Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Travel Journal: Dublin, II

This is the second in what will be a triptych of travel essays on our trip to Dublin last week. The second day of our four day trip was devoted to the sacred & historical places of Dublin. Our pilgrimage began with a visit to Trinity College, founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I for Irish protestants. It is a treasure trove of culture and history, and the main attraction is its famed library. There are two "must sees" here: the Long Room of the library (housing hundreds of thousands of historical books in a room that is as interesting as its holdings, and the museum of the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells are one of the most famed collections of illuminated manuscripts, dating from the 9th century. One page from each of several books are on display underneath a glass case in a dimly lit room that can fill up very quickly. We were doubly fortunate in that the display room was nearly empty when we reached it, and the Book of Kells was turned to the first page of the Gospel of John, one of the most splendid examples of this exquisitely preserved art.

The opening verse of the Gospel of John is one of the most sacred texts in the Christian cannon. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The Book of Kells, in Latin, features elaborate, ornate, and incredibly detailed script & figuration to "illuminate" the texts of the scriptures. They were preserved from the monastery of Iona, an island off Scotland, and brought safely to Ireland following Viking raids in the 9th century.

The opening of John's gospel features the evangelist seated on an elaborate throne. Behind him, and barely visible at the center of each of the four margins of the page--forming the sign of the cross--are the crown of thorns (ie: the head), hands, and feet of Christ. Details so small, so easily overlooked at a casual or cursory glance, yet so significant and symbolic. I had more trouble following the Latin of the opening verse on the right-hand page, opposite the fronts piece. "Principum erat verbum et verbum erat Deum."

The Book of Armagh, also on display, featured a page devoted to the Four Evangelists and their itinerant symbols. Matthew is symbolized by Man (Uomo), Mark by the Lion (Leo), Luke by the Calf (Utula), and John, the Eagle (Aquila). Earlier this year I wrote about our amazing Mediterranean trip which began with a couple of well-spent days in Venice. From Shakespeare's Othello and Monteverdi's Vespers (written for the famed Basilica of St Mark), its dual symbolism as both "Star of the Sea" (Ave maris stella) and "The Lion" (Il Leone), I had always associated both the Lion and St Mark's with Venice. I had never made the connection that the Lion IS St Mark.

Prior to the main room devoted to the actual illuminated manuscripts on display is a small museum outlining the history of the books, their contents & symbolism, the making of them, and other examples of illuminated texts, including original poetry by the monks. I was pleased to see a display devoted to the Irish monk Samuel Barber set in his "Hermit Songs." The poem that became "The Monk and His Cat" is dedicated to a white puss named Pangur. (It was a touching reminder to me, as an amateur poet & cat lover, still trying to adequately express the love for my recently departed little cat, Lucina. I'd like to think Pangur and his Monk, Jeoffrey and Christopher Smart, Lucina Kallmann Auden and her eponymous guardians are all reunited).

One of the other displays featured a poem from a soon-to-be-martyred monk. The "Martyrology of Tallacht" is a touching prayer that closes with the pious insight:

"Knowledge, steadfastness, patience
Silence without muteness
Humility, purity, patience
Take not the world, o cleric."

After the dimly lit and minutely detailed manuscripts, the spacious grandeur of the Long Room has its own awesome appeal. Some 40 floor-to-20-meter-high ceiling bookshelves line the Long Room, and a bust of a famous authors stands guard in front of each one of those imposing shelves. Shakespeare and Homer are the first to welcome you. In between the shelves is a rotating exhibit. The current one is devoted to a history of Dublin via Trinity College. Of particular interest was the case devoted to musical manuscripts. I was intrigued by the Tercentenary Ode (for Trinity's 300th birthday in 1892) by the composer Sir Robert Prescott. I was surprised the description of said ode made no comment on the fact it was written in the trinitarian key of E-flat (the key with 3 flats was one of Bach's favorites, and from his time on has been associated with the Holy Trinity). A part-book (the bass) for Handel's "Zadok the Priest" was also on display, as was a reminder that the world's most popular work of classical music was premiered in Dublin in 1742: Messiah.

We interspersed our sacred tour with another profane pub crawl, and took a short trip through the popular & hip neighborhood of Temple Bar. The Palace Bar, one of Dublin's historic pubs, was the first stop of the day. We had lunch and I had my first pint of Murphy's (my favorite Irish stout, actually) at The Temple Bar itself. We had our first taste of live Irish music on this trip, as "The Guitar Man" serenaded the crowded pub with traditional Irish ballads and popular songs.

We then walked down to St Patrick's Cathedral. Dating from the 11th century, this amazing church named after Ireland's patron saint, is actually an Anglican church. What gave it away was the fact that its most famous priest was Jonathan Swift, DEAN of the Cathedral. I'm sure we were a couple among many who naturally assume St Patrick's Cathedral in Ireland would be the holiest of holies for the Catholic church outside of St Peters in Rome. Regardless, it is an amazing space, its history complemented with extraordinary stained glass, an exquisite altar tapestry, and a magnificent organ. We were lucky to hear some of the service music the organist was practicing during our visit.

We then retraced our steps back up to Dublin's central cathedral, Christ Church. We attended the Thursday night Evensong, and had no idea what to expect, as the choirs of Dublin do not register on the radar of Anglican choirs the way those of Oxford, Cambridge & London do. We were more than pleasantly surprised, we were impressed and moved.

The Christ Church choir consists of 20 Lay Vicars, a mixed choir of young professionals, mostly from England, according to the organ scholar with whom we spoke after the beautiful service. John Shepherd's Second Service were the canticles of the evening (the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis--simply "Mag & Nunc" in choral-speak) and the remaining service music--the Preces and Responses--were by a composer new to me, Humphrey Clucas. I look forward to hearing more of this composer, whose service music elevated what is sometimes a perfunctory exercise into an inspired musical dialogue. The only disappointment was not hearing the anthem of the day, by one of my favorite Anglican composers, William Harris. The text to "Bring us, O Lord" from one of John Donne's sermons, was read instead.

The presence of young women in the soprano and alto sections (there were at least a couple counter tenors) brings a warmth and palette of color I prefer to the more monochromatic sound of the traditional choir of men and boys. I was so impressed with the sensitive and expressive shaping the conductor elicited from the choir, I looked him up on their website. I was delighted to learn they would be singing Evensong again on Saturday, and that service would feature Kenneth Leighton's Second Service, and an anthem by James MacMillan, "A New Song." The pairing of these two original & striking contemporary Scottish composers was serendipitous. I'm currently mulling over a program of English Anthems for the Chorale's 27th season next year, and want to feature both Leighton and MacMillan, as both are underrepresented in our programming.

On a side note, I corresponded with the Associate Director of Music (who led both Evensongs we attended), Tristan Russcher, to congratulate and thank him for the beautiful service Thursday, and the wish to let him know in person following Saturday's service. I learned the Harris anthem was cut because it was not up to their standards, and this was the first such instance in his 7 years with the choir. Not a bad batting average, eh?!?

We continued our pub crawl with a visit to Bull & Castle, where Irish micro-brews are the attraction, and followed it with another popular traditional pub, Thomas Read. We dined at a foodie joint called Gruel. I had the best Cottage Pie ever, and Amy had a scrumptious spinach gnocchi with an herbed cream sauce. We concluded the night with visits to the Quays and what would rank among our favorite pub/club hotspots, McQuires. They also had their own microbrews, of which the Belgian red ale was my favorite. Our guidebook said over half the population of Dublin is under 28. Based on our experience at these pubs last weekend, that is every bit the case, and makes for some fascinating & entertaining people watching. Sláinte!

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