In the following, Shaun gives his own insight into The Pilgrim story as portrayed in the most recent live performances, on a track by track basis.
The Pilgrim story is not so much told as suggested. It is suggested by the combination of;
A musical performances by a range of vocal and instrumental
soloists representing the different Celtic regions, orchestra, pipeband
and choir, each of whom in turn takes the audience on a journey across
the seas and lands of the Celtic world. A musical pilgrimage in effect.
A 'narrator' who reads/recites translations of poetry from early medieval
Irish literature, specifically chosen from poems ascribed to St. Colm
Cille, [known in Scotland as St. Columba] or relating to other early
medieval Celtic saints known to have travelled from one Celtic region
to another. The narrator's role is intended to both link and explain
the musical progression, but not to dominate it.
THE PILGRIM STORY
The Battle of Cul Dremne - instrumental - bagpipers, wardrums and orchestra.
A bloody 6th cent. battle in Ireland , held by some historians to have been provoked by Colm Cille, whose subsequent remorse, [or perhaps compulsion by others], led to his exile in Scotland. The music builds on this sense, pipers and percussion playing largely in opposition to the orchestra. Out of this harsh musical struggle the piece concludes with a form of bagpipes and orchestral fanfare at which point we should become aware of the presence of narrator and solo harpist, who enter as fugitives from a war zone. It is rare for a pipeband to share the same stage as an orchestra; that they do so in 'The Pilgrim' is an intended social point as well as practical necessity, for if pipeband and orchestra are separated by too great a distance they will not be able to play together with any precision.
Colm Cille's Exile part 1; narrator and solo harp.
Speaking in English [or the language of the audience], the narrator reveals himself as Colm, a prince of the royal family of O'Neill, now forced into exile for his involvement in precipitating the terrible battle. He identifies himself as someone who has since then travelled as a pilgrim, both in penance and as a pioneer in the spreading of Christianity, who looks back now on his life from the perspective of the island of Iona and old age, with the wish that he could travel home to 'fair Derry with its host of white angels from one end to another.'
Gair na Gairbe - song in old Irish - male vocal soloist, uilleann pipes, harmony vocals, choir and orchestra.
The song title translates as 'The sound of the [river] Corrib'. The singer represents the young Colm Cille, with a picture of an idyllic, comfortable and safe life as a student in a monastic settlement beside an estuary. He describes the wildlife - stags and birds - always returning to the image of waters perpetually advancing and receding up and down the estuary and their power to mesmerise, impairing his concentration in prayer and which continually remind him of the existence of a wider world. The song ends with the entry of the choir and a prophetic prayer for protection amidst the fury of storms.
The Trotting Pilgrim - instrumental - uilleann pipes and orchestra.
Here, and for the time being, the pipes portray a world of comfort, well-being and good humour.
Colm Cille's Exile part 2; - narrator and solo harp.
Still in his place of exile, still as an old man, Colm Cille extolls the virtues of the people and land to the West [i.e. Ireland] and either with tongue in cheek - or perhaps with genuine loss of equanimity - conveys his contempt for the peoples and lands to the East [i.e. continental Europe]. He continues with the translation of verses from the song from his youth we have just heard and, as he does so, appears to grow younger. He returns once again to images of the freshwater river wrestling with the saltwaters of the floodtide, and to his failure to attend to his duties as he stands, captivated, at the estuary's mouth 'where it meets the sea'.
A Walk in the Ocean - instrumental - uilleann pipes and orchestra.
A restless solo uilleann pipes passage, joined increasingly by the orchestra, builds to a climax where the intention is to portray a wild seascape with serried ranks of massive waves advancing majestically across an ocean. A world Colm Cille the exile, is about to face.
The Pilgrim - narrator and solo harp.
The narrator speaks as his younger self at the moment when he stands on the shore preparing - actually literally daring himself - to forgo the comforts of sheltered monastic life in order to submit to a life of certain hardship and danger 'upon the wild sea.' He lists the accustomed pleasures he must leave behind, and focusses instead on the fearsome ordeal that lies ahead. Resolved, he prays for Christ's protection. Despite the fact that many flesh-and-blood 'saints' travelled known sea trading routes, all 6th-century sea travel involved unpredictability and real peril. This afforded real opportunities for pilgrim saints to go into the wilderness in emulation of Christ, maybe to spend time as a hermit in some remote spot, perhaps to found a monastery, or maybe face martyrdom. On the one hand it was an opportunity to prove their physical courage, on the other a chance -possibly a terminal one - to demonstrate their spiritual faith in Christ's presence and their acceptance of his wishes, no matter how disadvantageous to themselves. And this, really, for our pilgrim is the crux; - the tougher things are the better he will be able to demonstrate his faith.
The Pilgrim - song in old Irish - male vocal soloist, uilleann pipes, synthesiser.
The song expresses the moment of choice after which there can be no turning back; the triumph of a spirit of faith and daring and the decision to voyage into the unknown. Here, between the preceding narrative and this song, vocalist and narrator merge into one identity, both expressing the same motives and resolve, each reinforcing the other.
Colm Cille's Farewell to Ireland - narrator, solo harp and orchestra.
Colm Cille, once more given form by the narrator, is now far out to sea, mid - channel in his 'humming currach', between the North coast of Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland. He examines his feelings as he watches his homeland dip below the horizon. Turning, he identifies the isle of Iona as his destination. He prepares himself for the ordeal ahead.
Land of the Picts - instrumental - pipeband solo.
The music is an aggressive tune, originally designed to be played while marching, demonstrative of a formidable culture. The impact of the pipeband, here complete with drum corps, is immense, and of course, represents our arrival in Scotland.
Iona - instrumental - bagpipes solo with orchestra.
A lone bagpiper plays The Pilgrim air with orchestral accompaniment. It loosely portrays Colm Cille's arrival at Iona and his involvement with the monastic settlement on the island, his new spiritual home.
Briochan and Colomba - instrumental - pipeband and orchestra.
Colm Cille, known in Scotland as St. Colomba, was successful in his mission to bring Christianity from Ireland to Scotland. But in order to do so he had first to dislodge the Pictish Druids from their position of supremacy. Legend has it that Columba discredited the senior Druid, Briochan, in a duel of 'magic'. On the day Christian magic was perceived to have the edge over the [hitherto apparently satisfactory] 'pagan' magic which involved worship of natural phenomena, sun, moon, stars etc. Early Christianity absorbed many of the conventions of the earlier religions.
Storm at Sea - narrator and solo harp.
An early medieval poem describing the power of the wind over the sea, a geographic, birdseye, description of the winds blowing from either side of the Irish sea, north to the Isle of Skye or from the south over the 'land of the saxons', and the creation of wild beauty as the winds rise to gale force.
Storm at Sea - song in old Irish - male vocal soloist and orchestra.
The above set to music in which the singer acts as the god of winds, summoning the storm. Through a tremendous orchestral crescendo he calls for God's protection from the tempest. This song is placed here to represent the Isle of Mann.
The Irish Sea - instrumental - solo harp, uilleann pipes, whistle and orchestra.
A haunting and serene passage designed both to represent our passage down the Irish sea towards Wales, and as a prelude to the next episode.
Ymadawiad Arthur ['The Death of Arthur'] - narrator.
The narrator relates the epic tale of King Arthur's death on the battlefield at Camlan, the last battle fought by Arthur at the head of the Christian Celtic armies against the pagan continental invaders [Vandals, Goths etc.]. According to legend Arthur was roughly contemporary with Colm Cille and, as a Celtic hero is celebrated equally in the lowlands of Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.
Ymadawiad Arthur - song in Welsh - choir, uilleann pipes and orchestra.
The first of two songs specially written for choir, both in a Celtic language, and both preceded by a reading in English by the narrator. This has at its heart King Arthur's dying words 'Be brave, dare to suffer,' contains his description of the isle of Avalon [paradise] and the final disappearance of his burial ship in mist.
Samson Peccator Episcopus - narrator and solo harp.
[In this Latin title Bishop Samson followed the convention of the time by acknowledging himself to be also a 'sinner']. A contemporary of Colm Cille and a fellow traveller and founder of monasteries, Samson was Welsh-born, served as abbot of Howth monastery, spent time as a hermit in a cave in the Severn Valley, before the episode narrated here; i.e. his crossing of Cornwall along the famous isthmus route between Padstow and Fowey. As with the previous song, here the narrator gives us the English translation of the Celtic lyrics we are about to hear in the following song. His manner of delivery may imply personal knowledge of Samson, certainly a sense of appreciation, of kinship.
Samson Peccator Epscopus - song in old Cornish - choir, whistles and orchestra.
Unlike Welsh, its close cousin Cornish is now a dead language. However in sound it seems to have had, as one would expect, close ties with both Welsh and Breton. Here the lyrics of this song for the choir takes the form of a snapshot of Bishop Samson in his Irish chariot as he rides over the back of Cornwall, performing a miracle en route, cheered by the people, towards Gurnesey and Dol in Brittany, where he founded his monastery. Like Colm Cille, [and Arthur], Samson's life provides the context for us to travel from one Celtic region to another.
St. Mathew's Point - narrator, harps, solo bombarde and orchestra.
Travelling on, the narrator delivers the words of of Bishop Patrick [not the same as the patron saint of Ireland]. In terms of character the image and emotion expressed in this poem would have been appreciated and shared by Colm Cille so no psychological shift is required of the narrator; we still see him as Colm Cille, now riding the prow of a well-found sailing vessel. He likens the ships potential to traverse huge distances to the potential of his book of gospels to spread the message of christianity....'Speed on my book, an angel go with you....Learn, my ship, to safely race upon the plains of the ocean'. In this passage the narrator conveys the fact that at this time, while the rest of Europe was in chaos [the Dark Ages'], it was in the Celtic world that Christianity was able to be practised and preserved. This early medieval poem, composed on behalf of Bishop Patrick, demonstrates how effective were the Celtic 'saints' of the 6th century in returning Christianity once again to Europe [the Irish St. Columbanus founded monastic settlements on the Rhine for example]. This expression of the inexorable onward movement in the spreading of Christianity provides a powerful moment to launch a new voice in the concert - the very distinctive Breton bombarde, in a passage designed to portray the exhilaration of a successful navigation of the dangerous reefs and rocks which lie off the coast of NW Brittany.
Danse Plin - instrumental - bombarde and biniou.
After a lengthy period of full orchestra the concert now depends on just two musicians, playing bombarde and the smallest member of the bagpipe family, the Breton biniou. It is an opportunity for something both intimate and earthy, for a' plin' is the most primitive of Breton dance steps, thought to have originated with the dual purpose of stamping on the freshly-harvested corn. Such music is still played at the 'fest-nos' in Brittany, typically a local village dance.
Bal Plin - instrumental - bombardes and orchestra;
Typically in Breton tradition an energetic dance is followed by a slow one. The Bal Plin has a graceful, stately quality. At this point in the concert there is no story, but the effect of these dances is celebratory, a relief from the more serious affair of the spreading of Christianity and the dangers of medieval travel. These dances also, by contrast celebrate our more normal, entirely 'pagan' urges to dance, party and procreate.
Danse An Dro - instrumental - bombardes and orchestra.
The third of the Breton dances, this picks up the tempo again in the manner of the first, this time with a playful role for the orchestra. Our rhythm band [featured guitar, bass guitar, percussion and keyboard] start to kick in. We are about to enter the final quarter of the concert in which a driving rhythm section plays a central part. Again, no story as such, more the highest point and conclusion of a party.
Kenavo d'an Naoned ['Farewell to Nantes'] - narrator.
As before, part of the function of the narration is to give the audience advance understanding of a Celtic language song. These words give us once more a glimpse of our pilgrim saint, but more distant, seen, perhaps at dusk, re-embarking on the ebbtide for another sea crossing, again embracing the perils of the pilgrimage, this time out into the enormous Bay of Biscay.
Kenavo d'an Naoned - song in Breton - male vocal soloist, harmony vocals and orchestra.
After the celebrations in Brittany, this is the only truly sad song in the whole work; as it should be when the subject, as here, is a farewell exchanged between people who know that they will never meet again. Though we, the audience will in fact meet the narrator twice more before the concert's end, this song is designed and placed to give a strong intimation of mortality, that all good things and all good people come to an end, and that all that comes in the meanwhile is a bonus.
The Pilgrim's Sunrise - instrumental - gaita [Galician bagpipes], uilleann pipes, harps and orchestra.
In the sense that a darkness, night, fell in the previous song and, at the same time a chapter in our 'story' ended, this piece starts with the lights extremely low and begins the final section of the concert. It is constructed on the lines of a traditional Galician 'Alborada' ['Sunrise' in Gallego], a music with which Galician gaita players serenade the dawn while slowly walking around a town or village on Fiesta day. Our solo piper begins offstage and, as he advances into the hall, so he brings with him the sunrise, the stage bathed in warm light that intensifies as the piece develops. He is joined by uilleann pipes, harps and orchestra; it is time to celebrate once more. In terms of story, we have arrived in Galicia, the southernmost part of the Celtic world.
Two Galician Dances - instrumental - gaita, bombardes, bagpipes and orchestra.
With this music the concert goes into rhythmic top gear; the gaita leads first the bombardes and then the pipeband in a statement of increasingly wild and exultant celebration. With the added weight of the bagpipes it gains a martial feel and contains a reprise of Colm Cille's fanfare first heard in the 'Battle of Cul Dremne.' It is by far the loudest piece in the concert and generally delights the audience with its abandon. It also provides our male vocalist, Liam O'Maonlai, with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his skill with the bodhran, invariably a strong visual feature of the performance. These two 'Galician' pieces provide the extended sense of crescendo and fulfillment that prepares the way for the contrast of what follows.
St. Manchan's Prayer - narrator and solo harp.
The narrator, still a manifestation of Colm Cille, and still accompanied by his faithful harpist, describes the building of a monastery in a wild and secluded place. It represents journey's end. Whether it is in Galicia, or Scotland, or back in Ireland is not important. The importance of what the narrator describes is that, to him, the process of bringing into being such a place represents heaven on earth. We see Colm Cille finally at peace. As a point of interest, St. Manchan's church and grave are on the southern tip of the Dingle peninsular, Co, Kerry. They are situated on a pilgrimage route which terminates at the top of Mount Brandon, named after the most celebrated of 6th century seafaring saints, St. Brendan. They also lie just a short distance from a traditional embarkation point for the most famous of all pilgrimage destinations, Santiago da Compostella.
The Deer's Cry song - female vocal soloist, choir and orchestra. (also known as I Arise Today)
The original old Irish text is also known as St. Patrick's Breastplate which, for many centuries, has been used as a travelers prayer for protection. Indeed, in reciting it very much gives the effect of putting on a suit of armour, piece by piece. With this musical setting the female solo vocalist, Rita Connolly, onstage but held in reserve for so long, finally comes into her own, providing , with the choir a spiritual tour-de-force in which the voice of the individual rings out in defiance against a world's danger, both natural and man-made. Had this piece occurred earlier in the sequence it would have appeared to be a prayer to benefit our journeying saint, Colm Cille. Coming here, towards the close we, the audience recognise that it is for us, a prayer for our own protection. The lights begin to dim before the end, gradually, in simulation of sunset; some light remains on the female solo vocalist.
A'Ghrian - Narrator.
A short traditional prayer from the Outer Hebridean isle of Barra, translated from Scots Gaelic, in which one salutes the sun as it sets and prays that one may live through the night to see it rise the following day. It is significant that the prayer addresses both the Christian God and the 'pagan' sun in almost equal measure.......'I am in hope, O great and gracious God, that thou will not put out for me the light of grace, even as thou dost leave me this night.' This has a special poignancy when spoken by our narrator, Colm Cille, now in the darkness of night and now, as at the start of the concert, in his old age.
A'Ghrian - song in Scots Gaelic - female vocal soloist, pipeband, other soloists, choir and orchestra.
The above words set to music in their original form, with their strong association with an earlier religion, with its worship of the sun and careful attention to the natural world. The first 3 verses for solo female vocal [the soaring voice of Rita Connolly again] are serene; then, as light begins to return and the sun rises once more, a transformation occurs with the entry of pipeband, choir and brass section, who invest a simple melody with a power that is both graceful and assured. The huge increase in scale is further emphasised by the participation of all soloists. Once more, the music returns to a mood of celebration; of life certainly, but more particularly perhaps, of kinship, the underlying reason for the original commissioning of the music by Lorient Interceltic Festival.
segue coda - instrumental - The Irish Sea [variation]; everyone. This is a melody we have heard before through the concert, which reappears after' A'Ghrian' ends, as an unexpected reprise. It has the effect, initially, of delaying the audience's applause, for it is evident we have reached the end of the concert. Yet, as it too builds in momentum and power, it gives the artists a chance to participate in a less formal manner and make contact with the audience in a shared celebration of the end of the concert. The combined effect is designed to produce an emotion as close as possible to celebrations in a football stadium where the home team has just won. This is important, for while on the one hand it does tend to reinforce a sense of tribalism, of more consequence to the general tone of the concert is the underlining of the fact that 'The Pilgrim is not a 'religious' work. Its impulses are secular; it aims to commemorate Celtic saints as ordinary people; the sense of pilgrimage is to do with the journey of the individual, independent of a particular church; with the passage from birth to death accompanied equally by the religious and the profane, the Christian and the pagan.