It all started one Christmas as I rummaged through the CD racks at the library, in search of Christmas music different than the usual run-of-the-mill. I had several gigs lined up for the season, and planned on singing “Coventry Carol”, so when I stumbled across a CD called “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” which included it in the track list, I immediately thrust it into my green library bag for check out. I thought little of it at the time, but this would start me on the road to a new musical fandom.
At home, I listened to the CDs I had gleaned, with some degree of disappointment since most were pretty common-place, and the Celtic-themed ones were generally too “Pop” for my tastes. While I certainly can appreciate such groups as Celtic Woman and artists as Enya, their style always sounds a bit faux, like they have journeyed too far away from their roots and lost that magical connection with the past. But then I put “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” into the CD player. The first song listed was “The Holly and the Ivy”, but it was different than I had ever heard it. The tune was altered, made deeper and more mysterious somehow. And then I heard the voice of the woman singing it. It was so ethereal, so pure, so rich, so real. I looked on the CD cover for her name. It was Loreena McKennitt.
After finishing listening to “A Midwinter Night’s Dream”, I tracked the other albums in her 9-disc collection: “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, “The Book of Secrets”, “The Mask and Mirror”, “The Visit”, “An Ancient Muse”, “Elemental”, “Parallel Dreams”, and “To Drive the Cold Winter Away.” Needless to say, I became progressively hooked, and was sad when there were no more of her CDs to order. I was even more sad that she hadn’t been hired to do the music for The Lord of the Rings instead of Enya and Annie Lennox! Meanwhile, I did some research on my new favorite musical artist, and learned something about her background and philosophy of life.
Loreena Isabel Irene McKennitt, CM OM, is a Canadian of Scottish and Irish descent who specializes in the Celtic/World genre. Not only does she have a truly gorgeous voice, above and beyond any Celtic singer I’ve heard, but she also plays the harp, keyboard, and accordion. In addition to all this, she composes much of her own music and runs her own independent company called Quinlan Road. In spite of all her well-deserved success, personal tragedy struck when both her brother and fiancée were drowned in an ice-fishing accident. In their honor she has become an advocate of water-safety and water-rescue missions, and uses her high profile to help others in harm’s way. She also has held a ceremonial title in the Royal Canadian Military.
Loreena’s music touches on a multitude spiritual themes, emphasizing the elements of the human experience that bind us all together across different plains and ages: our shared desire for true love, a place to call home, liberty from oppression, and communion with the Divine. Nevertheless, her works tend to stay broad in scope, addressing the plight of humanity, yet avoiding specific political skirmishing. Unlike so many other Celtic singers, she does not succumb to a Scots/Irish clannishness, but uses her roots to branch out into new dimensions, realizing that the original Celts were migratory people and their story connects with many others.
Loreena often chooses classic poetry to set to music, bringing back forgotten literary gems to the popular consciousness. Many are drawn from the great romantic narrative tradition, such as “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred Tennyson, and “The English Lady and the Knight” Sir Walter Scott. Others deal with the mysteries of nature such as “Snow” by Archibald Lampman, or the mysteries of death such as “Cymbeline” by William Shakespeare. Still others explore the essence of love such as “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats, and others explore the essence of human suffering such as “The Stolen Child”, also by Yeats.
Her choice of folk songs combines old standards with new vocal styles and a dynamic range of instruments from a variety of cultures and periods. Some involve unusually alterations to the melodies or phrasing, such as “The Holly and the Ivy”, “Star of the County Down”, and “Greensleeves.” Others are simply infused with new vigor through the sincerity of Loreena’s story-telling style, such “Annachie Gordon”, “As I Roved Out”, and “The Blacksmith.”
Her own compositions manage to keep faith with the older folk tradition while also being strikingly fresh and original. Some are veritable anthems for justice, such as “Breaking the Silence” and “Beneath a Phrygian Sky”, while others focus on the mysteries of human relationships and the ongoing journey of life such as “Penelope’s Song”, “Night Market in Marrakesh”, and “The Never-Ending Road”. Her lyrical intuition matches her musical one, and she can almost be called a modern mystical poet in her spiritually thought-provoking pieces.
Loreena started life as a Canadian farm-girl, and although she has certainly become something of a Citizen of the World since then, her activity in the armed forces shows her patriotism. As a musician, she has said that it is her desire to share always, and as a representative of the military, to share the gifts and perspectives that soldiers have to give to civilians, and at the same time share the gifts and perspectives that civilians have to give to the soldiers. Indeed, this attitude is very appropriate, since it embodies the calling of the bards of old, whose social duty was to bridge gaps and walk between the lines.
Religiously, she is a bit of a mystery. Evidently her father was Protestant and her mother Catholic. Although she seems to have been raised Presbyterian, she now identifies herself as broadly spiritual and not directly affiliated with any organized religion. Her music seems to confirm this, since it draws from a wide range of religious traditions, most notably pre-Christian Paganism, Catholicism, and Islam. She also seems to relish overlapping religious references, such as in her songs “Mummer’s Dance” and “All Soul’s Night”, both of which highlight Pagan ceremonies that were given new Christian meanings as missionaries made their away to the four corners of Europe to spread the Good News.
There are other more specifically Catholic-themed pieces such as “Skellig”, written by Loreena in honor of the Irish monks who saved civilization during the Dark Ages, and the incomparable “Dark Night of the Soul”, a deeply moving rendition of the mystical love poem to God written by St. John of the Cross. There are others that emphasize the depth of human emotion released through prayer and the ongoing search for God, such as “Dante’s Prayer”.
Whether or not Loreena has established religious clarity, I think there is no doubt that she is deeply spiritually aware, and has led others to search for God and the meaning of existence through her music. Perhaps her own past sorrows and single vocation has made her a special instrument of empathy and embodiment of the songs and stories she weaves. She herself has said that she does view those who have been touched by her music as mere “fans”, but acknowledges that a much deeper connection between her and them has been forged. For her willingness to share her God-given gifts with the rest of us, I for one will be eternally grateful.
I think the ultimate meaning behind the music of Loreena McKennitt is that, as she herself wrote in Beneath a Phrygian Sky, “our love must make us strong.” No matter what tribulations we may face, no matter what losses we may suffer, there is some undying hope that lingers in the soul that the intangible realities that are of most value will never be lost to us forever. Love will win out in the end, will give us strength to live and die well, and as Sir Walter Scott poetically put it, “love shall still be lord of all.” As Christians, we realize this ultimate expression of love in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to earth as an innocent baby on the first Christmas and continues to accompany us on the journey of life. With Him at our side, the lyrics of The Never-Ending Road are given a new depth of truth: “The journey goes on/There’s no mystery to fear.”