Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Music for Saint Thorlak's Day

Last November, I spent a few days at Skalholt, the medieval capital of Iceland and site of its first cathedral. While there, I began understanding the Icelanders' fondness for their patron saint, Thorlak Thorhallsson, who was bishop of Skalholt from 1178 to 1193 and declared a saint in 1198.

November days are very short in Iceland. Through a fluke of scheduling, I was completely alone in the cathedral guesthouse. It was eerie, walking around the grounds at night--even before the storm came--and I soon imagined I heard voices in the babbling of the brook and the whinny of a distance horse. There could, indeed, be a lot of ghosts at Skalholt: I knew its history. Though not a "believer" I found I had Saint Thorlak's name on my lips and rushed back inside, where a gift from the current bishop of Skalholt awaited me.

Since December 23rd is Saint Thorlak's Day, I thought I'd share that gift. But first, a bit about Thorlak, whom I met while researching Song of the Vikings, my biography of Snorri Sturluson.

Thorlak was a well-educated man: He studied at Paris, France and Lincoln, England. After that he returned to Iceland and "was ever at writing," his saga says. He dressed plainly, ate and drank like an ascetic (no meat, only water), and was rather dull company, the saga implies, noting that it "was a great misfortune that his speech was hard and slow." On the other hand, "he was so lucky in his brewing that the ale never burst that he had blessed."

Soon after Thorlak died, people began reporting miracles that occurred when they called on him for aid. These miracles provide a digest of the common Icelander's woes in the 12th century: Saint Thorlak cured stiff hands, sore throats, burning eyes, and gassy stomachs. He found lost hobbles, lost sheep, a sledgehammer, and a ring. He healed a horse ridden "unwarily where there was volcanic heat"; its legs "got so burned that people thought it would die." He healed a woman who "fell into a hot spring in Reykholt and got so severely burned that her flesh and skin came off with her clothes." He stemmed the flow of blood when a chieftain, soaking in his hot-tub, cut himself with a razor. He calmed storms and floods, resuscitated a drowned boy, quenched a house fire, and mesmerized a seal so a starving mother could kill it.

In Song of the Vikings I describe these miracles, along with the glorious translation of Bishop Thorlak—the ceremony by which he was officially recognized as Iceland's first saint in 1198.

The bishop's coffin, buried for five years, was dug up, dusted off, and carried into Skalholt Cathedral. Saint Thorlak's holy relics (his bones) were taken from the coffin, washed, and encased in a golden shrine. The priest Gudmund the Good, then 38, was a coffin-bearer; he chanted the Te Deum in his unforgettable voice. Twenty-year-old Snorri probably accompanied his foster-brothers Saemund and Orm, whom the saga says attended the ceremony. During the Mass which followed, Snorri would have marveled at the 230 expensive beeswax candles twinkling on the altar (all imported, since honeybees did not live in Iceland).

But what I didn't know when I wrote Song of the Vikings was that the music written for the ceremony still survives. On my recent trip to Skalholt, Bishop Kristjan Valur Ingolfsson lent me a recording of it by the early-music ensemble Voces Thules.

You can listen to part of it here:

As explained in the CD's liner notes, "Liturgical chants are a kind of soothing incantation, in which flow has an all-important role to play, like sailing effortlessly on the crest of the wave toward a nevertheless clear destination. The singing of music of this kind is the most intimate form of worship and meditation still to be preserved within the sanctuary of the Christian Church."

The six members of Voces Thules depended on the doctoral thesis of Robert Ottosson (1912-74) to understand how to reconstruct this chant from the 24 pages of manuscript in the archives. These manuscript pages are also online; you can see them at the Icelandic music website Click on "Handrit og prent," then on manuscript number "AM 241a fol. Þorlákstíðir," then on "Síður (24)" and the pages of manuscript will appear and you can scroll down through them.

The "Office of Saint Thorlak" was performed in 1998, for the first time in centuries, to mark the 800th anniversary of Bishop Thorlak's death. It was part of the Reykjavik Arts Festival that year, stretching over a day and a half and culminating in a High Mass, at which Kristjan Valur and another priest also sang.

I listened to Saint Thorlak's music at Skalholt on that dark November night, while the wind howled and the rain lashed against the windows and I was the only person in the entire guesthouse.

"The darkness flees, the light illuminates the mind, a devoted nation dances," the Office begins. "Let us prepare for the festival of jubilation and offer praise, cast out the darkness at the world's extreme."

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

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