In 1999, John Paul II addressed a letter “To all who are passionately dedicated to a search for new “epiphanies” of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world.” The first time I heard a track from Patrick Cassidy’s cantata, The Children of Lir, I certainly experienced it as an “epiphany” of beauty. It was an experience that was quite unexpected in the contemporary cultural climate. I could not believe my ears: a contemporary composer had composed a piece of music that was exquisitely beautiful. What’s more, the composer was Irish.
One critique of the work that I read back then aired what seems to be the major defect of Cassidy’s composition: it is simply “pastiche.” In other words, it is merely an imitation of baroque music. Even if that criticism were fair – and in my estimation it is not – it would be no mean achievement to produce a piece of music à la Handel.
This cantata is a setting of arguably the most poignant of the imaginative tales of Irish literature. The libretto is in the original modern classical Irish version of this tale. That in itself is a first. The musical idiom is, as already intimated, baroque – hiberno-baroque, to be more precise. These two facts in themselves afford Cassidy’s composition a certain uniqueness. There is no other musical composition in the classical tradition that is based on a modern classical Irish text. I am unaware, moreover, of any composition that is hiberno-baroque in style as distinct from being simply baroque.
Ireland never enjoyed a classical music tradition because colonization never allowed such a tradition to take root and to develop here. The Children of Lir, however, gives us at least a hint of what baroque music might have sounded like in a Gaelic style. For those brought up with traditional Irish music and trained in the classical tradition, the interweaving of contrapuntal lines inspired by native musical idioms is well-nigh mesmerising.
The re-release of Cassidy’s early cantata indicates that beauty still has an appeal. If one follows an intellectual tradition inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas this ineradicable allure of the beautiful is heartening, for beauty is a function of both truth and goodness. Where beauty is valued, so too are truth and goodness. Art distils and communicates the Zeitgeist. The cult of the ugly – and, indeed, what is beyond the beautiful and the ugly as Baudrillard points out – gives apt expression to a civilization that has scant regard to truth and goodness. And yet works of great beauty like Cassidy’s furnish a bulwark against this culture and advance the ineradicable claims of the true and the good.
The Children of Lir is, I believe, culturally subversive in espousing classical canons of beauty. In that sense it radiates a very Catholic spirit. Catholics concerned about the direction Western culture has taken might well wish to support this kind of cultural subversion.