Normally, I write an analysis of one hymn each month, which focuses on the relation between the text and the music. Whilst thus pondering my choices for the month of December, it seemed fitting to study a Christmas hymn. There are plenty out there for sure, most of which would be well worth consideration, but given my rather long list of personal “favorites,” it seemed nigh impossible to choose only one to highlight this month. Until an idea struck me: Why not introduce a “new” Christmas hymn to my American readers, and others who might be less familiar with Irish music? There is nothing quite as exciting and delightful as discovering new music, after all.
To be fair, “Don Oíche Úd Í mBeithil” (or “That Night in Bethlehem”) is a traditional Irish carol, so it’s not really new. But seeing as it is not as well known here in the states, it will probably be “new” to a lot of people, unless you happen to listen to Celtic Woman, Altan, The Chieftains, Moya Brennan, or other Irish musicians.
This song has become one of my favorite Christmas carols, ever since I discovered it a few years ago. It is, in my opinion, one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies ever sung. No matter how many times I listen to it or sing it, it always manages somehow to fill me with wonder and awe. Here is the vocal line in its simplest form (like most traditional music, the melody notes and rhythm are embellished by the singer, so no two versions are exactly the same):
Add to that the lovely lilt of the Irish language, and it is hard to beat. Yes, this carol is entirely in Irish Gaelic. But never fear! I promise not to leave you in the dark. A translation will follow, but I first want to show the original text (because the Irish language is incredibly beautiful, in both its written and spoken forms):
Don Oíche Úd Í mBeithil
Don oíche úd i mBeithil
Beidh tagairt faoi ghrian go brach,
Don oíche úd i mBeithil
Go dtáinig an Briathar slán.
Tá gríosghrua ar spéartha,
‘S an talamh na chlúdach bán.
Féach Íosagán sa chléibhín,
‘S an Mhaighdean a dhúil le grá.
Ar leacain lom an tsléibhe
Go nglacann na haoiri scáth,
Nuair in oscailt gheal na spéire
Tá teachtaire Dé ar fáil.
“Céad glóir anois don Athair,
I bhFlaitheasa thuas go hard!
Is feasta fós ar talamh,
d’fheara, dea-mhéin, síocháin.”
There is an English version of this song, but some poetic freedom is taken of course, since the words have to fit into the rhythm and meter of the music (and are made to rhyme as well). Therefore, I would like to try to give a more exact translation (as well as this amateur is able) uninhibited by meter or rhyme, as I’m kind of a nerd about it.
Allow me to explain: I’m the type of person who, when listening to a song in a foreign language, must know the translation. It’s not even a question. I have to know what they’re actually saying. But I’m not satisfied with simply knowing what the translation is. I want to know why the words are translated that way and how each one works within the context to convey the idea. Like I said, nerdy.
Language is an extremely curious thing to me, and it so happens that Irish is my absolute favorite of all languages (in case you hadn’t figured that out yet) and I already study it to a small degree on my own. So, without further ado, here is my (mostly) literal translation:
[Note: words in parentheses are part of the Irish text, but wouldn’t necessarily be translated literally into English. I put them in, however, for the sake of interest. Words in brackets are implied by the context, but not actually present in the Irish text. Again, for the sake of interest.]
That night in Bethlehem
(Of) That night in (yonder) Bethlehem
Will be mentioned under the sun forever,
(Of) That night in (yonder) Bethlehem
[That] the Word safely came.
[A] glowing light is in [the] sky,
And the earth [under] a white covering.
See baby Jesus in the cradle,
And the virgin longing with love.
On the bare mountain side
The shepherds take shelter (lit. ‘take shade’ or ‘take protection’),
When in a bright opening [in] the sky
A messenger of God is there (lit. ‘available’).
“A hundred glories (now) to the Father,
in His kingdom high above!
And henceforth (yet) on earth,
To men, goodwill [and] peace.”
There you have it! Granted, literal translation doesn’t always work. Just look at the first verse: the Irish literally says the sky has “glowing cheeks” in line five. Normally, one doesn’t speak in English about the night sky having “glowing cheeks,” but the point nevertheless is that it is glowing with light. Even so, the above translation is more or less the exact meaning of the text.
Now on to the music!
First off, “Don Oíche Úd Í mBeithil” is written in natural minor, which is common in traditional and folk music, particularly Celtic music. The difference between this form of minor and the more common harmonic minor is easy to recognize, if you know what to listen for.
In the broad genre of “classical” music, harmonic minor is most common, so it tends to sound the most “normal” to westerners (despite it actually having originated most likely in India, as far as I know). Harmonic minor means simply that they took the eight-note scale of the minor key and raised the seventh note, creating a leading tone. Our ears love leading tones, because they create a “pull” towards the final note–called the tonic. This is the “home” note on which the song comes to rest. The scale itself begins and ends with the tonic (You can read more on keys and the importance of the tonic in my previous hymn study, here).
In music, tension almost always leads to resolution. Since the leading tone is only half a step away from the tonic, our ears can sense that closeness in the vibrations of the notes and desperately want the tonic to follow as a result, in order to resolve or “come to rest” after the pull created by the leading tone.
In the natural minor key, however, there is NO leading tone. The seventh note of the scale remains in its “natural” place, and isn’t raised to create that pull towards the tonic. The result is that the key becomes more vague, or difficult to distinguish. It might be minor, but then again, it could also be major, as they share the exact same notes. It all depends on what order of notes and what chords are given priority, as well as what note and chord the song ends on. That is why there are moments in natural minor when a song can sound like it’s switched to a major key, even though it hasn’t–because it’s missing that ever-important leading tone to point us to the correct final note.
If you’re curious to hear the difference between the two scales, you can watch this short video:
The two scales differ by only ONE note, yet the sounds are quite distinct. And whereas classical music most often makes use of the harmonic minor, in traditional/folk music, natural minor is more common (especially in Celtic music).
Why does Celtic music favor natural minor? I would guess because of its nature and tradition. You see, one of the most important factors to folk music is simplicity. Which makes sense, considering there was a time when such music was played and taught by ear, and almost never written down. So it is only natural (heh, pun intended) for the musicians of that time to prefer using scales with little to no alteration, because it’s easier to remember. Besides, the harmonic minor was developed later (as I mentioned already, it came all the way over from India), so of course older songs in the west tend to be in natural minor. I’m not an expert in the history of Celtic music, however, so keep in mind I am merely conjecturing here.
So we’ve established the key. But there is still more to consider–particularly, two elements which are common in traditional music, in keeping with its goal of simplicity. The first is the use of step-wise motion, meaning the musical line moves from one note to the next immediate note, without a whole lot of skipping around.
The other common element is repetition. You’ll notice one line or even one whole section that is repeated multiple times, because again, it’s easy to remember.
“Don Oíche Úd Í mBeithil” is a classic example of traditional music. Let’s take another look at the first line:
Notice how the notes move mostly by step, meaning from a line to a neighboring space or a space to a neighboring line. There are a few skips thrown in, but overall it’s kept simple and easy to sing/play. Now look again at the second line:
A-ha! Did you catch it? The second line is almost identical to the first. The only difference comes in at the very end of the line. There’s that repetition I was talking about, just in case you didn’t believe me. Not only is it a helpful memory aid, but it also adds a “catchy” factor to the song, because its melody is easily recalled. Lastly, I would point out that the second line ends on the tonic, giving a sense of finality for the first main section. The first line didn’t end on the tonic, so the listener can feel that need for continuation.
Suddenly, the third line soars high above the previous two, as in a glorious exclamation (“A hundred glories to the Father, in His kingdom high above!”). This is the part that gives me the chills every time:
So what does the last line do? Well, see for yourself:
Yep. There’s that first theme again. An exact copy of line two, thus bringing the song around full circle and leaving the listener in a place of resolution and peace.
That’s the secret to traditional music–and maybe the key to why it’s lasted the ages. It’s simple, repetitive, and easy to learn and remember. Yet the melody is beautiful, rich in emotion, and draws the listener in each time. It is inescapable.
I hope you enjoy this song as much as I do, and maybe you’ll add it to your Christmas playlist next year! To be honest, I sing this song year round, but that’s just me. 😉
For your delight, here are my two favorite performances of “Don Oíche Úd Í mBeithil.” In my opinion, Irish is the most “musical” language and thus most suited for singing. But I’m biased, I know.
Performed by The Celts with special guest Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh from the group Altan:
And, of course, Celtic Woman’s haunting version:
Thank you, and happy new year!