is a talented multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, indeed
a creatively-driven song-writing machine, who has produced many
a fine song and performed it in that sensitive voice over the years…
but setting Gerard Manley Hopkins to music?
Gerard Manley Hopkins has written arguably the greatest
pantheistic, God-in-Nature, religious poetry ever penned by man,
an extraordinary garland of thought-blossoms. His language, which
inspired such a modern master as Dylan Thomas, is a rhythmic roller-coaster
of audacious expression. It's compacted with meaning, jumping with
How on earth to put this supreme poetry, each phrase
the fruit of meditative attention given to the animate falcon
and the inanimate stone alike, to music?
The history of poetry being put to music is not a happy one when
one leaves aside the work of the great composers, such as Beethoven's
setting of Goethe's 'Ode to Joy'. Robert Burns, who put his verse
to existing folk songs, achieved a unique creative and popular success.
For it's hard to think of an entirely happy musical
setting for existing poetry in the 20th century. Andrew Lloyd Webber's
'Cats'? The odds were that poor Sean was going to lose himself in
the mists of a literary Matterhorn…
And I have to say that 'The Alchemist' is a complete triumph and
that if Sean O'Leary has trodden the thorny path of creativity to
make this one recording he has not lived in vain.
His voice has a rapt, empowered sincerity which is
never sentimental and a lifetime's experience of music-making has
enabled him to provide simple, lyrical, unpretentious and entirely
appropriate musical settings to Hopkins' magic words of joy or suffering.
O'Leary's well-honed songwriting skills and devotional voice achieves
the quite extraordinary feat of actually bringing to life for me
many a Hopkins’ poem I had skipped or ignored.
I first encountered 'Felix Randal' on the mortuary
slab of a school text book yet Sean’s version, backed by a
simple organ motif, with Sean singing as a gentle, burnt-out Celtic
priest, is so moving that it irresistibly brings tears to my normally
dry eyes every time I hear it.
There are simple joys to be had on this remarkable
CD such as the gospel bounce of 'Pied Beauty' or the irresistible
jig of 'The Woodlark' but Sean effortlessly takes you into difficult
areas - such as that terrible room where 'I awake and feel the fell
of dark, not day.' Sean has even succeeded in dragging me on board
'The Wreck of the Deutschland' with the fate-battered, earth-shaking
crew and passengers, wondering how I ever thought of skip button
when I knew this great poem was on the album.
The music is simple to cushion the momentous and complex
poetry, yet with many a subtle song-writing twist and musical motif
to further the poetry's meaning. It's surprising just how many Hopkins
poems now seem to contain a perfect chorus line. The production
is rich and bright, with Sean’s devotional voice to the fore.
Yes! 'The Alchemist' is a unique achievement. No lover
of poetry, no lover of Hopkins, no one with a splash of nature mysticism
in their veins, and certainly no Christian should be without this
deeply-moving and inspirational album.
And it has to be said that when it comes to cosmic,
religious music the team of lyricist Gerard Manley Hopkins and singer-songwriter
Sean O'Leary knock even Bob Dylan out of his born-again boots.