Paddy Callgahan, “Be Thou My Vision,” Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, Derry, 2013

So a couple of weeks ago I posted an update on my prayer life, which stalled out recently as I navigated a welter of day-to-day crises, to the blog. And a fellow retired English professor named Elizabeth, who blogs on WordPress at Saved by Words, asked in the comments, “Have you had any recent experience of just sitting in God’s presence? I find it a good remedy for feeling I am falling down on the prayer job.”

So … I had to say, “Good question …,” and admit I didn’t have much of an answer.

“I still tend to experience the presence of God,” I added, “the same ways I always did — in church (through Word and sacrament, as Lutherans like to put it) and in music.” So, yeah, I go to church. But prayer and contemplation? Maybe not so much. I’m falling down on the prayer job, too. I promised to get back to her.

But it got me to thinking. Especially the part about music.

A couple of quotes offered me guidance. One is a paraphrase of St. Augustine, and the other is attributed to English punk rocker-turned-wise-old-pop-culture-philosopher Elvis Costello (it’s also attributed to Frank Zappa, among several other purveyors of wisdom). The quotes are:

  • “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s a stupid thing to want to do.” — Elvis Costello (who says he got the quote from songwriter, painter and comedian Martin Mull, best known perhaps for the ’70s sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman).
  •  “He who sings prays twice” — attributed to Augustine in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and apparently an abridgment of his commentary on Psalm 72 (details in a 2007 thread on the online Catholic Answers forum).

The catechism puts Augustine in context (in paragraph 1156), “”The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.” (Which sounds like Luther: “The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them. … In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”) The catechism goes on to say, “The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy.” Keep that in mind: We’ll come back to it. Music and words. Music first, then words. Something for a retired wordsmith like me to keep in mind.

So with Elvis Costello’s warning in mind, I kept thinking about Elizabeth’s question.

As luck would have it, just as I was beginning to wrestle with these things — prayer and music, how is prayer like music? What does it mean to pray twice? — the choir at Peace Lutheran got a lovely SABT choral arrangement of the old Irish poem “Be Thou My Vision,” set to the Irish folk tune SLANE, arranged by Larry Shackley of Columbia, S.C. It’s a prayer, and it’s set to music — one of my favorite songs, in fact — so it seemed like a perfect chance to focus my thoughts.

The words are late Victorian (Edwardian, if you want to get technical about exact dates), a turn-of-the-20th-century translation of an old Irish poem that “belongs to a type known as a lorica, a prayer for protection,” according to Wikipedia. Another old Irish lorica, or breastplate, attributed to St. Patrick has special meaning for me and I’ve written about it before. This one comes in a close second. “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; / naught be all else to me, save that thou art …” I especially relate to the second verse:

Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
thou my great Father, I thy true son;
thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.

To me that indwelling echoes what I find most attractive about Celtic spirituality. It’s one of the reasons I like the song so much.

The third stanza of the original prayer is a little too martial for my taste — “Be thou my battle shield, sword for my fight … my soul’s shelter, thou my high tow’r” — appropriate enough for a poem from Ireland in the 10th century, when Vikings were still roaming around, but omitted from most contemporary hymnals. The fourth takes me back to where I live:

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
thou mine inheritance, now and always:
thou and thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my treasure thou art.

All in all, the words are simply lovely, in spite of the late Victorian thou’s and thy’s. But I didn’t pay much attention to them in choir practice. In fact, my favorite versions of the song are instrumental.

“Be Thou My Vision” is one of the Irish airs I play on the mountain dulcimer (Nina Zanetti has a nice arrangements with tablature on her website), and I’ve written about the tune before, HERE and HERE, on my folk music blog. I’m especially taken with a YouTube video of button accordion artist Paddy Callaghan of Glasgow, playing at the 2013 Fleadh Ceol in Derry. The Fleadh is an nationwide music festival and competition sponsored by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (society of the musicians of Ireland), which promotes trad Irish music and culture. So Callaghan was playing for — and with — the best of the best.

This video is embedded at the top of the post.

It was followed on the video by three reels, “The Mill House,” “Sporting Paddy” and “Homage to Rooney,” and I’m not going to pretend there was anything worshipful about Callaghan’s performance. No words were spoken — or sung — so I can’t say it was prayerful, either.

But the playing was contemplative and, I would venture to say, deeply spiritual.

Callaghan’s button box was backed by session musicians on guitar and Irish wooden flute. And the way the different instruments fit together, and riffed off of each other as Callaghan, and then the guitar and flute, kept playing dancelike little grace notes over and under the melody, was intricate, improvisatory and altogether harmonious.

Callaghan was absorbed in the music, and. his expression was thoughtful, almost contemplative, throughout, but he allowed himself a little smile at a particularly intricate flatpicked guitar riff. And as the melody danced around from button box to flute to guitar, it all fit together.

Can we speak of the architecture of music? I think we can. (As long as we heed Elvis Costello and we’re not dancing about it, I guess, and I’m not even sure about that. Let’s go on.)

I think the architecture of a tune played by a trad Irish band like Paddy Callaghan’s, or a jazz combo, a bluegrass band or any other group of musicians, shows what we can do when we work together, play music together. The structure of an Irish folk tune played on a button accordion may not be as intricate as a symphony or a Bach cantata, but I’d submit there’s an architectural framework in the timbre and structure of the music. If not a cantata, it calls to my mind one of the Lutheran chorales Bach harmonized for congregational singing.

Which leads me back to where I started — choir practice at Peace Lutheran Church and Larry Shackley’s arrangement of “Be Thou My Vision.” Lorenz Corp., the publisher, has posted it to YouTube for those who like to follow the score:

Be Thou My Vision (SATB) – arr. Larry Shackley — (c) The Lorenz Corporation

Let’s talk about architecture again, for a minute … the structure of the music.

Shackley’s arrangement is straightforward — three stanzas (omitting that bellicose stuff about swords and shields) in a standard hymn meter, in the same “sharp keys” (D major and G in this case) beloved by Irish fiddle players. The harmonies are simple, folk music-like, running to parallel thirds and fifths — with nice moving parts for soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices.

Give me a nice moving bass line, and I’m in heaven.

I don’t know if that qualifies as spiritual, exactly, but like St. Augustine said, those who sing pray twice. Especially if they can lean into the music.

And lean into it I could, from the very first run-through in choir practice. In Shackley’s arrangment, the sopranos and altos start out with the first verse, “Be thou my vision,  O Lord of my heart ….”; the men’s voices pick up the melody with the second verse: “Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word.” And so it goes throughout.

There’s a lovely passage where the sopranos and tenors come in on “Riches I heed not,” and hand the melody off to the basses, and then the altos, who complete the phrase with “… nor vain empty praise.” And the last verse — “High King of heaven, my victory won, / may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heav’n’s Sun!” — modulates to a higher key (G) with full harmonies, and gradually gets softer — by degrees from fortissimo to a rich pianissimo G chord on the final “O Ruler of all.”

Especially with its folklike harmonies in D and G (which get to be a way of life if you play the dulcimer), it reminded me of nothing so much as a good Irish session band playing a slow air.

But it reminds me of a couple of other things, too.

One is that invocation of St. Augustine in the Catholic catechism, “He who sings prays twice.” In the next paragraph (1157), it notes that music has a liturgical function due to its “beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the celebration.” In this way, the music enhances “the purpose of the liturgical words and actions: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.”

So by singing, in other words, we pray twice.

I think Luther was on to that, too. “In summa,” he wrote in the preface to a 1538 hymnal compiled by Georg Rhau, “next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits.” An accomplished musician himself, he added:

… when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace.

I don’t want to be overly logical here. Music is a gift of God. When we sing, we raise our voices in praise and thanksgiving. And when we do, it changes us — we are sanctified, made holy in other words, “[d]edicated or consecrated to God.” And that is one of the things that happens when we take part in liturgy. QED. Quod erat demonstrandum. But that’s not all there is to it. And certainly it doesn’t explain why I get so absorbed in secular music, when three, four or five instruments play and trip lustily around a fiddle tune or an Irish slow air.

And it’s certainly not all that Luther said.

I suspect when Luther wrote his preface to Rhau’s hymnal, he was reminded of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace (today we might call it craic), because he was a musician himself, and by all accounts a pretty good one.

We know he sang and played the lute, and we know he shared ideas and melodies with his friend Johann Walther, arranger of his first songbooks and kantor for the Elector of Brandenburg. We know Luther made music together with his wife Katie von Bora and children, Anna Magdalena and Hans, and I’m thinking all of this would have reminded him of the heavenly dance. I even suspect, if it’s not stretching the metaphor too far, he would have known the joy of dancing about architecture.

One thought on “Seeking the holy in a trad Irish music festival video from Derry, a 10th-century Irish poem and choir practice at a Lutheran church in downstate Illinois

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