12.21.2011

Christmas Offering: Holst/Book of Kells

Gustav Holst
The Coming of Christ
1927

Book of Kells, c. 800
My paper topic in Jane's Medieval class centered around an ethnological conspectus of Scottish, monastic music and culture. My leaping point was an antiphon in honor of St. Columba, the Irish missionary to the Celts in the 500s. I'll have it up in the reading part of the site as soon as I get it back proofed. One of the most fascinating things I found was the intermixture of pagan practices in Scottish Christianity, concepts of druidism, fairies, and charms surviving into modern times. The musical and visual Christmas artworks here considered, in my mind, stem from this interesting tradition.

In 1927 the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral asked the composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) and the poet John Masefield (1878-1967) to write a modern day Medieval mystery play. The text (which I have not been able to find online) is delivered by a Narrator as well as seven choral numbers accompanied by a sparse orchestra, piano, organ, and tubular bells. The text is simply frothing with Celtic imagery, blessings, curses, poetic expostulations, and when delivered with skill, leaves quite the impression. I would love to hear this short work live in a candle-lit cathedral with a short walk through a starry night back home.

The Pictish influence and penchant for detail and artistry permeates the Book of Kells (or Book of Columba). In this page we have St. Matthew, perhaps a little consternated by the amount of filagree which nearly swallows him up. One hand holds his Gospel, the other is rested on his heart beneath his cloak. Even icons can have peace.





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