Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sweet Irrational Worship

Doris Dana, Carolyn Hammer, and Thomas Merton went on for luncheon at the farm of the singer and folklorist John Jacob Niles. Merton had been wanting to meet Niles for some time, and now they met in the best of situations. The Kentucky sunlight that day seemed to Merton particularly beautiful, and he was fascinated by Boot Hill Farm. After lunch, the group was joined by the soprano Jacqueline Roberts and the pianist Janelle Pope, and they listened to poems of Merton's that Niles had set to music, Messenger, Carol, Responsary. John Jacob Niles explained he was working on a musical setting of the poem Evening, the next in a larger Merton-Niles cycle he was planning. Merton found himself in tears ...
That extract from Michael Mott's authorised biography of Thomas Merton describes the meeting in October 1967 between Trappist monk, peace activist, poet and author Thomas Merton and composer John Jacob Niles. The first set of Niles-Merton Songs, op. 171 was completed in June 1968. Thomas Merton visited Boot Hill Farm for a second and final time in 1968. During that visit he heard the op. 171 songs and discussed with John Jacob Niles the poems to be set for the second set which were to become op. 172. On 15th October, 1968 Thomas Merton flew from San Francisco to Asia to represent Christain contemplatives at a conference of Asian monastic orders. Having delivered his address in Bangkok on 10th December, 1968, the 53 year old Merton returned to his room in the retreat centre and died by accidental electrocution.

John Jacob Niles was devastated by Thomas Merton's tragic death and this influenced his choice of poems for the second set of songs. The mood is blacker, and the twelve songs in the op. 172 set include Merton's best known poem 'For My Brother Reported Missing In Action, 1943', written in memory of the poet's younger brother who died in the Second World War. The complete cycle of Merton-Niles was first performed in 1975 at the University of Kentucky Newman Centre, and they were published in 1981.

In 2005 baritone Chad Runyon, accompanied by Messiaen specialist Jacqueline Chew (seen below), recorded the complete Niles-Merton Songs for MSR Classics in a version transposed for the lower voice. As we mark the fortieth anniversary of Thomas Merton's untimely death we are very fortunate to have such an outstanding recording of these settings. Chad Runyon delivers the texts with exemplary musicality while Jacqueline Chew's accompaniment makes a passionate case for these little-known gems. The sound is first class, as are the sleeve notes by Jody Black, while the striking sleeve, shown above, uses photography from Harry L. Hinkle's excellent photographic essay Thomas Merton's Gethsemani: Landscapes of Paradise. Listen to audio samples of the Niles-Merton songs here.

Wonderful words and wonderful music. But, forty years after his death, what is the relevance of Thomas Merton? Ten days ago James Finley, a student of Merton's from his time at the Abbey of Gethsemani, visited Norwich Cathedral to give a talk on his teacher. It was a wet and windy November evening, yet the nave of the great Norman Cathedral was packed. Hearing a Buddhist prayer ring out as James Finley led his audience in silent meditation in this centre of Christian worship was moving beyond words. Today, the contemplative movement pionered by Thomas Merton is gathering momentum as it crosses boundaries of faiths and age, as my visits to Taizé have also showed.


Thomas Merton's poem To A Novice has already featured here, as has his novel My Argument with the Gestapo. Merton is set into the wider cultural context of the 1960s in Karlheinz Stockhausen - part of a dream.

This post was auto-published while I was out of internet range at the Benedictine Abbey of Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux, France. Review CD of the Niles-Merton songs was kindly supplied by Chad Runyon at the request of On An Overgrown Path. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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