Some years ago I came across the Carmina Gadelica – songs of the Gaels – a massive collection of Celtic chants and prayers collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic, by Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912). Since their publication these poems have become a treasure-trove, and like many composers I have often made use of them.
Carmichael was an exciseman – a job which gave him much opportunity for travel – and he must have been a remarkable person, getting to know the inhabitants of these remote districts and isles, and gaining their confidence to enable him to write down the prayers and songs which meant so much to them, and were an essential part of their daily life. Admittedly, there is much controversy over how close the ‘translations’ were, and how much were paraphrases or even simply inventions from Carmichael’s own head, but I don’t think this weakens the heartfelt thoughts and prayers that they contain, in which the daily activities of farming, fishing and household activities are enmeshed with birth and death, the sun and the moon, and prayers to God.
As far as I can recall, the first song that I wrote using Carmichael’s texts was Prayer for Peace. Sadly, these words are still relevant, as they begin:
Peace between nations,
Peace between races,
Peace between neighbours…
My musical setting is straightforward, melodious and simple as befits the words, and over the years it’s been sung in many places. Originally published separately, it’s now available in the collection Alan Bullard Anthems, published by OUP.
Following the probable lead of Carmichael, I too made some alterations to the text as I wrote the piece, to make it more appropriate for modern times. And since then, another composer has set my altered text, believing it to be the original!
Here is a link to a performance on YouTube sung by Susan Hollingworth’s excellent Sine Nomine choir.
There are a number of other prayers based in some way upon these words, and I’ve very recently set one of them – but that’s another story….