Harmonia was an early music program on public radio hosted by Angela Mariani. The guest commentator was Dr. Ann Buckley, then of Cambridge University and now at Trinity College Dublin.
Question: Is there a way to describe what characterizes some of the religious pieces for Irish saints?
Dr. Buckley: Yes…I’ll try to give an example. For instance if one could imagine a hymn. [It] will have certain very different phrases within it…perhaps repetition of one phrase or a slight variant of that repetition. But it’s more. I hesitate to use words like “four square”, but there’s a sense of progress. There’s a sense of a beginning, a rise, and a fall to put it in very general terms.
If you look at the Scottish and Irish melodic structure, you find that rather than this sense of progress…of forward motion…it’s static but always moving if I can express it thus. You’re not going somewhere. You’re staying on the spot. But you’re using a whole lot of ornament. It’s even possible that every single phrase is the same but for a slight pitch variation or a little more or a little less ornament. So [these] small little melodic cells of three or four pitches reoccur in every single phrase. It’s what you might call a constant weave, a permanent state of variation.
If any of your listeners are familiar with Anglo-Saxon or Celtic ornament such as you find in the Book of Kells, the Book of Darrow, [or] the Book of Lindisfarne…there is such a sense of busyness on the page…these carpet pages as they’re called for example. The tapestry analogy is, I think, extremely good for the art history. I think it applies as well to the melodies. In other words you’re not moving forward but you are penetrating all the possibilities of variation, of ornamentation, of decoration as you gaze. And you can almost imagine it as a gazing of the ear in that you have the same little idea but it’s constantly changing like a kaleidoscope.”