The Celtic Church and music

Earlier in this article it was mentioned that Clement of Alexandria was supportive of the harp and lyre amongst Christians in second/third century Egypt. Scholars have noticed that the Celtic monks of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France have a direct influence from the desert Fathers like Anthony of Egypt (AD 251-356), the Father of Monasticism. It is possible that the Egyptian monks may have used the harp in their worship sometimes, and that this custom was transferred to the Celtic monks.

The Celtic monks celebrated the Creator with music, poetry and beautiful artwork. In about AD 570 there was a council at Drumcett in Ireland. The main reason for this was to try and resolve the war between Ireland and Scotland over the land of Dalriada. Columba, the Apostle to Scotland, was called in, as he was of aristocratic background. One smaller aspect of the council was to debate whether or not to ban the bardic music of the druids. (Amrue Coluimb Chille, preface, AD 1007, ref from Life of St Columba, Adomnan of Iona, translated by Richard Sharp, pp 312-314, section 204, Penguin Classics ©1995)

Columba (AD 531-597), who had been taught bardic music for voice and harp by his teacher Gemman at Leinster in Ireland, persuaded the leaders to adopt the music and communicate the Christian faith through it, and allow the druids to continue their music and poetry.2 After this the Celtic monks often spread their message through their singing and music. Usually they sang psalms unaccompanied in a chanting fashion, but they also spread their message through poetic hymns and harp music. Many harps on carved stone Celtic crosses have been found in Ireland and they have been dated to the ninth and tenth centuries.

Bede wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (AD 730) about the custom of the monks to compose sacred songs and accompany them with the harp at Streonaeshalch, which is now known as Whitby Abbey. One of these was Caedmon and Bede tells us that he was unable to sing inspirational sacred songs so he left the group early. That night he had an angelic visitation in a dream and was given the sacred gift of God to write songs. His gift was so special that he became known as the Father of English sacred song and he is usually depicted holding a harp. Bede says:

There was in the Monastery of this Abbess a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in English, which was his native language. By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven.

(Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book IV, chapter 24)

Scholars have dated Caedmon’s ministry at Whitby from between AD 657 and 680. St Hilda was the abbess there and her order came from the Columba foundation of the sixth century.

After this period the Celtic monks became the leading figures in Europe for education, scholarship and music. Dungal, an Irish monk, was asked to be principal of the University of Pavia, and music was part of the curriculum there. In the Ancient Historical Documents of Ireland, edited by O’Curry, we discover that during the invasion of Ireland by the Normans in 1172, the knights were amazed to find that all the Irish abbots and bishops could sing and play the harp. This skill in music passed from Ireland to Scotland, as Gerald of Wales wrote in the 1170s:

In the opinion, however, of many, Scotland has by now not only caught up on Ireland, her instructor, but already far outdistances and excels her in musical skill. Therefore people now look to that country as to the fountain of the art.

Scotland’s Music, John Purser, p.53, Mainstream Publishing Co., Edinburgh, 2007

The Welsh Celtic monks had a long custom of harp playing and St David (c. AD 500-589, although some say earlier) is often depicted with a harp and was a disciple of Illtyd (died in about AD 550) who founded the monastery of Llanilltud Fawr, and was himself a disciple of Germanus of Auxerre in Gaul (AD 378-448).

Before Glastonbury Abbey had been converted into an order of the Benedictines in AD 673, it had been an ancient Celtic church that claimed ancestry right back to some of the apostles who established the congregation there in the first century; it is also claimed that the relics of St Patrick lie in this ancient place (he had visited there in AD 443). When Dunstan (AD 909-988) was made the abbot of Glastonbury Abbey he studied under the Celtic monks who still worshipped God in the ruins of the former building. It was from them that he eagerly learnt the harp and became very skilful at playing this instrument. His love for godly music developed so much that when he restored the abbey he also presented some churches with organs.

Likewise, the Christian king, Alfred the Great, promoted the harp, having been influenced by the Celtic Christians:

Like the royal Psalmist, he was himself a considerable proficient on the harp, and so eager was he to rest his improvements upon a sure basis, that he is said to have founded a professorship of the science at Oxford.

The Music of the Church considered in its various branches, Congregational and Choral, p.49, John Antes La Trobe, printed for R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1837

Gerald of Wales (AD 1170s) tells us of the Welsh musical skills:

When they [the Welsh] play their instruments they charm and delight the ear with the sweetness of their music. They play quickly and in subtle harmony. Their fingering is so rapid that they produce this harmony out of discord… in every Welsh court or family the menfolk consider playing on the harp to be the greatest of all achievements.

The Journey Through Wales/The Description of Wales, Gerald of Wales, p. 239, 236, Penguin Classics, translated by Lewis Thorpe, ©1978

It must be said, however, that the use of musical instruments in worship was unusual, and most churches in the world at that time condemned it. Thomas Aquinas, a leading Roman Catholic scholar from the thirteenth century is typical. He says:

Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that we may not seem to Judaize.

Bringham’s Antiquities, Vol. II, p-483, London Edition, quoted by C. Kurtees, Instrumental Music in the Worship, 1911; 1950 reprint, p.176