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Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th Century German mystic, abbess, scientist, philosopher, writer and composer considered music to be ‘the highest form of human activity; mirroring the sounds of the spheres and the voices of angelic choirs.’ Following a first week of Advent filled with powerful musical experiences I would be loath to disagree with that great woman.

It all began in a West London primary school. Holy Family, with whom Irish Chaplaincy has a close relationship, had organised a launch event for my book and it was attended by a wonderfully international group of parents. Following a reading of the chapter entitled ‘Be Thou my Vision’, in which I tell of the privilege of singing that song with a 92-year-old Cork woman on her deathbed, I had the added privilege of singing it with thirty Year 4 pupils, and what an angelic choir they were.

Two days later there was another launch event, this time at the London Irish Centre. I sang ‘The Fields of Athenry’, after reading a chapter which recalls the occasion when I’d been asked to sing that song to a group of Travellers in HMP Chelmsford and had been joined at the mic by one of the guys who put his arm around me and sang with me, with his mates roaring out the words too. It had been a day on which somebody had taken their own life in their cell and that song had been a moment of catharsis for everyone present. When I announced at the Irish Centre event that I was going to sing ‘Be Thou my Vision’ one woman called out, “Oh, I love that song,” and was in tears even before we’d begun to sing. A song sounds different each time it is sung, depending on all kinds of factors: how you’re feeling yourself, but perhaps more significantly who you are with and what the song is triggering for them. On that occasion, for whatever reason, that song was especially powerful.

A group of us stayed on in the bar afterwards, chatting and singing. One of those present was Sorcha, who’d I’d met ‘by chance’ in Leeds in October. I’d been at the CSAN directors meeting and, together with Sean and Jim, was mid-musical session one evening in the bar of the large conference centre. Appearing suddenly at the door was a woman who wasn’t part of our group. I motioned for her to come and join us and, as a native of Belfast, she knew all the songs we were singing and sang a couple herself, beautifully. She explained later that she just happened to be staying the night at the centre after a meeting in the city and had been on her way to bed when she heard Irish music coming from somewhere and had got dressed again and followed the sounds. It mirrored for me an experience on the Camino in Spain. It was the night before reaching Santiago and a group of us were in the hostel chatting and laughing and a man appeared called Claude who said he’d been up in his room and had heard the noise and something had drawn him. He turned out to be a channel for some kind of sacred energy for the group (if you want the whole story you’ll have to read the book!). I was interested to hear from Sorcha that she had spent a couple of years at Taizé and we knew there someone in common. I’d first met Andy at uni, from where he had gone off to Taizé in about 1985 on one of the long vacations and never came back! He’s now Br. Matthew of Taizé and I sent him a message to say I’d met Sorcha. He replied, “Sorcha remains in my mind for her rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ at our 2015 anniversary celebrations. She quite stole the scene!” There we were in 2021 in the bar of the London Irish Centre and I asked her if she would sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and she did, and it was! I did a couple of songs myself, including one I’d written after an unforgettable night out at a music bar in Belfast, ‘Fibber McGees’. I told as well the story behind the song which, in a nutshell, is about the particular power of music to unite people at a level far deeper than our cultural differences.

Another of those present in the bar at the Irish Centre was Willie Moone who added a couple of numbers, which included the lovely mournful ballad ‘Burden’ by Foy Vance, and he also invited me to join him for a sing the following day at the Coffee Morning in the Kennedy Hall at the Centre. I willingly obliged. The repertoire is mainly Irish but it can get eclectic, which suits me fine. Kathleen, one of the regulars, wanted me to sing with her the old Johnny Mathis classis, ‘When a Child is Born’ and it was very moving. Another regular, Martin had been nagging me for weeks to accompany him as he played ‘Silent Night’ on his tin whistle. I finally relented and it didn’t sound bad at all!

On the Saturday my choir was doing its first concert for two years. For the first half we were doing a gorgeous piece by the French composer Charpentier, ‘Messe de Minuit.’ We were gathered in the church in the morning for the final rehearsal and it was so good to be back. The basses, of which I’m one, were in fine voice and then at a certain point I became fully aware of the different voices cascading around one another and for a few magical moments I could hear ‘the sounds of the spheres and the voices of angelic choirs’.

The cherry on the icing on the cake came after the concert itself when I stepped out of the church to the merry sound of a jazz band coming up the main shopping street in Whitstable, followed, Pied-Piper like, by a throng of people. They stopped right outside the church, the crowd counted down from ten, and the big Christmas tree was lit. The music continued, so too the party atmosphere, and it would have been nice to hang around but it was freezing. And anyway, I had to get home for ‘Strictly’! Music with exquisitely-choreographed dancing that tells a story: now that can be truly divine…

I can’t prove Hildegard’s assertion that it’s the highest form of human activity, but when it comes to bringing joy, bringing tears, bringing people together and binding us in our common humanity; as well as lifting us up to the heavenly heights, music is hard to beat.

 

 

 

Eddie Gilmore

Author Eddie Gilmore

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