... it would probably sound like this, the musical recitation of the Psalms in Gaelic by Calvinist congregations on the remote Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. This is not a CD most lovers of Renaissance polyphony or Baroque opera will find artistically appealing. The voices range from vigorous to clamorous; aspects of classical vocal technique and ensemble are deliberately eschewed. As concert material, it doesn't compare at all to the polished chant of professional Corsican ensemble such as Barbara Furtuna - In Santa Pace - but it isn't intended for concertizing. The chant preceptors, Murdina MacDonald and Donald MacLeod, are highly trained and skilled in their specific musical genre. By far the most interesting (and listenable) track on the CD is the fifteen minute duet by Murdina and Effie MacDonald, reciting portions of Psalm 118, using a scarcely recognizable ballad melody called Coleshill.
This repertoire is a living fossil, a sort of musical coelocanth. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Calvinists in Great Britain stripped their churches of ornamentation and their music of self-conscious artistry. Congregations were encouraged to sing with or in place of their choirs. The aim was utter simplicity, intelligibility, and "enthusiasm." The Psalms were translated into ballad meter, to be sung one note per syllable. Historical sources suggest that no effort was made to ensure that everyone sang in the same key, as long as they shouted the words together. That was the format of religious music carried to New England, where it became eventually the basis of "shape-note" singing.
Since many members of Lowlands congregations were illiterate, Scottish Calvinists introduced the role of a preceptor, essentially a choir leader, who would sing out the text to be repeated by the others. When the Psalms were again translated in Gaelic for Highlanders and Hebrideans, problems appeared with the ballad meter, which was utterly foreign to Gaelic poetry and music. It's extremely difficult to pick out any regular meter, let alone ballad meter, in the singing you'll hear on this CD.
The compelling thing about this repertoire is its demonstration that evolution works upon music as much as with DNA. A style of singing that began by explicitly banishing polyphonic ornamentation has evolved, by the mechanism of isolation, into a kind of rudimentary polyphony. It's the same "island effect" that produced dwarf elephants and flightless geese, and it's also a prime example of "convergent" evolution, an independent discovery of polyphony not derived from other repertoires. Singers from the Isle of Lewis were chosen for this recording because, ironically, their style is more "ornamental" than the norm of congregational singing throughout Gaelic-speaking region of Scotland.