Three Celtic Carols

wind quintet
string orchestra

duration: 07:30

In hopes of presenting the authentic contributions of Brittany, Ireland, and Galicia to the beloved canon of Advent and Christmas carols, I chose a tune from each region. Researching as I wrote, I gradually discovered the tunes I selected for this triptych may not be strictly Celtic when examined from a purely musicological perspective.

When people think of Celtic music, they most commonly think of Ireland or Scotland. However, the Celts inhabited quite a large area of Europe in ancient times. Roaming the countryside of northern Spain and France, for instance, you can find prehistoric Celtic sites that very closely resemble those found in Ireland and Scotland. Celtic influence in those areas is unmistakable and continues into the modern era.

UPDATE: Three Celtic Carols will be available for string orchestra in time for Summer 2023! If you’d like to perform this suite with your orchestra, please contact me for a preview score.

J.T. McKinney

Listen to the Wind Quintet Edition

Three Celtic Carols: I. Jesous Ahatonhia; (trad./arr.J.T. McKinney) © 2015 J.T. McKinney
Three Celtic Carols: II. Carúl Inis Córthaidh; (trad./arr.J.T. McKinney) © 2015 J.T. McKinney
Three Celtic Carols: III. Moita Festa; (trad./arr.J.T. McKinney) © 2015 J.T. McKinney

I. Jesous Ahatonhia – The lyrics of this carol are believed to have been written by Father Jean de Brébeuf in 1642 while he was working as a missionary in New France, ministering to the Huron (Wyandot) tribes. Although we now view many missionaries from the era of colonialism as mere invaders, Brébeuf’s earnest and compassionate efforts to learn the language and culture of the Huron people is compelling. His devotion to their safety and survival is a common thread running throughout his time with them.

Brébeuf wrote his carol in the Wyandot language, its lyrics transporting the story of the Nativity from Bethlehem to the New World. Rather than a manger in a stable, Christ is born in a lodge of broken bark, swaddled in rabbit’s fur. The three Magi become hunters who bringing gifts of fox and beaver pelts rather than frankincense and myrrh.

The carol’s Celtic connection (albeit murky) lies in Brébeuf’s choice of tune. He was born in the Normandy region of France which had long been a part of the larger Celtic nation of Brittany, and maintained strong Celtic influence even once the two regions were separated politically. Une Jeune Pucelle, the tune he adapted for his carol, likely originated in Brittany, but this cannot be said for certain due to its folk origin.

Tragically, Brébeuf and many of his converts were captured, tortured, and killed by the Iroquois. In my treatment of this carol, I sought to portray the sense of danger and excitement Father Brébeuf and his companions must have felt on their journey across the Atlantic.

Listen to the String Orchestra Edition

Three Celtic Carols for String Orchestra: I. Jesous Ahatonhia; (trad./arr.J.T. McKinney) © 2023 J.T. McKinney
Three Celtic Carols for String Orchestra: II. Carúl Inis Córthaidh; (trad./arr.J.T. McKinney) © 2023 J.T. McKinney
Three Celtic Carols for String Orchestra: III. Moita Festa; (trad./arr.J.T. McKinney) © 2023 J.T. McKinney

II. Carúl Inis Córthaidh – This carol undoubtedly originated in Ireland, but the date of its origin cannot be pinpointed. Both the lyrics and tune may be as old as 12th century or as new as 18th century. The original language of the text is also debatable since the only Irish version found contains a rhyming scheme more indicative of 19th century Irish than medieval Irish poetry.

The tune was transcribed by William Grattan Flood, organist and musical director at St. Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, directly from from a local Irish singer. Flood submitted the carol for publication in the Oxford Book of Carols in 1928. Its publication in that volume led to the carol’s preservation and eventual spread around the globe through many other hymnals that followed.

For my treatment of this carol, I began by depicting a blustery landscape on the southeastern coast of Ireland. As the waves crash upon the coastline, we drift farther inland to hear the intoning of a cathedral organ beckoning us to come out of the driving wind. Here, a single chorister is singing the carol tune, eventually joined by the rest of the choir.

III. Moita Festa – This tune originates in northwestern Spain’s Galicia region. Galicia was settled by the Celts in ancient times and their influence on the region’s folk music is quite evident even though the Celtic language in the region has mostly died out.

The tune, which has no lyrics traditionally, was composed in 1829 by Joseph Pacheco, music director at the Mondoñedo Cathedral in the province of Lugo (Galicia). Translated from Galician, the title means “many festivals”. Pacheco composed it especially for Christmas celebrations — traditionally the only time in which the Celtic folk instruments were allowed to join the church orchestra. The tune is presented in theme and variations form with built-in repeats as the tune goes through each variation.

I used the tune to depict the excitement of a young boy waking up on Christmas morning, and joyously spreading Christmas tidings through a Galician village as he merrily makes his way to the Cathedral for mass. Along the way, he is joined by more and more villagers who sing along in their unique character to his tune. By the conclusion, we arrive at the center of the village as the great doors of the Cathedral are opening onto a joyous cacophony of voices and livestock.

Wind Quintet edition premiered 5 December, 2015, at Grace Episcopal Church, Traverse City, MI: Manitou Winds.

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