Many professions, cities and countries have their own patron saints. In our time only a few are still celebrated. The best-known example is St Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. Ireland has no fewer than three patron saints, and one of them is St Patrick. He is an important part of the Irish national heritage and identity, and he is still celebrated in various ways – but not only in Ireland, as this disc proves.
As so often with saints, what is known about St Patrick is more myth than fact. He lived from around 387 to 461. The only firm facts are derived from two authentic letters. At the age of about 16 he was captured by Irish pirates and taken to their country as a slave. Six years later he was able to escape and returned to his family. It is probably on the Continent that he entered the church and after years of study returned to England intending to spreading the Gospel in Ireland. He started his activities there in 432. At some time he was consecrated bishop.
These sparse biographical details have been filled out with all kinds of stories which are impossible to verify. Many elements found their way into the liturgical music to celebrate his life and work. The ensemble Canty presents “an office for St. Patrick”, as the title says. This has to be taken with a grain of salt. In her programme notes Rebecca Tavener writes: “This Office for St Patrick’s Day consists of a rich collection of propers (material peculiar to that day alone) which would have been sung during the Offices of 1st Vespers, Matins, Lauds and 2nd Vespers in a religious foundation dedicated to the saint”. This means that those sections of the liturgy which are part of the Ordinary are left out. That is understandable in the light of what Rebecca Tavener writes: “Matins is the most extensive of the Offices and the most wide-ranging in terms of musical content, and it would have taken around two and a half hours for its majestic structure to unwind”. As fascinating as that might be, it is probably asking too much from most listeners to sit and listen to this kind of liturgical music for such a long period of time. It would probably make a deeper impression if performed live in an appropriate venue than on disc anyway.
What we get here are a number of chants from the four Offices mentioned before. Because of the lack of ordinary chants we get sequences of antiphons and responsories. The First Vespers, for instance, end with two Magnificat Antiphons whereas the Magnificat itself is omitted. The chants are taken from various sources which are all mentioned and described in the booklet. This recording is the happy outcome of a close cooperation between Canty and the National University of Ireland Maynooth which participates in an international project on the Liturgical Veneration of Irish Saints in Medieval Europe.
A recording like this is not directed towards a wide audience of ‘common’ music-lovers. It requires concentration and attentive listening, and I assume it is mostly those who have a specific interest in early liturgical music who are willing to spend their time to be captivated by this performance. Although all the music is monophonic, there is still some variety within the repertoire. This stems from the various forms of antiphon, responsory, invitatory and hymn, but also from a variety within the music itself. The ranges and pitches of the vocal parts are different, and whereas some chants are predominantly syllabic, others contain more in the way of melisma. Canty has contributed to variety by adding a drone in some chants, meaning that one voice holds a tone, where another performs the written-down melody.
A special role is given to William Taylor, playing a wire-strung clàrsach. This Celtic harp is used in several chants, for instance the opening hymn, but also in most of the responsories. “The harp accompaniments, improvised by William Taylor, pay tribute to a growing body of iconographical evidence supporting the view that harps were played in Celtic religious foundations”, Rebecca Tavener writes. She also refers to the fact that a harp is listed in the inventory of a Scottish monastery as late as the mid-16th century. This is no evidence that the harp was indeed used in liturgical music as performed on this disc, but it certainly adds some plausibility. William Taylor’s improvisations are stylish and never obtrusive, and are a delightful addition to the performances by the four singers of Canty.
The marriage of science and practice has resulted in a spellbinding recording. The four singers give outstanding performances. The short solos show that their voices are quite different in timbre but they blend perfectly when they sing unisono . The recording took place in an appropriate venue, and the reverberation of the church is just right. The booklet contains extended programme notes and all the lyrics with an English translation.
For lovers of liturgical music this is a disc not to be missed.