The death, on 14 March, of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music, will remind many lovers of music and poetry of the composer’s fruitful collaboration with George Mackay Brown, the poet and convert to the Catholic faith, who died twenty years ago, on 13 April, 1996.
Davies was inspired to write his opera, The Martyrdom of St Magnus (1976), after reading Brown’s novel, Magnus, based on the life of St Magnus Erlendssen, whose story had been originally told in the medieval Norse epic, the Orkneyinga Saga. For both men, the Orkneys were a recurrent source of inspiration. Brown, a native of the islands who seldom left their shores, drew on their rich history and ruggedly isolated terrain for much of his work, and Davies, after moving to the Orkneys in 1971, was similarly drawn to the spiritual terroir of Scotland’s mystic north, its Norse extremities. It was of little surprise, therefore, that Davies set several of Brown’s works to music.
Having been brought up in a lukewarm Presbyterian family, George Mackay Brown was received into the Catholic Church in 1961, shortly before his fortieth birthday.
Reflecting on the “anti-papist” bigotry that had surrounded him as a child, he recalled that “there was something sinister in the very word Catholic: all the words that clustered about it—rosary, pope, confession, relics, purgatory, monks, penance—had the same sinister connotations.” The process by which he overcame this prejudice is recounted in his semi-autobiographical story “The Tarn and the Rosary” (1974), especially in a letter written by Com Sinclair, a character in the story, explaining his reasons for taking the unthinkable step of becoming a Catholic:
What saves us is ceremony…. Ceremony makes everything bearable and beautiful for us. Transfigured by ceremony, the truths we could not otherwise endure come to us…. It is this saving ceremony that you call ‘idolatry’ and ‘mumbo-jumbo.’
This salvific “ceremony” was, of course, the Mass. Completing the letter, Colm walks to a nearby church to experience the beauty of the liturgy: “The celebrant entered…. Once again, for the thousandth time, Colm watched the ancient endless beautiful ceremony, the exchange of gifts between earth and heaven, dust and spirit, man and God. The transfigured Bread shone momentarily in the saffron fingers of the celebrant.”
Having been transformed and transfigured by the sheer beauty of the Mass, it might be said that Brown’s conversion was essentially aesthetic. And yet, as is illustrated in his multifarious works—verse, short stories, novels and essays—he was acutely aware that beauty points towards the good and the true, forming a transcendental trinity which reflects the Trinity itself.
In contrast to the beauty of the Mass, the Reformation casts a gloom-laden shadow over Brown’s poems and stories. In “Master Halcrow, Priest”, one of the stories in A Calendar of Love (1967), religious images are callously and iconoclastically destroyed and in his play, A Spell for Green Corn (1970), the Reformation is held responsible for its destruction of the old faith of the island folk and its replacement with a barren and lifeless puritanism: “The Word was imprisoned between black boards, and chained and padlocked, in the pulpit of the kirk …”
For Brown, the barrenness and bleakness of Calvinism led to the desert of modernity and its rootless “progress.” Against this lifeless wasteland stood Tradition, as enshrined within the Catholic Church. From as early as his mid-teens, long before his conversion, he had been “intrigued by the majesty and mystery” of Catholicism, by “the long history of the Church from the stark beginning, that incredibly endured through the changing centuries, always adapting itself; enriched by all that poetry and music, art and architecture, could give; and still apparently as strong as ever in our gray twentieth century.”
Against the majesty and mystery of the Faith stood the stark new religion of “Progress,” the destructive effects of which Brown lamented in An Orkney Tapestry (1969):
There is a new religion, Progress, in which we all devoutly believe, and it is concerned only with material things in the present and in a vague golden-handed future. It is a rootless utilitarian faith, without beauty or mystery…. The notion of progress is a cancer that makes an elemental community look better, and induces a false euphoria, while it drains the life out of it remorselessly.
Rejecting the illusion of “progress,” which he believed would be “choked at last in its own too much,” George Mackay Brown wrote works of rare beauty in which the rootedness of place is seen as the wellspring of true culture, and in which the soil and the soul are in mystical communion, the bread and the breath, shining forth the enduring glory of God in the midst of all that is mortal and mutable. Today, twenty years after his passing into the deeper mysteries of life to which his work always pointed, it would behoove us well to discover or rediscover this truly gifted writer.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Catholic Herald (Spring 2016) and is republished here with gracious permission.
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