Carol Thompson: The Enchanted Isles

Carol Thompson
The Enchanted Isles

Of all the music associated with Ireland, the airy and sophisticated sound of the harp most evokes the spirit of that place. The power and beauty of traditional Irish music lies “in the tune itself”, and the pure melody is brought to life through the skill and soul of the performer. Born in America of Anglo-Welsh-Irish background, Carol Thompson began studying classical harp at age thirteen. She had an early interest in the Irish harp music that intrigued her and soon devoted her talent to years of research, scholarship, and playing. Carol Thompson shows a genuine sense of oneness with the heart of Irish harp music, her selections evidence a deep understanding and love for the Celtic music tradition. Her music is quite simply beautiful, an exquisite presentation that evokes windswept vistas and a connection with a special sense of place.

There is an Irish fairy story concerning the legendary Irish hero, Fionn Mac Cumhail, and a debate between himself and his followers as to what might be the finest music. “The music of what happens — that is the finest music in the world”, asserts great Fionn.

In ancient Ireland, music was a major part of life. The harp played by the old Gaelic harpers was an aristocratic instrument, and professional harpers were honored above all other musicians. At one time, the harper ranked at the top of the bó-aire class of landless nobility. They trained extensively in harp schools, similar to the bardic schools, before they played before the chiefs of clans and in the courts of kings. Because their music was part of an unwritten oral tradition, eventually most of their music was forgotten.

With the Anglicization of the Irish nobility, the traditional harpers were cast off and the once noble harpers were reduced to the lot of itinerant musicians traveling the countryside. The most famous harper in Irish history, Turlough Carolan (or O’Carolan meaning son of Carolan), lived just that life. Often called the last of the Irish bards, Turlough Carolan (1670-1738) as a mere boy was flattened to the ground by a dark, malignant wind that blew west across the Irish Sea from England during the 1680s. The horrid Gala-breac, the Bolgach, visited its deathly scourge once again on Ireland. The people who died, and there were many, all expired in the throughs of a horrible thundering death. Of those who sucked in the foul hot breath of the Bolgach and managed to cling to life, one-third had their eyes burned out, their once bright eyes were reduced to darkened lumps of coal and they lost all sight of their beautiful land forever. Many lived on like this, withered, scarred, and blinded, unable to work the fields or tend to animals they couldn’t see, some reduced to begging for sustenance in their very own villages.

But as Art Edelstein reasoned in Fair Melodies, his biography of Turlough Carolan, the scourge of Bolgach (smallpox) also allowed a native talent to blossom, because music became Carolan’s only avenue for employment. “It is reasonably certain that had Turlough Carolan, born as he was to an undistinguished Gaelic-speaking Irish Catholic family with roots in the east of the country in Meath, not been blinded, there would have been no music to remember him by. . . .”

That would have made for a bit darker world both then and now, but Carolan managed to overcome the darkness in his life and bring music of incredible beauty to the world. He succeeded in Ireland perhaps because he also incorporated some popular idioms and European Baroque elements into his compositions for his Anglo-Irish patrons. A prolific and gifted composer, Carolan still reigns with immeasurable stature among Irish musicians. Carol Thompson drew fully half her Irish material on this recording from his body of work.

“Lord Inchiquin” demonstrates the harper’s grace and poise. The rhythm and form is the AA | BB typical of dance pieces, meaning the overall piece is separated midstream into two distinct themes. But that doesn’t describe the effect of listening to the delightful rolls and trills of the meandering melody. The listener is enchanted then captivated by a tune less than two minute’s of playing. “Father Brian Mac Dermot Roe” echoes the sparse notes of psaltry and chant of the time on harp as an introduction, then the piece moves into the expansive sweep of Gaelic melody. The earthy, lilting songs “Planxty Murphy” and “Hugh O’Donnell” complete the Carolan selections. There are several older popular airs whose composers names have been forgotten over time, but “Irish Lullaby” and “Brian Boru’s March” are recognizably “Irish” music. When taller and steel-stringed harps were invented in the 18th century, the form of the music changed somewhat because the music could be played in a louder register, which changes how notes can be combined because of the sustained effect. But the music still honors the people of the time (“Miss Hamilton”) and historic Irish figures (“Lord Mayo”).

Darcy Fair pointed out that while there have been many attempts to describe what Irish music-making is all about, most of them ignore its inherent social element. “Most scholars define Irish music as a “solo” tradition. However, what is most valued by many traditional musicians is the social and musical interaction of two or more persons who sit down to ‘have a tune.'” In a way, that social element came into play with the harp as well. First the harpers entertained the attentions of the nobility, and later in history young women would invite their suitors over to entertain them with their harp music. So it’s quite fitting that the first tune on this record is O’Reada’s “Women of Ireland”, an ethereal piece that whispers promises of enchanted music, possible captivation and willing surrender.

These are not all Irish tunes, but the pieces from England, Wales, and Scotland are rich in Gaelic flavor and were all composed on Irish themes. This is heavenly music played by capable hands that will change your outlook on the world on any given day. Surprising it would be if any hearing this didn’t search out more of Carol Thompson’s harp music, which speaks to the Irish in all of us. The fidelity of the recording is worthy of additional comment. Utilizing the fabled acoustics of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, the engineer’s intent was to give the illusion of each note hovering in a vast space before dying away into complete stillness, all to evoke an image of Carolan composing these tunes at a roadside under the open skies.