Rod Lewis and students, Church of the Apostles, Columbia, SC, Trinity Sunday 2020

Since it looks like I’m about to get locked out of Facebook again (I blogged about it HERE, back in May), I’m going to post something about a hymn that’s associated with Trinity Sunday and St. Patrick’s Day instead of Advent. That’s largely because I have a technical question to pose to other mountain dulcimer players on FB, and I want to ask it while I can still communicate easily with them.

But it’s a lovely piece of Anglo-Irish music, and it’s worth a listen even if you don’t play the dulcimer.

Especially if you like Irish music. Or traditional hymnody.

Often known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate, it’s named after an ancient legend concerning the Irish saint and Lóegaire mac Néill, the high king of Tara. So I don’t feel too self-indulgent posting it now.

The words are by Victorian churchwoman Cecil Frances Alexander, who also wrote the words to “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “Once in Royal David’s City.” And the melodies — there are two of them — are traditional Irish. One, known in hymnals by the tune name ST. PATRICK, is arranged by late 19th-century Anglo-Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford, who also arranged Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies and taught at Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst were among his pupils. The other, known as DEIRDRE, comes from Edward Bunting’s collections and has good claim to be one of the very earliest traditional Irish melodies. It’s the setting for the verse that modulates, or shifts, to a major key for the words beginning “Christ be with me, / Christ within me […]”

The interpretation embedded above, arranged by Rod Lewis of Columbia International University in South Carolina, brings out the Irish roots of both tunes.

Stanford, who arranged the hymn, was a professor of music at the University of Cambridge in England, but his roots were in Dublin and he clearly had an ear for Irish song. In his day he was a well regarded composer of several symphonies, mostly in the style of Brahms, but now he is chiefly remembered for his influence on students including Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, according to a magisterial profile in Wikipedia (I counted 149 footnotes). His arrangement got into Williams’ influential 1906 hymnal.

According to Wikipedia, Stanford “liked and respected folk songs,” perhaps especially the “genuine Irish folk tunes” he incorporated in his orchestral works, and his church music “is dominated by melody.” I know him best for having “restored and arranged” the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore and editing George Petrie‘s Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland.

The version of St. Patrick’s Breastplate I grew up with in the 1940 Episcopal hymnal uses one of Stanford’s melodies (called ST. PATRICK in the hymnal), but substitutes an air collected by Edward Bunting (called DEIRDRE) for the second; in this, it follows the distinguished composer and folksong collector Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1906 hymnal for the Church of England. You can’t ask for a better musical pedigree, in my opinion.

Stanford, by the way, is one of the few authors I’ve ever read whose footnotes are entertaining! See what he said about “The Last Rose of Summer,” for example. He had no patience for arrangers who didn’t understand modal harmony.

So here’s the nerdy question

So if you’re not into music theory and/or don’t play the mountain dulcimer, you can safely skip down to the next subhead.

I’ve been playing it in DAD (actually with four equidistant strings tuned to DAdd), with the melody starting at the B on the first fret of the middle string and the E on the first fret of the melody string. The first phrase would be 1-1-1-0-1, or A-E-E-D-A (with the underlined fret numbers played on the A string), and so on. I’m not 100% sure what key that’s in, but I think it would be E minor — that’s part of my question. The next to last verse, the one that begins “Christ be with me […] I play in D major, with the keytone on the open D string.

My questions are:

  • What key is the minor melody in? My ear tells me it’s E minor, but my half-absorbed, self-taught understanding of music theory tells me that can’t be right — if I’m going to modulate without retuning, I ought to be going from D to B minor.
  • Can I really get away with this? As long as I flatpick parts of the melody and I’m careful to avoid strumming across all the strings at certain frets, it sounds OK to me. But my playing style is very old-fashioned, and it sounds kinda dronal and funky at the best of times.

The problem here is modulating from minor to major without retuning, or interrupting the music to slap a capo on in the middle of a song.

And here’s the story of St. Patrick

St. Patrick’s Breastplate is one of my favorite hymns, and it has a lovely medieval Irish legend to go with it.

In fact, it has a good claim to be my very favorite of all (although I tend to think my very favorite song is whatever I’m playing, or listening to, at a given moment). Not only do I remember it from my confirmation 60-plus years ago, I once carried a photocopy of it (greatly reduced, of course) in my billfold as kind of a talisman during a particularly fraught midlife crisis. I’ve blogged about it frequently over the years (HEREHERE and HERE, for example), and even wrote a lectio divina meditation about it HERE. Call it kind of a soundtrack to my spiritual journey.

It’s known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate because the legend has it that one verse — the one that modulates from minor to major — protected the saint from the wrath of Lóegaire mac Néill, one of the sons of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an ancestor of the O’Neill clan and a legendary king of Ireland. For that reason it’s called a lorica, or breastplate. An 11th-century manuscript called the Liber Hymnorum gives this account:

Saint Patrick sang this when an ambush was laid against his coming by Loegaire, that he might not go to Tara to sow the faith. And then it appeared before those lying in ambush that they (Saint Patrick and his monks) were wild deer with a fawn following them. [Links in the original.]

There’s at least one other piece of music that features the legend of St. Patrick and his breastplate, or lorica. It’s by Shaun Davey, and it’s one of my favorite pieces of music. (Heard that before?) I blogged about it HERE, and included a video featuring Davey, his wife Rita Connolly and a local choir performing it at the Powerscourt estate south of Dublin.

It’s worth a listen, too.

[Uplinked Dec. 6, 2022]

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