By Joseph Camilleri
‘Pilgrymes are we alle’ (William Langland, Piers Plowman)
Most of the computers in our offices sport screensavers portraying distant lands and exotic destinations. Although it is hardly surprising that we yearn to escape our humdrum, everyday lives, I often wonder whether this reveals a more deep-seated and atavistic urge to travel; a suppressed legacy, perhaps, from our nomadic ancestors.
The world’s great religions certainly seem to have recognised Man’s wanderlust and given it a spiritual dimension. Indeed, the practice of ‘pilgrimage’ – what we may call a ‘holy journey’ – is encouraged in the major faiths. A pilgrimage is first of all an act of homage, having as its final destination a sacred place or shrine held dear by adherents to a particular religion. But the journey itself is deemed a prayer, a form of cleansing, a penance from sin. It is also metaphor for life itself, for the journey of our existence – il cammin della nostra vita – to paraphrase Dante.
In An Intimate History of Humanity, Theodore Zeldin suggests that ‘travel began as pilgrimage’, singling out Islam as the religion which codifies this practice most systematically. In this article however, I will focus on pilgrimage in the Christian tradition and the influence it has had on Western music. As we shall see, in the Medieval period, well before the advent of mass tourism, holy journeys provided an impetus for far-flung travel, leading to cross-fertilization between different cultures. During their travels, pilgrims entertained themselves by telling stories and making music and, their journey completed, they sang hyms and sacred songs which expressed their simple yet profound faith. This led to the composition of new works and the compiling of some of the earliest surviving musical codices. Even when the practice of pilgrimage waned with the Reformation and the rise of the secular society, the concept of the ‘spiritual journey’ remained a potent metaphor and a source of inspiration to artists and composers.
Urbs beata Jerusalem – Journey to the Holy City
Christian Pilgrimage was encouraged by early Church Fathers such as Saint Augustine (354-430) and Saint Jerome (347-420) who, in his own extensive travels, visited Jerusalem and Galilee, eventually settling down and dying in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The places connected with the life and ministry of Jesus were the earliest pilgrim destinations – the first Christian ‘travelogue’, the Bordeaux Itinerary (named after the anonymous ‘Pilgrim of Bordeaux’ who penned it) describes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the years 333 and 334. Journeying to the Holy Land received a boost with the support of Constantine who, as the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, had imposing edifices constructed on sites which were already popular with early pilgrims. Thus, in Jerusalem, Constantine built a basilica on the site of the Crucifixion and a rotunda around the Holy Sepulchre and, in Bethlehem, he built another church over the cave reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
It is no coincidence that Jerusalem is dubbed the ‘Holy City’. Within its ancient walls, the claims of the three Abrahamic religions jostle, and pilgrims of these faiths congregate to see and touch the sites special to their respective traditions. Medieval maps show Jerusalem as the navel of the world, with Europe, Asia and Africa – the continents then known – pictured surrounding it. To this day, it is a city which holds its visitors in thrall. Just as ‘Stendhal’s syndrome’ explains people’s psychotic reaction to a surfeit of artistic beauty, so does the term ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ refer to the temporary religious mania which grips some otherwise level-headed individuals when visiting the city.
Jerusalem must have exercised a strong pull on believers for them to set out on the gruelling journey leading to its gates. If in the age of the global village, a trip to the Holy Land still presents challenges, just imagine what it must have meant in the Middle Ages. When the Roman Empire was still unifying the Mediterranean states, pilgrims were at least assured a common political rule throughout the countries they travelled through, but the road and sea journeys still involved daily dangers caused by weather, bandits and disease. Following the Christianisation of Hungary around 1000 CE a new land route became possible through the Balkans, Bulgaria, Turkey and Syria and then on to Palestine. Again, the trek was arduous, sometimes taking over a year and passing through countries with wildly different cultures.
In a joint recording for the Naxos label, early music outfits Ensemble Unicorn and Ensemble Oni Wytars, under their respective directors Marco Ambrosini and Michael Posch, recreate such a journey through an imaginative programme combining European art-song, Sufi music and traditional dances from the Balkans and Near East. The Holy City is evoked by a setting of the 8th century hymn Urbs Beata Jerusalem by Guillaime Dufay, where Jerusalem becomes a metaphor for the heavenly city glimpsed by St. John in the Book of Revelation.
The recording features Near and Middle Eastern instruments such as the oud and the chalumeau. In the Middle Ages, some of these instruments, which are still used in the traditional music of the area, were brought back to Europe from pilgrimages and Crusades, subsequently influencing the development of Western instruments.
Lonely Planet, Field of Stars
Those who could not make the journey to the Holy Land or were not in a position to pay somebody else to complete the trip on their behalf, could make do with a visit to a destination closer to home. In the Medieval period, faith was often given a very physical and ‘place-based’ expression. Thus, an area where a holy person lived and worked, or where a saint’s relics or remains were venerated, was considered as particularly holy. This led to a proliferation of shrines around Europe – some more famous than others. In his Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400) famously uses a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury as a narrative frame device, implicitly highlighting the communal aspect of pilgrimages which brought together people from different classes and walks of life. Other ‘local’ shrines whose fame spread throughout Europe were the ‘Holy House’ at Walsingham in Norfolk, which became a major centre of pilgrimage in the 11th Century, and the shrine of the Three Magi at Cologne Cathedral (which Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’ claims to have visited).
In the first half of the 9th Century, another European pilgrimage site emerged in Spain where Bishop Theodomar of Iria (d. 847) claimed to have found the remains of Saint James the Greater, one of the Apostles of Jesus. The discovery is shrouded in mystery and coloured by legend. It is said that on a clear night in the year 813, a magnificent shower of stars and the sound of an angelic choir drew the hermit Pelayo to a forgotten tomb in a field in Galicia. Amazed, Pelayo reported the matter to Theodomar who decided to investigate further. The field was dug, and a sarcophagus was found, together with an inscription identifying it as the resting place of ‘Jacobus, son of Zebedee and Salome’. Theodoric and Alfonso ‘The Chaste’, King of Asturias, had St. James declared patron of Spain. By 865, the area was already known as a site of peregrination, with early visitors reporting astounding miracles.
It often happened that initial enthusiasm about a miracle-working shrine waned after a few years or decades. However, the cult of Santiago de Compostela (or ‘Saint James of Campus Stellae – Field of Stars’) grew from strength to strength. A number of walking routes to the shrine (collectively known as El Camino or, the ‘Way to Santiago’) were developed, winding their way between monasteries and frugal inns and hostels. In La Vita Nova, Dante claimed that ‘none can be called a pilgrim save he who is journeying toward the sanctuary of St. James’ and in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia sings of a pilgrim’s ‘cockle hat and staff/and his sandal shoon’, a reference to the scallop shell often found on the shores of Galicia and adopted as a symbol for pilgrims to the shrine.
The growing importance of the cult of St. James is evidenced by the so-called Codex Calixtinus, or Compostellus, a collation of five volumes and two appendices kept at the Cathedral of Santiago which appear to have been compiled into one manuscript between 1138 and 1145. Purportedly prepared at the behest of Pope Callixtus II, its compiler is probably the French scholar Aymeric Picaud. The Codex presents a melange of legends, liturgical texts and a biography of Charlemagne but its strangest part is the fifth book, a sort of Medieval ‘Lonely Planet’ or ‘Rough Guide’ for pilgrims which shares with its modern counterparts the same impish sense of humour: ‘in this country there are evil toll keepers […] may they be utterly damned […] these people dress repulsively […] and eat with their hands’.
Of particular interest to musicologists however are Book I and the appendices. These include several musical works associated with the local liturgy of St. James, comprising music for the Mass (Missa Sancti Jacobi) and Office of the Saint, in which the pilgrims would have participated on their arrival. Whereas Book I presents the liturgy in monodic form, the appendices present around two dozen polyphonic settings, in which the original chant is decorated with a florid counterpount above it. One of the most famous and controversial of the pieces is the conductus (an early form of non-liturgical, sacred motet) Congaudeant Catholici. The manuscript provides two contrapuntal lines to the chant, leading some musicologists to claim that this is the earliest known example of three-part polyphony. Other scholars, such as Richard Taruskin, dismiss this, arguing that the contrapuntal lines are alternative and have been added at different times.
Incidentally, Congaudeant Catholici is also the first known musical piece whose source credits the composer – one ‘Magister Albertus Parisiensis’, cantor at Notre Dame. This is, in itself, an indication of the strong French influence on the Codex, also confirmed by the notation used, which is typical of central France. Clearly, it was not just the pilgrims who travelled – musical styles travelled with them. It is a journey which is musically reconstructed in The Pilgrimage to Santiago, a double album recorded by Philip Pickett with the New London Consort.
Pickett varies the programme with early music taken from other Medieval collections with strong cultural links to the Camino, including the Cantigas de Santa Maria (songs of praise to the Virgin compiled by Alfonso X ‘El Sabio’) and the Codex de las Huelgas found at a Cistercian convent in Burgos, on the way to Santiago:
Another codex from the same cultural period and milieu is the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat or ‘Red Book of Montserrat’, so named after the red cover in which it was bound in the 19th Century and the mountaintop monastery of the Virgin of Montserrat in Catalonia, where it is found to this day. Montserrat was itself a major pilgrimage site. The Llibre Vermell contains a Canconiero Musical with ten pieces of music which provide an interesting contrast with the Codex Calixtinus. Indeed, whereas the works in the St. James codex were meant for performance in a liturgical context, the Montserrat pieces were composed as a sort of sacred entertainment, giving the music an earthier traditional feel, as helpfully explained by the manuscript compiler:
Because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and also in the light of day; and in the church no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious, for that reason these songs that appear here have been written. And these should be used modestly, and take care that no one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed.
The music of the Llibre Vermell has been widely recorded, including by Catalan early music superstar Jordi Savall, who intersperses the pieces with colourful improvisations aptly tinged by folk music:
I have also enjoyed a recent album issued on Brilliant Classics, in which the Llibre Vermell songs are presented in the context of a programme depicting ‘an imaginary coming together of pilgrims from various places, who meet en route and head to Montserrat to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve’.
All Roads Lead to Rome
After the Holy Land, Rome was the main destination for pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Sites popular with pilgrims included the Scala Santa (or ‘Holy Stairs’), reputedly the steps leading up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem where Jesus Christ stood trial, and which, according to legend, were brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 4th century. The Roman-era catacombs were also a strong crowd-puller, a reminder of an age when Christianity was still an underground, persecuted faith. Traditionally, Medieval pilgrims to Rome also paid visits to Le Sette Chiese – or ‘seven pilgrim churches’. These were the four major Roman basilicas (St. Peter, San Paolo Fuori le Mura, St. John in Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore), San Lorenzo fuori le mura, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (with its relics of the Holy Cross) and San Sebastiano fuori le mura. The custom was subsequently revived and codified by St. Philip Neri in the 16th Century.
The popularity of Rome as a pilgrim destination meant that a number of routes leading to the city were developed. One of the most ancient and best-known ones was the Via Francigena, a route which led from Canterbury through France and Switzerland on to Italy. This route is first described in the Itinerarium sancti Willibaldi of 725, a travel-diary of sorts kept by one Willibald, bishop in Bavaria and is first named as the Via Francigena in a parchment of 876 known as the Actum Clusio.
In 1299, thousands of believers converged on Rome at a time when Europe was being ravaged by famine and disease. This led Pope Boniface VIII to issue a bull declaring ‘the most full pardon of all their sins’, to those pilgrims who fulfilled certain conditions. 1300 was, in effect, the first Christian ‘Jubilee’, a periodical festival which would further entrench Rome as a leading pilgrimage destination. Among those who are recorded as pilgrims of that first Jubilee are Dante, Cimabue and Giotto. In later centuries it became customary for Jubilees to be marked by, amongst other events, celebratory concerts featuring premieres of major musical works. Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo by Emilio de’ Cavalieri (c. 1550-1602), often cited as the first oratorio, was performed in the Jubilee year of 1600 in the presence of over forty cardinals. The ‘Holy Year’ of 1700 witnessed new works by several composers then active in Rome – Mario Bianchelli, Pietro Paolo Bencini, Severo De Luco, Francesco Mancini, Carlo Cesarini and Francesco Grassi.
The Roman pilgrimage also inspired later composers. In Wagner’s 1845 opera Tannhäuser, the eponymous protagonist joins a band of pilgrims to Rome, to cleanse himself of the lustful excesses of the Venusberg. The Pilgrim’s Chorus – balm to the soul of Tannhäuser – is also a default choice in any self-respecting ‘best of … opera’ compilation.
The Jubilee pilgrims also make an appearance in Ottorino Respighi’s tone poem Feste Romane, where their steady march towards the Holy City is evoked through a reworking of the 12th Century German Easter hymn Christ Ist Erstanden.
The Grand Tour – A Secular Pilgrimage
From the earliest times, ‘place pilgrimage’, that is, actual travel to a holy destination, was generally seen also as a symbol of ‘moral pilgrimage’ (the Christian’s journey to salvation) and ‘interior pilgrimage’ (inner spiritual growth). In the late Middle Ages, some writers started to be critical of the practice of place pilgrimage, questioning whether this was really conducive to moral and interior pilgrimage. The narrative poem Piers Plowman by William Langland (c. 1322 – c. 1386), considered one of the highlights of Medieval English literature, attacks pilgrims to Rome and Compostela as ‘liars and hypocrites’ and presents as the authentic pilgrim the Christian who lives a life of daily obedience and service to the community. The Reformation was in the air. In the 16th and 17th Century, following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and with Reformist zeal at its height, pilgrimage was one of the practices banned in Protestant states as ‘superstitious Popery’. As a result, pilgrimage sites in England and the Northern countries were suppressed or at the very least discouraged. This meant that whereas pilgrimage remained an important practice within the Catholic tradition, it more or less died out in Northern Europe. Apart from this, travel became more widespread and the centrality of ‘pilgrimage’ as a spur to cultural exchanged waned.
This notwithstanding, ‘pilgrimage’ remained a potent literary and cultural metaphor. Indeed, there are clear parallels between the concept of ‘pilgrimage’ and the ‘Grand Tour’ which became popular with upper class English and Northern European young men from the 17th Century onwards. The final destination of the Tour was generally Northern and Central Italy, particularly the cities of Venice, Rome and Naples, although more intrepid travellers went on to Southern Italy, Malta and even Greece. Significantly, the Roman leg of the tour, besides taking in the sites of Classical remains, generally included a visit to the Pilgrim Churches. The main element which the Grand Tour shared with the Christian notion of pilgrimage was the idea that travelling could be an edifying ‘rite of passage’, leading not only to knowledge but also, more importantly, to self-discovery.
This concept was particularly dear to Romantic authors. It is no coincidence that Lord Byron’s epic narrative (and autobiographical) poem about a melancholic young man who seeks distraction in foreign lands is named Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. This work inspired Hector Berlioz’s Harold en Italie Op. 16, a four-movement symphony with viola obbligato which draws loosely on Byron’s poem and the memories of Berlioz’s own peregrinations in Abruzzo. Quite appropriately, in the second movement, Berlioz has his protagonist join a band of pilgrims on their march:
Another quintessentially Romantic figure, Franz Liszt wrote his piano cycles Années de pèlerinage as a diary of his travels. The title refers to Goethe’s coming-of-age novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman – or Pilgrimage – Years), but a number of the pieces in Book I (Premiere annee: Suisse) are prefaced by extracts from (again!) Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
One of the pieces in Liszt’s collection – Le mal du pays (Homesickness) – is an important plot element in a recent bestselling novel by Haruki Murakami whose title also references Liszt. Unsurprisingly, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage describes a protagonist who sets out on a journey to come to terms with his past. Tsukuru is introduced to Liszt’s work through a recording by Lazar Berman (which actually exists and sold out soon after the novel was published):
Ralph Vaughan William’s lifelong quest
One of the major literary works inspired by the concept of a spiritual journey is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, sometimes referred to as the first English novel. It is the tale of a traveller called Christian, who sets off on an incident-laden journey from the City of Destuction to the Celestial City atop Mount Zion. This work fired the imagination of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams who, time and time again, turned to Bunyan’s Christian allegory for inspiration.
Indeed, Vaughan Williams’s involvement with Bunyan’s text can itself be seen as a lifelong pilgrimage, one that would reach its culmination in the 1951 premiere of his opera ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ at Covent Garden. In a prologue, four acts and an epilogue, The Pilgrim’s Progress was in many ways the summation of the composer’s oeuvre, combining the folk-inspired simplicity of his Pastoral Symphony, the ecstatic mysticism of the Tallis Fantasia and the more angular and dissonant world of the Fourth and Sixth symphonies. Vaughan Williams preferred to call his work a ‘morality’ rather than an opera but was equally adamant that it should be performed in an opera house and not in a church setting, possibly to distance it from established religion. Similarly, he renamed Christian ‘Pilgrim’, universalising the work’s message. Unfortunately, The Pilgrim’s Progress has not managed to enter standard operatic repertoire. Hubert Foss, who contributed an enthusiastic essay-length review about the ‘morality’ in Music 1952 (an annual then published by Penguin), describes the audience’s perplexed reaction to the work:
At the end curtain […] the audience hardly dared to applaud – a bewildered but deeply moved audience. Vaughan Williams had (it was palpable over three hours of presence) transformed the Covent Garden theatre into a place of worship; the audience knew it, and was blushfully ashamed about what should be their new behaviour. A lady told me, after a later performance, that she thought at the closing curtain that she had been at a Church service. Listeners who have talked to me have recounted their enthralment – some a little shame-facedly, as if it were not respectable thing to be absorbed in one’s one home by a new and unconventional operatic production.
It seems that modern audiences are no less confounded by the ‘morality’s’ strange mix of the sacred and profane, as was evidenced in reviews to ENO’s recent revival. This is a pity, as it is a work which meant much to the composer and contained some of the his best music.
The journey which led to the 1951 premiere had a number of stations along the way. In 1906, for his edition of the English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams had set the Bunyan text To be a Pilgrim or He who would Valiant be to the Sussex folk melody known as Monk’s Gate. He would turn to Bunyan again for the motet Valiant for Truth.
More substantial Bunyan-themed works were the incidental music Vaughan Williams wrote in 1909 for a dramatic performance of The Pilgrim’s Progress at Reigate Priory (later expanded for a 1942 BBC production) and the ‘pastoral episode’ The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, for six soloists, chorus and small orchestra, which would be incorporated largely unchanged as Act IV, Scene 2 of the opera. However, the work which is possibly closest to The Pilgrim’s Progress in spirit and inspiration is Vaughan Williams’s fifth symphony. Written between 1938 and 1943, it draws heavily on music which the composer had already written for his operatic project. The third-movement Romanza, which strikes me as the emotional core of the work, uses themes which eventually resurface in Act 1, Scene 2. The score was originally headed by a line which is sung by Pilgrim in the opera: ‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death’. The moving gravitas of the music seems worlds away from the self-declared ‘cheerful agnosticism’ of its composer.
The journey continues
Within the Catholic tradition, pilgrimage has never died out, with Marian destinations such as Lourdes and Fatima remaining particularly popular. However, past decades have seen a surprising resurgence of interest in the practice of pilgrimage in other quarters, and not just ‘religious’ ones. In an unexpected cultural shift, many young people – and not-so-young travellers as well – are rediscovering the Medieval routes and retracing them, in a bid to experience the spiritual fulfilment sought by early pilgrims. El Camino de Santiago was declared a European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in 1987 – the first in the Council’s history. From around a few thousand yearly visitors in the 1970s, the Camino now attracts a staggering quarter of a million pilgrims annually. In 1994, the Via Francigena was also designated a ‘Cultural Route’, with its status upped to ‘Major Cultural Route’ in 2004. In November 2009, on the initiative of the Region of Tuscany and with the cooperation of the Vatican’s Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, the Italian Government announced a project to revive the Italian leg of the via ‘not only in spiritual and religious terms but also in terms of the environment, architecture, culture, history, wine and cuisine and sport’.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the British Pilgrimage Trust seeks to promote ancient pilgrims’ routes such as St. Hilda’s Way. Its website takes pains to distance itself from any particular religion, advocating a vaguely new-agey ‘bring-your-own-faith’ attitude. Yet, the advantages of spiritual travel which it lists on its website, including ‘rediscovering your relationship with self and nature’, the blessing of ‘companionship […] kindness, friendship and hospitality’ and ‘experiencing birth to death in a walk’ are goals which would have sounded familiar to the earliest pilgrims. It doesn’t stop here. Last month the UK National Lottery announced a funding of £399,000 to develop the Fife Pilgrims Way, a 70-mile route that will travel from Culross and South Queensferry to St. Andrews. On Easter Sunday, the 900th Anniversary of death of St. Magnus (known to many music-lovers through the works of Peter Maxwell Davies), a new pilgrimage route in his honour was launched in Orkney amid calls to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to recognise the role of pilgrimage in spiritual life, thus reversing centuries of hostility towards the practice.
Given this refound enthusiasm for the practice of pilgrimage, it is hardly surprising to find Arvo Pärt – possibly the best-known living composer of sacred music – writing a ‘Pilgrim’s Prayer’. What might be more unexpected (especially to those who consider Pärt a mere purveyor of meditative pieces) are the dark, dense textures of his Ein Wallfahrtslied. A setting of Psalm 121, it suggests the world-weary tread of the People of the Way, as much as the solace they seek.
A different sort of journey is provided by Andrew Norman’s virtuosic work for string trio The Companion Guide to Rome, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music. It is inspired by the year spent by Norman in the Italian capital as a recipient of the Prix de Rome and it consists of an idiosyncratic itinerary of his nine favourite Roman churches. Admittedly, the work is closer in spirit to the secular Grand Tour than to a spiritual journey in the conventional sense. However, its arresting gestures and use of unconventional techniques effectively convey the sense of wide-eyed wonder evoked by the sacred spaces portrayed.
For me, the work which best represents the reawakening of interest in pilgrimage is Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles. Talbot composed this choral a cappella work in 2005 for the vocal ensemble Tenebrae Choir. Their critically acclaimed recording has just been reissued, coupled with Footsteps, a companion piece by the young choral composer Owain Park, newly commissioned as part of the ensemble’s fifteenth anniversary celebrations.
Path of Miracles is a representation of the journey to Compostela, each movement portraying a major ‘stop’ on the route from Roncesvalles to Santiago, via Burgos and Léon. Talbot resorts to a panoply of influences and vocal effects, from techniques borrowed from the Taiwanese Bunun people to Medieval chant, from dense clusters to haunting ostinatos mirroring the onward trudge of the pilgrims. The libretto by Robert Dickinson is similarly wide-ranging, using texts from the Psalms, Roman Catholic liturgy and the Codex Calixtinus sung in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Basque, French, English and German. Its intriguing combination of the familiar and the innovative, and the way it expresses the rich vein of Medieval tradition through a 21st century language, will certainly strike a chord with contemporary pilgrims who set off on ancient paths, seeking answers handed down from a common, half-remembered past.
Joseph Camilleri is an amateur organist and occasional chorister. He regularly writes articles and programme notes to accompany concerts, opera productions and CD recordings. He has presented radio programmes on classical music and for a number of years served on the Board of Directors of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. When not musically occupied, he can often be found reading books, generally of the ghostly type. He tweets at @joecam79.
Help Corymbus to become a long-term platform by pledging to its Patreon, and you'll get access to bonus content.
Sign up to the mailing list: