No music survives from the pre-15th century Celtic Church, so this programme of early medieval choral and instrumental music has an intriguingly speculative quality about it.

The only sources known to scholars are silent footprints of musical activity – stone carvings on the Hebridean island of Iona where the Irish monk Columba settled in 563AD; manuscript illuminations from Wales and Inchcolm on the Firth of Forth; stories in prose and words that were sung across and beyond Europe’s Celtic fringe.

As recounted in a sleeve note by Geoffrey Webber, director of the Gonville & Caius choir, and Barnaby Brown, whose playing of the early medieval triplepipe enlivens this programme, “we drew inspiration from ‘living fossils’ in the spirit of experimental archaeology, putting flesh onto tantalising evidence in contrasting ways”.

Webber and Brown are disarmingly frank about the way they have mixed and matched their materials, using a variety of historically sourced ingredients – plus a large dose of imagination and intuition – to make up the missing bits along the way. Just how authentic their speculations may be is beside the point.

My gut reaction to this 76-minute programme is that they must have been inspired by what they found: the results are spellbinding.

That judgment is partly based on the atmosphere of heady spiritual celebration on numerous tracks, starting with two Columba-related hymns from the mid-14th century Inchcolm Antiphoner (“Carne solutus pater Columba” and “Cantemus in omni die”), in the second of which a crotal player sets a dancing rhythm against a triplepipe ground bass.

What all this adds up to is a “new” choral repertoire – a sound world liberated from the drab modern conception of plainsong.

In Praise of Saint Columba

The sound world of the Celtic church

Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge


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