surprises for us yet!

And, indeed this year he assumed in typically enigmatic way the mantle of a Nobel Laureate. The man never known to make a foolish move managed by not attending the investiture ceremony to harvest more publicity than all those who did!

In his nicely judged speech he managed to be both filled with humility and unblinkingly directly compare himself to Shakespeare!

Now that’s the one and only Bob Dylan!

Now we turn to Judy Garland with a Christmas song without peer, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’. Her singing on this song seems to me to be almost miraculous.

It’s as if her singing really came from the secret chambers of the heart all the rest of us keep under guard.

No wonder she has such a deep impact on us – we know she is expressing a profound truth about the human condition – our need to love and know we are loved.

Judy Garland paid a high price in terms of personal happiness for living her life and art with such an exposed heart and soul but she fulfilled a vocation given to very few and left an indelible mark on her age and will surely do for aeons to come.

Today, not a poem but the concluding passages from, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by the incomparable Charles Dickens – a writer for all seasons and situations.

‘Hallo!’ growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?

‘I am very sorry, sir’ said Bob, ‘I am behind my time,’
‘You are?’ repeated Scrooge. ‘Yes. I think you are. Step this way, sir, if you please.’
‘It’s only once a year, sir,’ pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. ‘It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.’

‘Now I’ll tell you what my friend, said Scrooge, I am not going to stand that sort of thing any longer. And therefore, he continued, leaping from his stool and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again, and therefore I am about to raise your salary!’

Bob trembled and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.

‘A merry Christmas Bob! said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. ‘A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!’

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards, and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!

And who am I to do anything other than echo Mr Dickens and Tiny Tim?

So, to all the readers of the Jukebox I wish you a peaceful and joyous feast – however you choose to celebrate it. God bless us, Every One!

 

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Tenth Day

A painting by Andrei Rublev (approx 1360s to 1420s)

A Poem by Charles Causley (1917 to 2003)

Music by Herbert Howells (1892 to 1983), Big Joe Turner and Fats Waller

 

rublev-nativity

Our painting today is by Andrei Rublev whose Icons and Frescos are supreme works of devotional art.

They are works to be still before.

If you surrender to these works they will work in your soul.

Rublev, following the Orthodox tradition, sees the events of The Nativity not as historical episodes but as living events the faithful community participated in as they celebrated the liturgy.

The calm and peace of the image contains immense and complex feeling.

The birth of The Saviour is shown as a cosmic event which is yet an acceptance of human mortality and frailness.

Herbert Howells music has an English reticence which belies the oceanic depths of feeling it can summon from the listener.

His, ‘A Spotless Rose’ especially when sung with the aching purity of The New College Oxford Choir tenderly ushers the cosmic into our mortal consciousness.

Onward!

Today I think it’s time to remember that Christmas is a time for celebration.

A time to meet up with old friends and make new ones.

A time to sing and dance and laugh.

A time to shake our fists in the face of the dark, cruel winter as we affirm our faith in the inevitable restorative power of the light.

For many years I did much of my celebrating in bars, pubs, Honky Tonks and Road Houses soaking up the music and the booze as the nights progressed. The music choices today reflect that biblious spirit.

First, the Boss Of The Blues – Big Joe Turner. Big is no empty boast; Joe was over 6ft 2 and weighed more than 300 pounds so when he arrived in a room you knew he was there!

You would also know Joe was around because his voice could break through walls and wake the dead.

Joe had to develop his shouting style when he worked in the hectic, heaving bars of wide-open Kansas City in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Even though the joints Joe worked in such as the Kingfish and the Sunset would have been rammed to the doors with free spending, free fighting customers Joe never had any problem getting heard from behind the bar.

As, ‘The Singing Barman’ he formed a famous partnership with pianist Pete Johnson immortalised in the standard, ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’.

Embed from Getty Images

If I had been a customer I would have ordered (in honour of the Rudy Toombes song) One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer – knocked them back and settled in for a night of peerless blues.

Joe’s career lasted some 60 years and he was variously styled as a bluesman, a jazz singer, a Rythmn and Blues stylist and a pioneer rock ‘n’ roller – whatever the label the big man went his own sweet way launching every song into the stratosphere with the immense power of his vocals.

 

From the moment, ‘Christmas Date Boogie’ opens we know we are in good hands.

Big Joe is very much the master of ceremonies marshalling the instrumental forces around him. They are all fine players given their chance to shine but there is no doubt who is the star of the show!

You can just imagine the big beaming smile of Joe as he tears into this Christmas frolic.

Resistance is useless – where’s the Bourbon?

I’ll let the very fine Irish poet (I think you may have guessed by now that I am somewhat well disposed to Irish poets) Michael Longley introduce the next music Titan:

‘He plays for hours and hours on end and thought there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty, at the still centre of his loud dominion –
THE SHOOK, THE SHAKE, THE SHEIKH OF ARABY’.

The subject of the poem and the artist featured in our second music selection is, of course, the one and only, one man musical encyclopedia and indefatigable party starter: Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller.

A short list of his accomplishments would have to include his very considerable prowess as a pianist, organist, singer, songwriter, composer and comedian.

 

 

Yet any list of talents and achievements would undersell Fats impact on his contemporary artists and his audiences.

Fats was beyond category – he was Fats Waller and The Lord of any room he chose to light up.

He could in the course of a single number go from being rollickingly rumbustious to wistful gentle melancholy.

Sadly his early death meant that the true depth of his talents were never fully sounded but nevertheless he leaves a unique legacy of wondrously entertaining recordings.

If you ever need cheering up and reminding of how good it is to be alive just press the button next to Fats name and you will feel a whole lot better – I guarantee it.

Today’s poem is, ‘Mary’s Song’ by Charles Causley.

‘Warm in the wintry air
You lie,
The ox and the donkey
Standing by,
With summer eyes
They seem to say:
Welcome, Jesus,
On Christmas Day!

Sleep, King Jesus:
Your diamond crown
High in the sky
Where stars look down.
Let your reign
Of love begin,
That all the world may enter in.’

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Ninth Day

Ninth Day

A Painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1577 to 1640)

A Poem by Norman Nicholson (1914 to 1987)

Music by  Chopin played by Claudio Arrau (1903 to 1991), Joe Tex and June Christy.

 

Our painting today is, ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ by Peter Paul Rubens.

More accurately, it is the the modello (a sketch shown to a patron for approval of the composition) for the altarpiece painted by Rubens for the convent of the Dames Blanches, Louvain now in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

rubens-adoration

There is a wonderful humanity in this work.

Though the event depicted was of universal importance it was witnessed, experienced, by, ‘ordinary’ men and women (and let us not forget animals as the peering camels here humorously demonstrate) on a day when the sun rose and set like any other.

Miracles take place (far more often than, ‘common sense’ will allow) against  the background of every day events.

Rubens manages to make each of the individual characters in the scene vividly present.

I feel as if I could  walk directly into this company and be made welcome.

 

Devotees of Chopin and his piano works, especially The Nocturnes, can spend long hours debating which great pianist has searched their depths most successfully.

I have never wavered in my conviction that the magical recordings made by Claudio Arrau must wear the crown.

His version of The Nocturnes has the quality of meditative prayer.

 

 

After the above and yesterday’s stop to gaze reverentially heavenward it’s time to turn to more earthly considerations.

The Greeks, as you might have expected, had different words to describe the varied forms of love we express and experience.

Yesterday we were concerned with Agape – the love of God for man and man for God. Today we will find songs that express Eros – sensuous, sexual love and the appreciation of beauty and Philia – the love expressed in affectionate regard and friendship.

Now we turn to a tremendous southern soul sermon from a master and mentor for the genre, Joe Tex. ‘I’ll Make Everyday Christmas (For My Woman)’ glows bright with Joe’s gently enveloping passion.

Joe’s forte was telling stories in song using humour and homespun wisdom so that you felt he was gifting you the hard won lessons of a richly lived life.

 

Joe had a country preacher’s sense of the hunger in the audience for parables that would make sense of the roadblocks and confusions assailing them in their lives and provide a route map for the way ahead.

Embed from Getty Images

They knew that Joe didn’t pretend that he had never been a rounder and a rogue as well as a true romantic and love disciple.

We often, rightly, pay more attention to the testimony of someone who admits to failure and frailty than those in their whited sepulchres who are quick to admonish our every fault.

Joe sings the song with a steadily growing intensity almost as if the promise he was making was as much to his own better self as to the woman it was made to.

When the record finishes its hard not to say, ‘Amen! Brother, Amen!’ and vow to make sure you too take care to make everyday Christmas for your own woman or man.

Next, the delightfully cool Miss June Christy with, ‘Christmas Heart’. June was a veteran big band vocalist who followed Anita O’Day as the singer with Stan Kenton.

As a solo artist she made a magnificent album, ‘Something Cool’ which should be on the shelves of anyone with an appreciation of the art of jazz singing.

 

 

I have always found something deeply engaging in the understated, wistful tone June Christy brings to a song.

It seems she has stripped out all unnecessary flourishes so that we hear the essence of the song as she steers us gently to understanding through her embrace of the melody and lyric.

The lack of hectoring or self regard in, ‘Christmas Heart’ makes its dreamlike plea for Christmas to be a day when all the wounded find rest and balm all the more affecting.

You never really need to ask who is your neighbour – just look around you.

Today’s poem is, ‘Carol For The Last Christmas Eve’ by a favourite poet of mine, Norman Nicholson from Millom in England’s rural Cumbria.

Never fashionable Nicholson’s work will endure.

‘The first night, the first night,
The night that Christ was born,
His mother looked in his eyes and saw
Her maker in her son.

The twelfth night, the twelfth night,
After Christ was born, the Wise Men found the child and knew
Their search had just begun.

But the last night, the last night,
Since ever Christ was born,
What his mother knew will be known again,
And what was found by the Three Wise Men,
And the sun will rise and so will we,

Umpteen hundred and eternity’

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Eighth Day

Eighth Day :

A Painting by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos 1541 to 1614)                                      

A Poem by Patrick Kavanagh (1904 to 1967)

Music by John Dowland (1563 to 1626) played by Julian Bream, The Chieftains with Nanci Griffith and The Trinity Lavra Choir

 

Our painting today, ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ is a work of blazing, visionary brilliance by El Greco who had the artistic bravery characteristic of genius in all ages.

el-greco-nativity

El Greco depicted the human body and used colour and perspective in a manner that was wholly individual.

The awe inspiring intensity of his vision breaks down any conventional, ‘tutored’ response.

To my mind his art is a true veil shredding glimpse into a co-existing reality : present then and present now.

This painting, more than any other I know, captures the enormity of the event which took place some two thousand years ago.

It is a peerless hymn of exultation and adoration.

Today’s spirit refreshing music comes courtesy of John Dowland who can genuinely be described as a Renaissance Man in view of the time he lived in and the depth of his talents as a composer, Lutenist and singer.

His works will enter your consciousness like a pebble dropped into a pond with ever widening circles of effect.

Julian Bream is another musician with, ‘The Touch’.

Music played by Bream flows purely and naturally from his fingers to our hearts.

 

 

Further music comes from two countries: Russia and Ireland which share a reverence for poets and prophets, visionaries, bards and shamans.

Both have produced more than their fair share of saints, scholars and wayward genuises.

In both lands a sense of the numinous pervades the air and prayers ascend unceasingly heavenward – even in the increasingly secular modern age.

Of course, both countries are filled with a hundred times the number of would be writers to actual page blackening writers and both have to deal with the drunken consequences of frustrated spirituality encountering the demon drink.

Still, veil-piercing poetry and song are central to the cultural life and achievements of Ireland and Russia.

Both peoples love to carouse until they are stupefied yet both are capable of being stilled to silence and tears by a simple lyric or an exquisite slow air.

Let’s listen now to the exquisite, ‘Wexford Carol’ performed by the veritable custodians of Ireland’s traditional music, The Chieftains (here accompanied by a Texas rose, Nanci Griffith).

 

The Wexford Carol may well date back to the twelfth century though it’s widespread popularity is due to the work of William Gratton Flood, who was musical director of Enniscorthy Cathedral in the late 19th century.

The Chieftains play with an authority born of thousands of hours of perfecting their craft as traditional musicians – always respectful of the source material while being alert to each other’s role in bringing a tune to shimmering life.

The Chieftains, led by Piper Paddy Moloney, who has proved to be a natural born networker, have recorded many inspired collaborations with leading artists in many musical genres (though their greatest collaboration is probably with an artist from their own island – Van Morrison).

Here, Nanci Griffith sings the carol with a beguiling gravity befitting the immensity of the events portrayed. Listening I feel as I were marching in a torchlit devotional procession with the same moon that shone over Bethlehem above the sentinel trees of the forest around me.

Next, from a powerhouse of Otthodox Russian monasticism, ‘The Song Of The Magi’. The choir is from the Trinity Lavra (monastery/hermitage) of St Sergius in Sergiyev Posad some 50 miles from Moscow.

This has to be the sound of the breath of the Russian soul. Russian Othodox services provide doorways to contemplate the divine – an opportunity in stillness to be lifted into a different realm of being.

Giving ourselves over to such an experience can be profoundly uplifting and over time transformative.

 

 

Russian spirituality opens itself to mystery and awe accepting that grace cannot be willed but only gratefully accepted.

The Magi travelled long miles in search of a new kind of King and gave their gifts to a babe in a manger. Perhaps, listening to this work we could learn to give the gift of an attentive soul.

The poem today, ‘A Christmas Childhood’ is provided by one of the great figures of 20th Century Irish Literature, the sage of Iniskeen, Patrick Kavanagh.

‘Cassioepeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon – the Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodian’. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse’.

 

This post dedicated to the deceased members of The Chieftains:
Fiddler Martin Fay, Tin Whistle and Bodhran player Sean Potts and the mystical doyen of the Irish Harp, Derek Bell.