Classical Perspectives

An Imaginative Exploration of The Sound-World of The Early Celtic Church






Barnaby Brown, Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Geoffrey Webber

Barnaby Brown (triple pipes and lyre); Simon O’Dwyer (medieval Irish horn and bodhrán); Malachy Frame (medieval Irish horn); Liam Crangle (bell and crotal)



On this fascinating new disc on Delphian, Geoffrey Webber and the Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge are joined by the scholar and piper Barnaby Brown to explore the sound world of early Celtic church. The disc isn’t so much of a reconstruction as an exploration, looking at the surviving material and trying different sound worlds. The music, all associated with Saint Columba, comes from a number of major sources; the antiphons for the Feast of St. Columba come from a manuscript which may have originated on the island of Inchcolm; the mass propers come from the abbeys of St Gall and Einsiedeln, which were founded by Irish monks; and the hymns have texts which were written on Iona itself.

The disc starts with Os mutorum, Lux Cecorum from the Office of St Columba in the Inchcolm Antiphoner. The men of the choir sing chant fluidly and fluently accompanied by a drone from a reconstruction of a Celtic triple pipe played by Barnaby Brown, who also provides an instrumental prelude and postlude. It is a fascinating and evocative sound world, the combination of chant and pipe. The pipe is a reconstruction based on surviving images from manuscripts and carvings.

 SELECTED TRACK: ‘Loquebar de testimoniis tuis,’ ‘sung by women’s voices with a lovely poised solo from Catherine Bauman.’ From In Praise of St. Colomba: The Sound-World of the Celtic Church.

Next comes one of the propers from Einsiedeln. All the music on the disc from Einsiedeln and St Gall uses a mixture of solo voices and tutti, which allows for far greater virtuosity in the music. Loquebar de testimoniis tuis is sung by women’s voices with a lovely poised solo from Catharine Bauman.

There follows another glimpse into the early sound world, an improvised duet with Malachy Frame and Simon O’Dwyer performing on modern reconstructions of a horn found during archaeological investigations in the River Erne in County Fermanagh. It is an amazing primitive sound; the music is slow moving and rather thrilling.

The men’s voices then sing Adiutor laborantium, an alphabetic hymn with a text attributed to Saint Columba, here sung to a melody from Lausanne (chosen simply because it fits) and with polyphony following 12th century treatises and Georgian tradition. As I said at the beginning, the disc is more of an exploration than anything else and different pieces are given different treatments. The men here get to sing some lovely twiddly bits which, for me, evoked James MacMillan in Celtic mode, along with some stirring organum.

Another piece from the Inchcolm Antiphoner, Sanctorum piisime Columba is accompanied by triple pipe in a highly effective combination. Then the upper voices sing an Alleluia from Einsiedeln, Lauda anima mea Dominum, with a lovely virtuosic solo from counter-tenor Edward Button.

We return to Iona for Noli Pater with music by Barnaby Brown after Gaelic psalm singing. The results are quite elaborate, and effectively sung by Susanna Bagnall and Catharine Bauman. This is followed by the antiphon Carne solutus pater Columba from Inchcolm, sung by upper voices in a fluently flowing manner with a pipe drone, and there are some lovely virtuosic moments.

 SELECTED TRACK: ‘Noli Pater,’ with music by Barnaby Brown after Gaelic psalm singing. Vocals by Susanna Bagnall and Catherine Bauman. The style of this duet performance has been adapted from a 1965 recording of the sisters Murdina and Effie MacDonald from the Isle of Harris. From In Praise of St. Colomba: The Sound-World of the Celtic Church.

There then follows a pair of propers, a Communion from Einsideln, Amen dico vobis, and a Gradual from St. Gallen, Liberasti nos Domine. The first sung by lower voices, the second by the whole choir and again there are some lovely virtuoso moments with solos from Philip Kennedy and John Gowers.

Cantemus in omni die is a text from Iona set to a tune from Santiago di Compostela. Accompanied by bodhran, crotal and pipe, the upper voices give us a lovely dancing piece. Still in Iona, the alphabetic hymn Altus prosator is the longest piece on the disc, clocking in at 25:06. Alphabetic because each verse starts with a letter of the alphabet, from A to Z. The music is by Barnaby Brown inspired by both Hebridean and Welsh traditions. It is highly repetitive, and the music is alternated between upper and lower voices with solos from Edward Button, Imogen Gardam, Malachy Frame and Stephen Fort, all accompanied by the reconstruction of a medieval lyre. The results are completely hypnotic and when, towards the end, the horns join in the results are supremely remarkable.

 SELECTED TRACK: ‘Volens lhesus linire,’ sung by the upper voices with a fine solo from Katie Braithwate.’ From In Praise of St. Colomba: The Sound-World of the Celtic Church.

The final selection from the Office of St. Columba from Inchcolm is Volens Ihesus linire sung by the upper voices with a fine solo from Katie Braithwate, plus some virtuosic pipe playing from Barnaby Brown.  We return to Gaelic psalm singing for Laudate Sominum with solos from Philip Kennedy and James Robinson, the two voices intertwining evocatively. The final piece on the disc is Barnaby Brown’s own instrumental solo The Desperate Battle of the Birds on the triple pipe.

This is a wonderful and evocative disc that helps us to explore what the Celtic church might have sounded like. Barnaby Brown, Geoffrey Webber and the choir have explored what is possible and given us some imaginative reconstructions, but more importantly, all the pieces on the disc live as fine, vibrant performances.


Posted at Planet Hugill–A World of Classical Music on July 25, 201 and reprinted by permission of the author. Visit Planet Hugill for classical music news, reviews, interviews and musings from contemporary music composer Robert Hugill


‘…how it is done is quite complex…’

St. Columba was born, probably in County Donegal, in 521. He lived a quiet and monkish life until in c. 563 he decided to sail towards the east. He founded a monastery on the island of Iona, a really decisive event in Scottish history. His biography was written just a few years after his death by Adamnan, his successor on Iona. Columba is associated with the early Celtic church and especially Scottish Christianity. Having forged relationships with kings he established a network of churches and monasteries, one being on the island of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth. Curiously enough I visited Inchcolm just a few days before picking this CD off my pile. In addition I am writing this in another decisive week, that of the Scottish Referendum.

This CD explores what it calls the “sound-world” of Columba’s environment. How it is done is quite complex. The extensive and fascinating booklet notes go into every detail of the performers’ intentions. All I can do is to sum up.

It’s worth adding that the choir of Gonville and Caius under their now long-standing Director Geoffrey Wheeler are no strangers to rare and unusual repertoire. However, even by their standards this music is not only rare but has needed, in some cases, special research and training.

For a start, let’s take the Latin Ionan text Noli Pater, which has been attributed to St. Columba. No one is quite sure whether Columba did write poetry but surely devotional verses such as these would have been appropriate to his character. We discover that the style of this duet performance has been adapted from a 1965 recording of the sisters Murdina and Effie MacDonald from the Isle of Harris. In the recording their voices interlink and sometimes overlap. On occasion one leaves the other voice to finish the line. On the present disc Susannah Bagnall and Catherine Baumann carry it off wonderfully. Later, two men (Philip Kennedy and James Robinson), oddly enough, do the same with another canticle from the Columban office, Volens Jheusus linere.

The Choir of Glanville and Caius College, Cambridge in the ruins of Muckross Abbey, Ireland
The Choir of Glanville and Caius College, Cambridge in the ruins of Muckross Abbey, Ireland

If you are in general agreement with Oscar Wilde’s definition of a gentleman as “one who can play the bagpipes but who chooses not to,” then you may not empathise with the plainsong melodies when those are accompanied by pipes. To be precise, what we hear are triple pipes and joined by the Irish horn. I have found this approach convincing. It has the effect of lifting the plainchant up a gear, as it were, with added expression, power and relevance to the subject matter. Stone carvings, of which two are illustrated, help to give us some clue as to these instruments. Their use is certainly found in 8th-10th century representations in England let alone Scotland and Ireland. Instruments were not permitted in church but there is evidence to show that it was indeed often clerics who played them and certainly weddings and special festivals would have used them as in ancient Rome and Greece. The Bodhrán used in just one track is just a goatskin-covered hand drum.

The sources and inspiration behind the programming are threefold. Of primary importance is the island of Iona through the poets who supply several texts some attributed to the saint. Secondly, the 14th century “Inchcolm Antiphoner.” I mentioned that I had visited this beautiful island in the Firth of Forth, approached best by boat from Queensferry, only a few days before listening to this CD. It is quite an extensive ruin and I took part in a Sunday morning service in sunshine, which, amazingly, included accompanied plainchant. There is also Swiss source from Einseiden and St. Gallen of the mid-10th century, where music and poetry were created in monasteries founded under the Columban influence. An example is Amen dico vobis, a Galician chant, by the way, and quite a rarity.

The “sound-world” of the Celtic Church can be particularly illustrated by Altus prosator. This is a vast sprawling poem, probably written on Iona in the late 7th century. I quote the track-listing: “Music by Barnaby Brown, weaving Hebridean tradition with the Welsh ground ‘Koraldan’ and medieval sequences from Germany.” The verses are sung “in alternatim” male, female and soloists although there is little historical evidence for this. The choir are accompanied by Barnaby Brown himself, who strums on the lyre to keep the pitch. At the verse “Tuba primi archangeli” the Irish horns strike up, first in unison, later adding some harmonies. Earlier in the disc there is a duet, an improvisation entitled the River Erne duet for the two horns, which demonstrates some of the variety of eerie noises this instrument can make.

 SELECTED TRACK: ‘River Erne Horn Duet,’ an improvisation between the triplepiper Barnaby Brown and medieval Irish horn of Simon O’Dwyer. From In Praise of St. Colomba: The Sound-World of the Celtic Church.

Although the approach to rhythm is generally free and unbarred, as it were, Cantimus in omni die is given in compound time using a melody from 13th century Compostela although the text is from 8th century Iona. It is accompanied by the pipes and percussion. The manuscripts indicate the melodies only by a series of neumes, which for many years proved impossible to interpret. The booklet illustrates the opening of the text and music for Liberasti nos Domine. We are told that the choir sometimes sang directly from the manuscript reproductions for some items–no easy task.

What with improvisation, vocal imitations of traditional singers, unusual instruments and scholarly delving, Geoffrey Wheeler, Barnaby Brown and Delphian have produced a generously filled and decidedly ambitious disc. These qualities are matched by the choir and the rest of the performers, prepared and performed both immaculately and with imagination. The 13th century church at Horningsea, where this was recorded, has a lovely and lively acoustic signature. The singing of the plainchant is never routine and the diction is clear and distinct.

The booklet essay is a good read and explains almost everything. There are colour photos of the performers, including one of the choir, dressed in relaxed summer clothes, lounging on the ruins of Muckross Abbey in Ireland. Quite what they were doing there is never explained–but it’s a nice place. –Gary Higginson, Music Web International


From the Inchcolm Antiphoner (Photo: Edingburgh University Library)
From the Inchcolm Antiphoner (Photo: Edingburgh University Library)



‘…fascinating release…well worth investigating…’


This is one of those releases that can genuinely be described as unique. Geoffrey Webber takes his Choir of Gonville and Caius Colleges, Cambridge, deep into the soundscapes of the ancient Celtic church, centered on the ministry and memory of Columba, the Irish missionary who founded Iona en route to evangelising Scotland. Columba’s disciples took his version of monasticism across to Inchcolm Abbey, the “Iona of the East” in the Firth of Forth, and then on to the mainland of Europe. These silent footprints of musical activity–including evidence of early notation and also of stone carvings, manuscript illuminations, and documents of the early Church–have guided both vocal and instrumental approaches in the choir’s work with scholar and piper Barnaby Brown. This exciting extended collaboration was further informed by oral traditions from as far afield as Sardinia and the Outer Hebrides. There is, of course, more than a little deduction as opposed to definite evidence and all concerned with this project would concede the fact; but even if they are guessing the conclusions are both plausible and worth hearing. We range from atmospheric instrumentals such as River Erne Horn Duet, an improvisation between the triplepiper Barnaby Brown and medieval Irish horn of Simon O’Dwyer, through to Latin Plainchant with a Celtic flavour, including two versions of an alphabetic hymn, Adiutor Laborantium, one lasting three minutes and the full version coming in at 25:06, a timing I had to check as it did not seem to take anywhere near that long.

 SELECTED TRACK: ‘Adlutor Laborantium,’ one of two alphabetic hymns on In Praise of St. Columba: The Sound-World of the Celtich Church.

There is some breathtaking musicianship and singing on this album but also one caveat: this is a scholarly project and if you want jolly jigs and rollicking reels or the kind of instrumental conveyor belt music passing for Celtic creativity in some Christian bookshop releases, this album is not for you. However, if you want to explore how the ancient Celtic Church may have worshipped, by all means investigate this fascinating release. –Steven Whitehead, Cross Rhythms, June 29, 2014



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