Christmas Music: Hymnody of Earth

I stumbled on my favorite Christmas CD quite by chance several years ago, browsing in Tower Records. (Anyone remember Tower?)

Photo from composer's website

Photo from composer’s website

It’s called Hymnody of Earth, and the composer is Malcolm Dalglish. I was attracted first by the album’s name and then when I noticed that most of the works were settings of the poetry of Wendell Berry, that clinched it. Most of them are for boys choir, another plus as far as I was concerned, and the primary accompanying instrument is the hammer dulcimer, which Dalglish plays. I can’t recall if I was already familiar with hammer dulcimer or not, but it was love at first note. For those who haven’t heard it, the timbre is quite a bit like a harp only much more percussive. It’s a magical sounding instrument, perfect for Christmas music.

Now, the album isn’t precisely Christmas, more winter solstice, but anyone familiar with Berry’s poetry knows the backbone of his spirituality is Christian. Same with the settings of Shaker lyrics and hymns that are part of this work. That said, nowhere is Christ or Christmas directly mentioned, making the album a suitable liturgy for any spirituality that celebrates nature, God, and human love. Perfect music for a quiet winter’s evening when your mood is contemplative rather than extroverted.

The album begins and ends with chant written by Dalglish, evoking a medieval procession. The opening chant includes frame drum (a very subtle thrumming, no rat-a-tat-tat here!) and the lovely chiming hammer dulcimer, while the ending number is unaccompanied voices that gradually fade into the distance—a bit like Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, and here and there are touches of Britten in the boys choir as well, but the overall style is unmistakably its own.

To listen to an excerpt, click here, and you will be taken to Dalglish’s website. The recording that I have is the early version, “as it was originally conceived for Malcolm Dalglish (hammer dulcimer and voice), Glen Velez (frame drums and shakers), and The American Boychoir” (quotation from website). It’s now published by the Musical Heritage Society. There is also a newer version put out by Ooolitic Music, which looks like Dalglish’s own publishing company. It looks like the new version ends with a livelier “Amen” for voices and instruments, but personally I love the way the original version fades away—more contemplative—but that’s just me.

photo from composer's website

photo from composer’s website

Here’s his description, attached to the newer recording on his website: “There are moments in nature when wordless poetry washes over me, and I feel lost in the rhythm of a pure sound or vision. Hymns gather together people, words, and music to memorialize these transcendent moments in our lives. I found the poetry of Wendell Berry and the mysterious and primitive sound of the dulcimer, frame drums and shakers to be ideal collaborators in this broadly defined Hymnody.”

Hymnody of Earth is a wonderful work, and I hope many of you will become fellow fans and incorporate it into your own winter festivities.

What kinds of seasonal music do you most enjoy?


  1. Gloria Alden said,

    December 15, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I love folk music and especially Malcolm Dalglish, but I wasn’t sure how to spell his name. I went to the website and lo and behold there are some of his albums I’ve wanted for a long time. The one you mentioned sounds good, too, so I’ll be ordering it.

    John McCutcheon plays the hammered dulcimer as well as numerous other instruments as well plus singing and writing songs. You might enjoy his music, too. A lot of songs tell a story, something I like.

    I’m fortunate to live in an area that likes folk music. Our NPR radio station plays folk music every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening.
    There are also a number of venues within driving distance that features folk muscians. My favorite is the Happy Days Lodge, an old lodge built by the CCC’s in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It’s small enough, only seating about 280 people, so it makes it quite an intimate experience. Last Wednesday I went to a fantastic celtic concert by Cherish the Ladies there. They’re such talented muscians (5 women) and brought along as part of their Christmas tour, a guy singer from Ireland as well as some awesome Irish step dancers. Needless to say, I went home with 3 of their albums, two of them Christmas albums, plus one as a Christmas gift for an out-of-town sister.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      December 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      Thanks, Gloria! (It took several tries before I got his name spelled right, too! ) I appreciate the recommendations for other musicians with a similar sound.

      Enjoy your Christmas!

  2. indytony said,

    December 20, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    I just did a post on consumerism with a quote and a partial poem from Wendell Berry and I’m browsing the blogosphere looking to see what others are saying about him. I must say I’m very surprised to hear his poems have been set to music. I must also confess, though, that my preference would be to have them sung by a fellow Kentuckian like John Prine or Loretta Lynn. The trouble is – they don’t rhyme much and there isn’t much beer in them.

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