Seasonal Music by Malcolm Dalglish

Years ago I stumbled on the album Hymnody of Earth by Malcolm Dalglish in a bin of holiday CDs in Tower Records (remember Tower?). I was attracted by the title, naturally, and also noticed that most of the lyrics were by Wendell Berry, whose poetry I already knew and loved. That clinched it. I bought the CD and it has become one of my favorite Christmas albums. The Hymnody really should be listened to as a whole, but I hope to give you a little taste here to encourage you to purchase it for yourself. According to the composer’s website, there are two versions/performances of the work available; I have the earlier one from 1991. The later version (1999) has some additional numbers.

The first  piece is an arrangement for two solo singers and guitar; I don’t know if the arrangement is the composer’s or not, but it is lovely and effective and the musicians, Sarah Stevens and Ben Belinski, do a great job. The simplicity of the church setting (Snowmass Chapel) harmonizes nicely with the essential simplicity of the music. The opening verses are in Latin and the two-part voice lines written in the style of early medieval chant. The piece, “Psalm of Solstice,” is Hymnody‘s opening number.

Next, a lovely, very moving performance of “For the Future” (unfortunately the singers and location are not given (I can’t tell if the setting is a church or concert hall).  Here are the lyrics by Wendell Berry (If you follow this blog, you should become acquainted with his work. If anyone is today’s patron saint of trees, it is he!):

Planting trees early in spring,
we make a place for birds to sing
in time to come. How do we know?
They are singing here now.
There is no other guarantee
that singing will ever be.

The next number on our little concert preview is “Great Trees,” performed by AKSARA. It can only be watched on youtube itself, and here is the link. The a cappella women’s group nicely balances out the a cappella men’s group on the number that follows. Lyrics again by Wendell Berry.

The final number, “Paradise,” is also the final piece on Dalglish’s 1991 Hymnody album, in mood a sort of sacred version of “Auld Lang Syne.” Like the opening number, it is written in medieval style. The all-male Cantus soloists present a moving performance:

Direct links to the youtube performances:

Psalm of Solstice, arr. for guitar and solo voices

For the Future

Great Trees


Wishing you and yours a peaceful holiday season!


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?

Celebrate Earth Day with poet-farmer Wendell Berry

If I were looking for a patron saint for this blog, Wendell Berry would be a good candidate. He’s a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, and essays and has lived as a small farmer in Kentucky for decades. His essays explore various topics, but all are informed by a Christian spirituality that embraces social justice and a deep-rooted love for the earth.

I am most familiar with his poetry, much of which celebrates the beauty and goodness of trees. Think Robert Frost meets Gerard Manley Hopkins. That is, the rural sensibility and topics of Frost combined with the spiritual emphasis and sacramental viewpoint of Hopkins. By “sacramental” I mean a point of view that celebrates the spiritual depth of earthly things, especially nature. (I’m not accusing Robert Frost of lacking spirituality! It’s just that his sensibility is a little more pragmatic than that of Hopkins, while Berry’s is somewhere between the two.)

Here is a sample verse:

“Planting trees early in spring
We make a place for birds to sing
There is no other guarantee
That singing will ever be.”

I know it by heart because it’s one of several “tree poems” set to music in Malcolm Dalglish‘s wonderful album “Hymnody of Earth,” one of my favorites to play around Christmas and the winter solstice. It’s also a good illustration of the way Berry’s work both celebrates and exemplifies the harmony that exists in nature: the interdependence of humans, plants, and animals. Harmony in more than one sense: harmony of music and sound (the birdsong), which is dependent on the harmony fostered by a carefully tended environment. There is a message, but it is inspirational rather than preachy. Ultimately, it is up to us, up to humankind, to provide the nurture that will guarantee the continued beauty of the earth.

If you can’t get outside to plant a tree this weekend, celebrate April 22’s Earth Day by picking up a book of Wendell Berry’s. In fact, read something of his regardless of how you spend the day. If you love the earth, you’ll find a kindred spirit in his words.

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