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Carmina Celtica

World-premiere recordings of medieval and contemporary spiritual songs
Canty, William Taylor (harp)
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Recording details: November 2009
Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: August 2010
Total duration: 66 minutes 43 seconds

Cover artwork: Royaumont Abbey by
AKG London

World-premiere recordings of medieval and contemporary spritual songs including James MacMillan Os mutorum and John Tavener Two Hadiths.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'Highly impressive and imaginative synthesis of old and new' (Gramophone)

'Fabulous set of medieval and contemporary spiritual music ancient and modern performed by Scottish ensemble Canty' (Gramophone)

'Top-quality singing with the programme blurring the expected distinction between ancient and modern … the voices are pure, beautifully tuned and finely balanced' (Classic FM Magazine)» More

'Take four female voices versed in medieval music, record them in Edinburgh's Greyfriars Kirk, and you have the recipe for an outstanding disc of ancient and contemporary spiritual songs, all recorded for the first time. 'Spiritual' here means expressive of the awe and peacefulness that, in the right setting, are generated by the mystery of creation' (Financial Times)

There are a number of thematic strands running through this programme: the wanderings of Celtic saints across Europe in the Dark Ages, light and the heavenly bodies, and the life-force of creation, to name but three. The most important aspect of this recording for Canty, however, is that for the first time we have been able to celebrate part of the rapidly growing corpus of contemporary music that has been of vital importance to us since we began our musical journey. Everything on this disc, old and new, is a world-premiere recording, reflecting our conviction that the musical interfaces between classical/traditional, ancient/modern, and east/west are permeable ground, rich and ripe for exploration. One of the most significant ways in which we explore this idea is through the harp, and this disc features three from William Taylor’s large collection of copies of authentic instruments: a gut-strung harp typical of the type of instrument common across Europe in the Middle Ages, a wire-strung medieval clarsach with a bell-like timbre of the sort used in Ireland and Scotland, and a harp with buzzing bray-pins with a tone that almost defies classification. Bill’s accompaniments to the medieval material are improvisations whereas, of course, in the new works they are fully composed.

All the new music on this disc, except for Ivan Moody’s O quam mirabilis, was written for Canty, either commissioned by us, for us, or gifted by the composer. The setting of an antiphon for St Columba from the Inchcolm Antiphoner, Os mutorum, by James MacMillan was commissioned by my husband, Alan Tavener, as a birthday present. The text is a favourite passage from the Office for St Columba in the 13th century Scottish manuscript, the Inchcolm Antiphoner. It expresses very clearly and movingly the affection for St Columba still held in Scotland today. The premiere was given at Mass in the composer’s church, St Columba’s RC Church, Glasgow, in June 2008, followed that evening by the official concert premiere in Glasgow’s West End Festival. There is a figure in the accompaniment in the final section that bears more than a fleeting resemblance to the theme of the 60s TV spy series ‘The Saint’—could it be a coincidence?

Canty has been associated with the music and poetry of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, as her 900th anniversary in 1998 provided the spur for the formation of the group. Ivan Moody writes: “O quam mirabilis was written in 2006 to a commission from the very fine American girls’ choir Mandala, conducted by Sean Ivory. It was requested that the text be in Latin, which gave me the perfect reason to set, once again, words by the remarkable mystic Hildegard of Bingen, expressing to perfection awe at the mystery of the Creator God.”

Every time Canty gives the first live performances of liturgical reconstructions of medieval material we commission new works that connect and comment on that material. In 2007 we gave the world premiere in modern times of a 15th century Irish Office for St Patrick and we asked Irish composer Michael McGlynn to write a setting of part of the celebrated poem known today as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ for us. He says: “The Lorica is one of the most spiritually inspiring texts to set in all of Irish literature. My musical response to this poem takes into account the sonic purity of Canty and harkens back to an age of delicate vocal timbre and set, but fluid musical constraints”. It was premiered in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Flower garland was commissioned for Canty and premiered at the Whithorn Festival. Peter McGarr sets each of the four verses in a different manner, each informed by the idea of Gaelic heterophony—a traditional style of psalm-singing where all the voices operate independently. The text from Carmina Gadelica is many centuries old, preserved in aural tradition until collected by Alexander Carmichael in the 19th century.

American composer Joanne Metcalf wrote O shining light for Canty to premiere in the first St Machar’s Cathedral Festival, Old Aberdeen, in 2009. She writes: “In composing O shining light I wanted to create the impression of a profoundly beautiful outer light, such as that of the stars, that reflects back the beauty of one’s inner light. I began with Old English and Icelandic kennings, which are a type of poetic diction employed to rename common nouns. For example, “star-hall” or “field of angels” are poetic renamings of the heavens; a star may be referred to as a “jewel”, “shimmering flower”, or “celestial fire”. The first Latin phrase near the end of the work presents the darkness—that is, the darkness we inevitably encounter in our lives—that accompanies all light. The second, because it is identical in both the genitive and dative forms, possesses an inherent ambiguity and dual meaning: “the star that speaks to the soul” and “the star of the soul speaks” suggest a dialogue between the distant stars and one’s own soul. O shining light is dedicated to the memory of the composer Jennifer Fitzgerald.”

The earliest new work on this disc goes back to my early experiments, pre-Canty, with three-part female-voice ensembles. Premiered in Glasgow’s Tramway Theatre as part of the Centre Cage Festival, it is the only one of these early commissioning experiments that has remained in our regular repertoire. There is nothing brighter than the sun is a setting of a quotation from 12th century writer Al-Ghazali. The great Muslim mystic, philosopher and theologian wrote here about the power of light. Rowe’s spare and translucent use of three voices is intended to reflect the wonder and mystical qualities of such intoxicating light.

Like O shining light, Ubi flumen praesulis was also composed for the first St Machar’s Cathedral Festival. St Machar is an historically dubious figure who may turn out to be the same person as St Kentigern, Patron Saint of Glasgow. What little that is known of him comes from the medieval poet and cleric, John Barbour, author of the epic poem The Brus. James Reid-Baxter selected the text, a Lauds Antiphon (Pars estivalis of the Breviarium Aberdonense) and verses from Psalm 62 for Gabriel Jackson to set with his characteristic energy.

The stars in their courses sets the English translation by Betty I Knott of an antiphon for St Kentigern, and it was premiered in Glasgow Cathedral in January 2009 with Canty standing in the Nave almost immediately above the saint’s tomb. While James McCarthy was working on the score, the death of his grandfather informed both the choice of text and the depth and resonance with which it was treated.

Two Hadiths was commissioned by Canty from Sir John Tavener to premiere in York Minster in 2008 for the launch of the ‘Minster Quarter’ initiative. Hadiths are sayings by the Prophet Mohammed that are extra to the Koran, and many of them are poetic, almost visionary observations about the nature of the Almighty. When we first discussed the work and William Taylor’s collection of instruments, Tavener was immediately intrigued by the idea of the bray harp with its special resonating qualities and potential to evoke sitar-like sonorities. The result is a meditation that links the remote concept of the beauty of holiness with the awesome power of the act of creation.

The medieval plainchant comes from Scottish, Irish and European manuscripts and reflects our rapidly growing collection of repertoire about the intrepid, saintly Celtic missionaries, many of them eccentric and fascinating characters, who spread the light of Christianity across Europe in the Dark Ages. The antiphons from the Incholm Antiphoner about St Columba, the antiphon for St Kentigern from the Sprouston Breviary and the Lauds antiphons for St Brigit from 15th century Ireland are among material we were not able to squeeze onto previous recordings by Cappella Nova (‘Columba, Most Holy of Saints’ and ‘The Miracles of St Kentigern’) and Canty (‘Flame of Ireland’) featuring liturgical reconstructions of offices for these saints. We are particularly pleased to include the musically quirky Antiphon to the Benedictus of Lauds from the Office of St Kentigern, Sacrosanctam Kentegernus, Sprouston Breviary, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Adv. MSS 18. 2. 13B, dated c.1300. A full discussion of those manuscripts, their context and significance, can be found in the liner notes of those abovementioned recordings.

Beatus Gallus and A solis occasu are ‘one-off’ pieces from European sources about St Gall and St Columban, companion clerics who travelled together from Ireland to France and Italy, combating paganism and ignorance in the highest of places at great personal risk. Columban (the senior) became angry with Gall when illness prevented him from travelling as far as Italy and, rather unfairly, placed him under an interdict until it was lifted in 615. Gall is reputed to have delivered people from demons and his humility was legendary, having refused to be made a bishop on more than one occasion. He founded a monastery near Arbon where he died at the age of ninety-five. Columban founded the monasteries of Luxeuil in present-day France and Bobbio (Italy), he is also credited with standing firm in a potentially dangerous dispute with the young Theodoric, a king in Gaul and sovereign over Luxeuil, concerning his debauchery.

Sara Casey writes: “Beatus Gallus is a Responsory with verse from the second nocturne of the Vigil for Saint Gall. The earliest known recension for this chant is from a manuscript copied in Switzerland or Northern Italy about 1000 (London, British Library Add. 19768). Our transcription is from the 15th century manuscript, Prague, Narodni kniknvna VI F 16. A solis occasu was among the earliest compositions by the deacon Ekkehartus of Saint Gall (d973), dating possibly to the 930s. The transcription heard here is from Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek MS M. Ch. F. 283, dated 1624.”

The one piece of medieval polyphony in our programme is a Marian motet from the manuscript known in the world of musicology as Wolfennbuttel Herzog-August-Bibliotek, 628 Helmstadtiensis (WI, for short), popularly called The St Andrews Music Book. This vast manuscript belonging to the See of St Andrews in the 13th century is one of the richest extant sources of French polyphony of the Notre Dame School. For many years its Scottish provenance was ignored, but we are now able to celebrate this evidence of the rich cultural life of medieval Scotland, and Canty has previously recorded a disc featuring some of the Marian motets that come from the collection of more than forty of Scottish origin (‘Felix Femina’). There are many still to be recorded, and we chose Inviolata, integra casta es, Maria as a foil to Peter McGarr’s setting of the charm to St Mary, Flower garland, from the great nineteenth collection of Scottish poetry of ancient origin, Carmina Gadelica. We’ve linked this to a sequence of five Antiphons from an Irish Office for St Brigit who was popularly known as ‘the Mary of the Gael’.

William Taylor’s repertoire spans medieval, traditional and contemporary music, and he is equally at home improvising an accompaniment to a medieval melody, sacred or secular, as he is in realising a fully-composed work. The inclusion of two harp solos not only offers a welcome change of colour, but is also intended as a comment on our bardic approach to medieval chant from Celtic sources and our intention to blur the boundaries. Bill has consulted several sources for each piece, as follows: Through the wood Laudie, Wemyss Lute Book (c1644-48) and Through the wood, laddie, set by William McGibbon, Scots Tunes (1742). A daunce—grein greus ye rasses, Straloch Lute Book (1627-29), Green grows the rashes, Gillespie MS (1768) and Green grows the rushes, anon. Scottish MS (c1680).

Canty is hugely grateful to all the often unsung and under-recognised musicologists, Latinists and composers involved in our repertoire, without whom we would have nothing. Many give of their skills for little or no reward, so we hope that they will find this recording a partial recompense for their generosity.

Rebecca Tavener © 2010

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