Columba Canticles

Music – Laurence Roman
Poems – Sam Burnside

  1. Kyrie – The Choir Vestry
  2. Gloria in Excelsis
  3. The Chapter House
  4. The Nave – The Bell Tower
  5. Sanctus
  6. Sunday School – Agnus Dei

The Creation of Columba Canticles

Columba Canticles was born of a commission from St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry and immediately presented itself as an exciting opportunity to bring about something extraordinary.

As with most commissions, though, it came with conditions. The first was that the piece had to mark the 400th anniversary of Derry’s having been awarded city status. The second was that the resultant work had to incorporate a poem – The Cathedral – by local poet, Sam Burnside.

The wryly described religious austerity, which suffuses The Cathedral, often has an improvised-sounding immediacy about it. Burnside is not, of course, the first Irish poet to distil verse from the colloquial, but he invests it with a Derry-centric flavour, which seemed to require specific emphasis. I felt his human voices needed to retain their regional freshness, while the work, more broadly, needed to be imbued with the monumentality traditionally associated with an oratorio.

The poem’s title inspired my structural blueprint. Each component of Burnside’s poem was sub-headed after a location within a cathedral. I thought that by interspersing these standard locales with the (equally standard) movements of the Ordinary Mass, the components would guide the listener through the piece, a little like recognisable reference points through an unfamiliar church.

Within this architectural analogy, the chorus loosely equates with the congregation, but more broadly also with any visitor to a place of worship. The component in the whole drawing sharpest textual focus is the narrator. The Cathedral occasionally relies on the consciously parochial for its effect. Forging the narrator’s role as being an intrusion on the piece – almost a violation – seemed an interesting approach. Ultimately, I hope Columba Canticles is a hymn to the Human Spirit; a celebration of that in us all which instinctively lowers its voice in a house of worship – of whatever creed or denomination – and warms to the quiet comfort offered by a holy place.

A little about the music…

Columba Canticles seeks to explore the medium and tradition of devotional music in a fresh and contemporary way. All the movements embrace the convention of including a cantus firmus or plainsong. Several of these Gregorian chants date back to the 9th Century and have, ever since, provided the creative backbone to a vast body of ecclesiastical music. In Columba Canticles, whenever you hear something sung in Latin, you can be sure that somewhere in the background there also hovers one of these ancient chants.

The Kyrie (Lord, have mercy) uses three different plainchants, which I have incorporated into the music in a variety of ways. Sometimes the plainsongs provide the pitches of the main melody, while on other occasions they simply provide a supporting strand around which complimentary material is woven.

The Choir Vestry uses an ancient Requiem chant. As well as musing on those buried in its grounds, Burnside’s poem explores the austerity of this tucked-away utilitarian corner of the Cathedral, focusing on tiny clinical details – the tiling, the washbasin, the single cold tap. Amid this greyness, the poem conjures up contrasting images of the siege of Derry, a glistening sunny River Foyle and the deserted, twilit cathedral in which phantoms seem to flit in the moonlight, before returning us to a final image of a relentlessly drizzly Derry day.

The Gloria in Excelsis (Glory to God in the Highest) is cast as a passacaglia. This basically means that the entire movement is anchored to a ground bass – a descending series of eight notes – which keeps repeating in the ‘cellos and bass. You’ll hear the cantus firmus in the viola-part. This is decorated by the violins and the choir who intone the appropriate Latin text.

Burnside’s language in The Chapter House again relies for much of its effect on rain imagery, and I have tried to echo this in my setting. He meditates first on various atrocities perpetrated by Mankind upon itself, but then he allows the listener into a gentler, more forgiving world of sentient humanity.

The Nave is perhaps the most involved of the movements. Plainsong is not written in keys as we would recognise them today, but in modes, which gives it its archaic quality. Traditional folk melodies from all over Europe use these same modes and Irish traditional music is no exception. In The Nave I have combined a Mediaeval Kyrie and a hymn to the Virgin with four Irish traditional tunes, two slow airs: My Lagan Love and The Month of January and two slip-jigs: The Rocky Road To Dublin and Any Jig Will Do.

The Nave runs without a break into The Bell Tower. This movement is the shortest in the work, but is also probably the most difficult to perform. If you have ever been inside a bell tower during a change ring, you’ll know that they can be noisy places. Close up, each bell does not sound a single clear note, but instead a jangle of overtones which, when combined with its neighbours, generates a complex halo of sound. I have tried to imitate this by giving the orchestra the ringing pattern Little Bob Minor, while the choir sings material based on a Mediaeval Alleluia. There are as many individual orchestral parts as there are players and the choir divides in half, effectively generating a double chorus. If you then consider that the material is written in more than one simultaneous key you will understand why I was so delighted when the performers rose to the challenge.

Several of the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) plainsongs I found were remarkably catchy and one in particular was especially beautiful. I harmonised the latter for unaccompanied choir and combined a couple more into a jig. You’ll hear the choir start the piece a cappella, after which the orchestra takes over in double-tempo. The choir then returns, overlaying their opening material, while the orchestra continues dancing away.

Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, the composer of There is a Green Hill Far Away and All things Bright and Beautiful, was a Derry woman and is buried near the Cathedral grounds. The section in Sam Burnside’s poem sub-headed Sunday School immediately suggested incorporating one or other of Mrs Alexander’s schoolroom standards as my cantus firmus. I’ll leave you to identify which one I used, though I’ll admit it’s been put through some pretty radical transformations and might not be immediately recognisable. Burnside’s poem describes the schoolroom of forty years ago with bleak precision so I incorporated the colourless recitation of the Greek alphabet I recall from my own schooldays. Back then, associated echoes of the book of Revelation – “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” – passed me by.

The closing Agnus Dei (Oh, Lamb of God) reworks an ancient plainsong, eventually combining it with the lovely Irish slow air Slán le Máigh (The Bells of Shandon). Perhaps the closing words of the Agnus Deidona nobis pacem – conclude the work with a shared sentiment, which transcends individual faiths and convictions.