This study of BUNESSAN was in keeping with our overall theme of meditation and prayerful music in that we returned again and again to the tune over the course of the evening. We know repetition changes things. The relentless movement of water over a stone carves a new shape. Repetition of information alters our brains. And it is my theory that truths traveling over a familiar pathway might gain an easier welcome to our hearts and more readily redirect us. Perhaps a well-known tune like BUNESSAN could function as such a pathway.
Following up on Dr. Cotton's discussion of the riches of the Book of Common Prayer and its placement of prayer in community (as opposed to primarily in the individual's prayer closet), we briefly considered the fact that most hymns are also envisioned by their authors as expressions of a community and not just of individuals. As a congregation, we direct the words of hymn-writers to God and we exhort one another. Some texts such as "St. Patrick's Breastplate" are more obviously prayers for individuals to pray, however, but that text doesn't seem likely to have been conceived as a congregational song to begin with.
We also noted that the evening's selection of hymn texts demonstrates a bit of parity in that the first three texts are by women and the last three are by men. It has been through the writing of hymns that women have sometimes been allowed to preach over the centuries.
Bunessan is a tune and a town, and might also be a tone. This post discusses the town and the origin of the tune. It also includes a link to my own arrangement of the tune which was used as a prelude for this session at All Saints'.
A sense of musical space and movement through it is an aspect of experiencing a tune. This involves the range of the pitches in the tune, the tessitura of the tune (that is, which part of that range is utilized the most), and the tune's way of moving (steps, leaps, etc.).
We started our study by humming BUNESSAN and tracing its shape in the air to raise our consciousness about the details of its topography. In doing so, we found that the tune has some steep rises as well as some gently rolling passages, just like the scenery around Bunessan. Over the course of the evening, we explored how the interplay of text and tune might alter our perception of the meaning of this hilliness.
"Morning Has Broken"
Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965)
This is the text most often associated with the tune BUNESSAN. It reminds us of Eden and of echoes of Eden in the freshness of each new day. It highlights sunlight which can be considered literally or as a reference to spiritual warmth and illumination. It engages times that are liminal: beginnings and transitions during which great possibilities open to us, times understood to have particular power in Celtic spirituality.
If "Morning is Broken" is the primary text we associate with BUNESSAN, then this Edenic sensibility will be in at least the back of minds as we sing other texts to the tune.
"Child in the Manger"
Mary MacDonald of Mull (1789-1872)
"A devout Baptist, MacDonald wrote hymns and poems in Gaelic which she sang at her spinning wheel." - Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology
This was the first text to be published with the tune. It starts as a lullaby suited to the rocking nature of the music but Jesus reaches adulthood by the second half of the third verse.
To me, the most moving part of the text is the reference to the baby Jesus who was already an "outcast and stranger." I imagine that phrase was MacDonald's starting point and might have come to her while rocking her own little one. Jesus remains an outcast and stranger, perhaps sometimes even among Christians.
We might also note that each verse of this hymn leads to the next. Neither the second nor the third verse can be omitted and the text still make sense. "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" is another such hymn which really won't allow for verses to be skipped. And the skipping of verses is an odd practice, or at least it needs to be engaged in with careful thought. It is unlikely that we would, on a whim, skip a verse of a poem we are reading, but that's done constantly to the poems we call hymns!
"Love is the Sunlight"
Borghild Jacobson (1932-1994)
This is a beautiful text about marriage and about going through the good and the bad together. It seems to be for husbands and wives to sing but could also be something for the Church, as the bride of Christ, to express.
Its immediate reference to sunlight and radiance, as well as the fact that God's love has made the marriage of this text, connect us back to the tune's tone as revealed by "Morning has Broken."
In terms of movement through musical space, this combination of text and tune directs us to the space above us. The highest sounding words like "sunlight," "star bright," "heaven," and "glory" are lifted on the highest notes. The ebbs and flows of the text are further aligned with the tune in that the less grand words at the ends of phrases are sung on long notes in a slightly lower register.
"God the Creator"
John Bell (b.1939)
John Bell is a member of the Iona Community and is "primarily concerned with the renewal of congregational worship at the grassroots level." - Hymnary.org
Bell's text shows the Trinity opening into human community. In a new act of creating something out of nothing, the fullness of the Trinity carries us from nothing-ness, nobody-ness, and nowhere-ness, to loving action in community that reflects the Trinity itself.
This profoundly orthodox idea of just human action proceeding from the relational nature of God is also found in a famous prayer by the founder of the modern Iona Community, George MacLeod. Its jarring language drives home the point that our sense of personal piety might not amount to true service to God in the world.
"Christ, you are within each one of us.
Nearer are you than breathing,
closer than hands and feet.
Ours are the eyes with which you, in the mystery,
look out with compassion on the world.
Take us outside, O Christ, outside holiness,
out to where soldiers curse and nations clash
at the crossroads of the world.
We ask it for your name's sake.
"O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus"
Samuel Trevor Francis (1834-1925)
Francis was a Plymouth Brethren evangelist and worked as an assistant to Ira Sankey.
The watery words of this text transform the hills of the tune into waves orienting us toward a great space below us. Due to the meter of this text, some syllables are spread over more than one note of the tune. The result is a feeling of rolling as over waves as we sing.
"Christ Beside Me"
adapted by James Quinn
This text, St Patrick's Breastplate, is about Christ permeating, and Christ permeates this text. Christ is the starting point of each of its phrases and instigates every significant movement of the tune. Those movements consist of short notes leading to long notes. The text and tune align in such way that the short notes point to each place we are saying Christ is located.
This text is a circle prayer. Things circular and cyclical are a Celtic focus. Circular prayers are about God's fully surrounding and penetrating presence, and they often invite God's protection. They also suggest the unbroken completeness of God's love. The famous Celtic cross, which probably first appeared on Iona, consists of a cross superimposed on a circle. This represents the cross of Christ fully embracing our world as well as the entire universe beyond it.
This text calls us to explore the space around us and to find God there. We can add another meaningful layer to our prayer by physically exploring the spaces around us as we reference them while singing.
|A high cross on Iona|