Aldhelm and Sherbourne

I have just received a new book, Aldhelm and Sherbourne – essays to celebrate the founding of the bishopric edited by Katherine Barker and Nicholas Brooks, published by Oxbow Books last year. I ordered this book of conference papers because it includes an audio CD of a performance of one of Aldhelm’s Latin lyrics, the Carmen rythmicum, as performed by a “Finnish rune-singer” accompanied with kantele.

Aldhem was a late 7th -early 8th century Anglo Saxon Christian priest in the south-west of England, and the book is an erudite and scholarly series of papers discussing various aspects of his life and work, and especially his connection to the ecclesiastical centre at Sherbourne which he founded in 705.

The preface and introduction are quite personal and intimate, and you get the impression that the organisers and scholars in this field are all close friends. The papers vary a lot, from historical and geographical surveys of the region, to detailed linguistic analyses. Barbara Yorke’s survey of Aldhelm’s Irish and British connections is especially interesting as a broad overview of cultural connections at this time. David Howlett’s numerological layout of the Latin life of Aldhelm is baffling in its application of number and letter counting and lack of explanation or discussion, and Katherine Barker’s discussion of Aldhelm as composer and author of the Carmen rythmicum is rather too ready to identify Latin musical terms with modern instrument categories (e.g. I would be suspicious of translating Aldhelm’s psalterium with “psaltery” without comment), but is a very thought provoking discussion of musical learning and practice in early medieval times.

The audio CD, with a single 35 minute track, is not a live recording of the conference performance, but a later studio version. The two performers are described as Masters students at Sibelius Institute and I found the performance style to be quite modern, much cleaner and more ‘professional’ sounding than the archive recordings of traditional Finnish singers I have heard. The text is in lines of 8 syllables, and the singers use the same even-spaced 8 syllable metre that is used for Kalevala singing, where each syllable is of equal length except for extended final syllables. To my mind this is less successful for the Latin verse, since my understanding of Latin meter is that it is strongly based on the alternation of feet containing long and short syllables. I also hear no trace of the Carmen‘s distinctive three syllable line ending, with the third from last stressed, and the second from last short (described here). The kantele is sometimes strummed, sometimes plucked, and complements the voices well, though some sections seemed a little too contrapunctal for my taste.

But, it is still a very interesting project, and the inclusion of the CD makes it almost unique and highly recommended. Also, the way that the book provides not only a complete Latin text of the song but also a number of different translations by different scholars really allows for a rich appreciation of this material.

Old Gaelic Laments: concerts in October

Historical harp specialist Simon Chadwick is performing a series of concerts of old Gaelic laments around Scotland in October.

Performed on a unique and beautiful decorated replica of a medieval West Highland clarsach, the concerts will uncover unusual and little known treasures of old Scottish music.

The concerts focus on laments, composed by the old Gaelic harpers to commemorate famous people or to express sorrow and longing. From grand, formal memorial pieces for bishops and noblemen, to complex and subtle bagpipe-style variation sets, to personal expressions of loss, the music ranges across the emotions including anger, grief and love.

The clarsach used for Simon’s concerts is an important art object in its own right. Commissioned in 2006, it is the most accurate and detailed replica yet made, of the “Queen Mary harp”, a medieval West Highland clarsach now considered a national treasure and preserved and displayed in Edinburgh in the National Museum of Scotland. The replica harp copies every last detail of the medieval original, including the fantastically intricate designs of mythical beasts, interlace and plants, which are carved, inked and painted onto the wooden parts of the harp.

Simon Chadwick is based in the medieval university town of St Andrews, and specialises in the medieval and Renaissance harp music of Scotland and Ireland. His music is based on years of studying the old music, techniques and idioms preserved in old books and manuscripts.

As well as performing concerts with the replica harp, Simon teaches regular classes in Dundee and Edinburgh, and is Assistant Director of the main international summer school for historical Gaelic harp music, held every August in Kilkenny, Ireland. Previous concerts presented by Simon include gallery recitals in the National Museum of Scotland beside the original Queen Mary harp and a regular series of medieval concerts for Historic Scotland, in the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral and Arbroath Abbey.

Simon has written two method books for historical harp music, and has also released a CD featuring the Queen Mary harp and music connected to it, “Clarsach na Banrighe”. He is currently working on his next CD which is focussed on the old Gaelic laments.

For more information including photos, bio, and sample tracks, please visit

Saturday 22nd October, 10.30am – Wighton Centre, Dundee
Thursday 27th October, 7.30pm – Dunollie Castle, near Oban
Friday 28th October, 7.30pm – Shielbridge Hall, Acharacle

Heroic music at the Cathedral

On Tuesday is the last in my summer series of cathedral concerts for this year. I’ll be repeating a programme from last year, of music connected to the heroic legends of Britain and Ireland. The centrepiece of the concert will be a performance of one of the medieval Gaelic lays – the story of Caoilte and the giant with five heads, which I have learned from a 1965 field recording of Kate MacDonald. There are a large number of such recordings of these medieval heroic songs being performed, and I have catalogued a number of them on my website at As well as lays from the Fenian cycle, as this one is, there are also lays dealing with characters from the Ulster cycle, the Historical cycle, and also from the Arthurian cycle.

All of these lays that survived down to the mid 20th century (I believe only one, Am Bron Binn, is still current in living tradition) survive only as unaccompanied solo song. This is of course very valuable for the study of early Gaelic music because we get a medieval text, a reciting melody, and a performance style. But for a harp concert I wanted to find instrumental music on a similar theme, and not just play instrumental adaptions of the vocal reciting melodies.

So for Tuesday’s concert I cast my net as wide as I can to try and find an interesting selection of genuinely instrumental music which somehow connects to this heroic theme. Come along to the cathedral at 12.45 and see what you think!