Ancient Celtic Musicians Predated Christ and Influenced the Music of the Christian Church
According to music historian William H. Grattan Flood (“Ancient Irish Music,” from A History of Irish Music), the ancient Celts were first mentioned as existing 500 years before Jesus Christ. They sang praise songs to the sun god Apollo, accompanied by the harp. There is innumerable evidence that the Celts were gifted musicians with their own tablature and system of scoring.
Music was carved into their sacred stones and other artifacts. There were entire schools dedicated to training Druidic poets and bards, complete with robes and barring, much as today’s law schools and doctoral programs employ. Poetic rhyme came not from the Greeks, but the Celts long before.
Bible commentators say that Hebrew psalmody was passed down by oral tradition, and little is known about the instruments that were used in the synagogues at the time of Christ. It is accepted that psalms were chanted, much as Moslems chant the Qa’aran today.
Christians at the time of the Apostles refused to adopt the music of the Greeks and Romans, and during the Great Persecution before Emperor Constantine, church music was primitive at best. When St. Patrick came to convert the Celts to Roman Catholicism, he taught the sons of the ancient bards to set their harps to the Psalms of David as well as to Erin of old. The diatonic scale used today is attributed to the early Irish.
The Celts and Druids Influence Roman Catholic Church Rituals and Hymns
The earliest music teachers in the abbeys and monasteries of the Roman Catholic Church were Irish. Many of the Catholic hymns and rituals used in the Mass of today were inspired by ancient Celtic and Druidic practices. One of these practices was a drone bass. A drone bass is a single, very low, note or tone that is used to accompany a melody above it. Originally, the drone bass was sung, similarly to the Hindu chanting of the “OM.”
By the sixth century, harp schools had been established. The harp contest was an annual holiday in Ireland. Celtic harpers visited neighboring Scotland and Wales, playing both traditional Irish tunes and Church modes introduced by Pope Gregory. The Celtic harp musicians flourished until Cromwell devastated Ireland in the name of England and the Protestant Church in 1649 (Irelandseye.com, “The Curse of Cromwell”).
The Protestant Church frowned on folk music and dancing. Irish folk musicians became outcasts. Irish folk music did not become prominent again until the mid-1800’s.
Traditional Irish Music, Celtic Musicians and the Music Appreciation Student
With staunch Irish pride, Irish traditional music simply must be led by bagpipes and drums. Music appreciation students should enjoy a grand chorus of bagpipes, snares and bass drums playing the traditional Irish battle hymn, “O’Donnell Abu,” also known as “Let Erin Remember.” Students should be able to identify the drone bass tone in the bagpipes.
Cathal Hayden is a treat to listen to for a taste of traditional Irish fiddle music. There are any number of Irish dances, such as reels, light jigs, hard jigs, single jigs and hornpipes available on CD and online. Finally, in the style of medieval Celts, music appreciation students may be delighted at the hearing of a 13th century English dance performed by Sarah Deere-Jones on a reproduction 15th century Gothic harp.