Unlike the other Feast Days of Allhallowstide there is little liturgical music with which to commemorate or pray for those who souls have yet to find peace. However that doesn’t mean that folk tradition, borrowing from both the old and new religions, did not provide music for the time that a soul was thought to have left its corporal home and found a resting place before the final great judgement. One of the best know of these folk chants or songs is A Lyke-Wake Dirge.
Originating in North Yorkshire in the 14th century it was meant to be sung at the Lykegate or Lychgate of the church. Before coffins and funeral homes the corpse (lic or lyc in Old English) would be enshrouded and brought on a bier to the shelter at the gate of the churchyard. Friends and relatives would attend the body – sometimes overnight – to prevent robbery and wait for the priest to come and perform the burial rites. This dirge or chant for the dead was meant to address both the corpse and those attending it as a warning of the brutal fate awaiting the uncharitable. If you have not or do not clothe and feed the poor and those in want your way to Purgatory will be torturous and never-ending. Performing these acts of Christian charity give the hope that the departed may enjoy relief in perpetuity: “And Christ receive they saul”. The language is raw and impersonal as the landscape that surrounded the mourners but the final refrain is almost a prayer.
Traditionally it was sung by a woman which is how I first heard it back in 1967 when it was the title song of the first album I received as a member of the RCA Victor record club: Buffy Saint Maria’s Fire and Fleet and Candlelight. Oddly she uses Benjamin Britten’s classical setting. Her keening voice and the addition of an eerie mouth harp continuo invokes the stark beauty of the words and the pressing forth of the soul on its journey.
The soul has left its Fire and fleet and Candlelight or “hearth and home” (flett = dwelling, the modern flat). Whinny Muir or Moor is a local moor near Cleveland North Yorkshire. As it crosses the bleak terrain the uncharitable soul will be left naked and be pierced to the bare bane (bare bone) by the thorns and brambles; the charitable will be protected by the clothing they gave to the poor. At the Brig o’ Dread (Bridge of Fear, which may well have been an actual local bridge) those who gave sustenance to the hungry will pass through the fires of Purgatory unscathed while those who watched them starve will be burned, once again to the bare bane, for eternity.
A grim unbending reminder of a harsh moral code, it can be assumed that the character of the deceased – which all present would have known – would affect both how this dirge was both delivered and received. Whatever the effect it sets the perfect mood for the first eve of the triad of All Hallows’.
The word for October 27th is:
Wake /wāk/: [1. verb 2. noun]
1.1 To emerge or cause to emerge from a state of sleep; stop sleeping.
1.2 Dialect: to hold a vigil beside someone who has recently died.
2. A watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died, sometimes accompanied by ritual observances including lamenting, eating and drinking.
Old English (recorded only in the past tense wōc ), also partly from the weak verb wacian ‘remain awake, hold a vigil’, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch waken and German wachen.
4 thoughts on “Mercoledi Musicale”
How bazaar. Even more so that Buffy is singing it. Needless to say it is not a favourite of mine.
Buffy Sainte=Marie’s voice is perfect for that! Her eerie vibrato! The mouth harp! Yowza!
I liked it it has soul.