A Day of Music

Yesterday I met with the director and members of the Orpheus Pagan Chamber Choir. They will be singing the Missa Druidica on January 7, with several more performances scheduled for next spring.

The gathering convened at the Star House above Boulder, starting at 8:30 am, so Marta and I had to be on the road by 7:00, which is a little early for me. The autumn had reached its peak, and the leaves turned every ray of morning sunlight into molten gold. Colorado trees in autumn have mostly yellow leaves. Only a few trees here and there burn with red to provide startling splashes of color amidst all the sunlit gold and the few patches of hardy and stubborn green.

The road to Star House winds steeply up from Boulder, with hairpin turns, marked at ten miles per hour, that overlook harrowing drops onto people’s roofs. It strikes me as an awkward place to live — when someone “drops in” for dinner, it could be quite a bit more literal than anything I would be comfortable with. Roads were dry and warm, however, so we observed the caution signs and had no trouble.

We at last cleared the population centers and came to the near-perpendicular dirt driveway that led to Star House. The building stands a short walk from the parking lot, in a clearing surrounded by twelve stones that mark the houses of the Zodiac. These stones are not nearly so large as the great megaliths of Europe, but they are not insignificant — most stand about chest-high to me, and are a little too large in girth for me to wrap my arms around.

The house itself is a 12-sided single-room structure made of native wood taken from the forest about it. The support pillars around the periphery are whole trunks taken from the forest in the direction away from the house in which the tree originally stood. The bark and branches were stripped, and the bole smoothed and varnished, but each pillar is clearly identifiable as a tree trunk. Windows open onto views of the surrounding forest and mountains in all directions but the north, where a wood stove stands in its stone alcove.

The theme for the gathering was “mindfulness.” Andrew, the choir director, started us with breath-work, mindful walking, vocal relaxation, and a “chakra-tuning” that involved sung tones. I’ve done many of these exercises before, but it was lovely to be led through them and to be reminded of how important they are.

After a short break, a gentleman who goes by the name of Puck took us into a physical exploration of rhythm, which I found both fascinating and surprisingly difficult. After all, I’m known in my drumming circles as the pain-in-the-ass drummer who introduces five-beats or seven-beats when it’s my turn to lead. This was simply mixing threes with fours — not even three-against-four (which is actually a twelve-beat divided up two different ways). The difficulty lay in getting all of the pieces working together: we marched one rhythm with our feet, spoke a different rhythm with our voice, and clapped a third rhythm with our hands. Most of us experienced flashes of success for short periods, but then we’d lose our coordination — even Puck. We laughed as we stumbled about, lost our rhythm, and started over.

After another short break, Andrew turned the meeting over to me to talk with the choir about the Missa Druidica.

I had great fun talking with them. A significant number of choir members had not heard the entire work (as performed by my own iMac Symphony Orchestra and Choir), and none of them was familiar with Druidry, so I used the music itself (on CD) as a framework for talking about the music.

I answered one of the Big Questions promptly — Why so many B-flats for the sopranos? — by blaming it on Andrew. “Because he said I could,” was my answer. That caused a short uproar, fortunately not directed at me.

The group, which is mostly Wiccans and Heathens (Norse pantheon), had a lot of questions about Druidy, and because our Treehenge Drudic Circle has given many talks about the subject at Dragonfest, I was able to give them a reasonably concise and entertaining history spanning the last 4000 years of Druidic practice (most of which is fully covered by the two words, “Who knows?” accompanied by a shrug.)

One of the choir members surprised me with the question of whether they were invoking some god or goddess named Awen, and I very seriously told them that Awen was the consort of Sam Hain, Celtic Lord of Dark Underwear. After my previous erudition on the history of the Celts, several long seconds passed before the groaning began, this time directed at me. Talk about spending all your social capital at once….

I reassured them that Awen is simply the Gaelic word for “inspiration,” something that the bards and poets would invoke, and additionally viewed as something that could be drunk from a cup, much like the Greek ambrosia. Knowing writers and playwrights and musicians, I have a pretty good idea what was in that cup.

I also speculated on the relationship of the word “Awen” to the Christian word “Amen,” and the ancient Sanskrit word “Aum,” which can be taken as the primal tone that describes the creation and demise of the universe as a whole. Philologists would undoubtedly want to skewer me for such an irresponsible association, but they are not generally a physically imposing lot, so I don’t really care.

One of the more interesting questions for me regarded liturgical parallels between the Missa Druidica and the Roman Catholic Mass. I had — perhaps surprisingly — not given the matter much thought at all.

For one thing, I had started to compose the music as it came to me, with no overarching theme in mind at all. I simply wanted to write something to sing at our Druid gatherings, and the Peace to the Quarters was the first music that appeared in my head. Only after I started to hear the opening Power of Star and Stone did it occur to me that I could set the entire opening and closing of the seasonal rites to music, as a kind of sung “Mass.”

For another thing, I really didn’t know much about the structure of the Roman Catholic Masses (I’ve learned a lot more since yesterday.) I’m musically familiar with some of the great Requiem Masses — the Mozart and Faure, for instance — but I’d never paid much attention to the liturgical structure, since I knew that a lot of these later Classical and Romantic period works were intended for the concert hall rather than the cathedral. Something like the Rutter Requiem discards even the pretense of being a “regular” Mass. Even after I adopted the idea of writing a kind of “Mass” for our rites, it never occurred to me to look to the Roman Catholic mass for guidance on structure.

Finally, the idea for calling it the Missa Druidica wasn’t really mine. I had referred to it descriptively as a kind of “Druidic Mass” early on, by which I simply meant a choral work sung as part of a liturgy. Marta, my wife, came down hard on me. She’s an ex-Roman Catholic with no love nor patience for the faith, and didn’t want me mucking up our nice Druidic Rites with a bunch of Catholicism. So I dropped the term entirely and started calling it the “Druid Cycle.” Then one of the listeners in England referred to it as a Missa Druidica, and the name stuck. I liked it — even Marta thought it sounded pretty good in Latin.

So I’d never really thought much about structural similarities to the Catholic Mass. If anything, I’d simply assumed they would be similar because all religious ritual is, at root, fairly similar.

There are musical similarities to existing Masses, of course. I hear influences of Mozart, Faure, Brahms, and Rutter in the music. Someone said something about a Bach chorale at some point in the conversation, and certainly Bach is in there, too. I’d like to think there’s a little bit of everything I’ve ever loved about music in there, somewhere.

But liturgical similarities?

The question left me momentarily floundering. Fortunately, Andrew picked up the conversation at that point and laid the matter to rest.

The term “missa” comes from the Latin “Ite, missa est,” which means, “Go, it is the dismissal.” So in itself, the word is little more than stage direction for the crowd at the end of a Roman Catholic communion service. Because it was repeated at the end of every service, however, it gradually came to mean the service itself.

The fact that both the Roman Ordinary Mass and the Missa Druidica have five movements is purely coincidental, and the movements bear no relationship to each other at all. The five necessary parts of the Catholic Ordinary Mass are:

  1. Kyrie – plea that God will be merciful
  2. Gloria – prayer of praise to God, and plea for mercy
  3. Credo – statement of belief
  4. Sanctus/Benedictus – prayer of praise to God
  5. Agnus Dei – plea for mercy from the Lamb of God

By contrast, the five movements of the Missa Druidica are:

  1. Power of Star and Stone – call to celebrate together
  2. Peace to the Quarters – call for peace in the world
  3. Bless and Purify – blessing of the sacred space, and requesting the blessing of the spirits of the four directions/elements
  4. Here in Peace and Love – hymn of unity
  5. Releasing the Quarters – thanking the spirits of the four directions, and call for peace in the world

I’ve read and written any number of essays on the root differences between Paganism and Christianity, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a starker or more poignant contrast than this.

The only point of even superficial correspondence is the second movement, where the Catholic service mentions in passing “on earth peace to men of good will (in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis)” in the midst of a long prayer of worship of God and pleas for mercy.

By contrast, the Druidic liturgy calls for peace with the understanding that “without peace can no work be accomplished.” It flows from the Druidic prayer:

Deep within the still center of my being, may I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the grove, may I share peace.
Gently within the greater circle of humankind, may I radiate peace.
— © OBOD

As within, so without.

One of the most touching moments for me came through a chance comment from one of the choir members, after lunch, who told me that he’d need to be very careful during the second movement that he didn’t burst into tears.

I don’t believe any composer of any music whatsoever can have a more profound affirmation of the work than that it would move someone — anyone — to tears.

I know that when I hear the work on January 7, my cheeks will be wet.