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Taliesin as a Repository of Knowledge in Paul Sanchez’ Magus

Updated: Jun 27

To the Celtic enthusiast today, the ‘Taliesin Tradition’ is still very much a living one, as it can offer a practical method to reconstructing what may be the original shamanic and Bardic mystery teachings of Medieval Britain and Ireland. This tradition refers to the writings of both the historical Taliesin – a 6th century bard who is believed to have sung at the courts of at least three Brythonic Kings – and also the mythical Taliesin – a representative figure of these mystery teachings to which a much later tradition of stories, poems, and lore came to be attributed.  Surviving primary sources containing references either to Taliesin or writings of Taliesin were transmitted by scribes and collectors who may have not have entirely understood what they were transmitting, and whose versions of the material may reflect their own political, ecclesiastical, or literary interests. Nonetheless, the texts refer to body of Bardic traditions that have remained more or less constant over the centuries. The references and stories contained in those Taliesin inspired works more than likely contained references to genuine Bardic traditions, and since the various identities and images of a poet can survive as long as their cultural inheritance allows, it would be too dismissive to simply declare all of Taliesin’s works as fictional. Instead, the figure of Taliesin can offer the musical poet of today a repository of knowledge with which to explore his inner-self in order gain a mastery over the ever-changing harsh realities of the modern world.

The total knowledge that Taliesin acquires after he absorbs the wisdom of the Cauldron by placing his burned thumb in his mouth, is one story of many containing references to divination, prophecies, and the magic of song that would have been familiar to the world of the shaman and can yield attractive advantages in setting Taliesin’s poems to music. Perhaps the musical poet could also acquire this thumb of wisdom, thus also giving him access to a total body of knowledge, or connect him  with the body of knowledge with which he would like to have. During times of personal crisis, we, too, would perhaps yearn for the ability to prophesy all things that once were as well as things that will be, if only for a moment, in order to provide a sense of comfort regarding the unexpected events that will occur in our future.

Sanchez’s cycle, Magus, presents settings of six Taliesin texts – five of which are heavily amended to suit the strategic narrative of the cycle and present a poetic speaker who is summoning a body of total knowledge to aid him in dealing with feelings of confusion and darkness. Sanchez’s chosen texts for this cycle seem to indicate that he resonates with the acknowledgment of the world’s mutability and a sense of loss and of regret, along with a spirit of hope and of childlike wonder at the world and its mysteries. ‘Awen,’ (inspiration) which lay at the heart of Taliesin’s world and enabled him to have access to a hidden knowledge, may also be present in the ordering of the settings contained in Magus: over the course of the cycle the speaker seems to understand that total predictive knowledge is needed in order to survive in a world of unpredictability.

The ‘I have beens’ in Sanchez’s amended setting of The Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu), which is itself essentially a miscellany of poems, are depicted here musically with short chant-like fragmented phrases in the vocal line, while the piano enhances these authoritative boasts by containing a stable, yet haunting D minor tonality throughout the majority of the setting.  Perhaps the reflective passage in the piano from bars 28-40 gives the listener a chance to internalize these ‘I have beens’ as key to understanding Taliesin’s shapeshifting abilities, in that they might suggest that the musical poet is calling upon Taliesin’s vast store of knowledge to perform the kind of healing function needed to cope with the world. The degree of intimacy and even mastery that the shaman poet had over the elemental world can be seen with phrases such as ‘I have been a tear in the air,’ and ‘In water, in foam,’ the latter of which is depicted with a rapid figuration in the piano part that seemingly oscillates between a D minor and D major tonality with the use of F# and Bb. Particularly remarkable about Taliesin’s opening claims is the idea that it has taken well over a millennium for modern science to bolster the truth of his boasts, particularly in the sense that we are made from stardust, leaving us to wonder how literal or poetic the poem is meant to be read. Whether the miscellany of poems refer to the famous Goddeu Brig or to a kenning account of how the Ogham letters could have been used to generate multi-layered meanings, Sanchez’s textual version along with its introductory position within the cycle accentuate how the semi-mythical bard can teach, predict, and prophesize a kind of inner-knowledge to the speaker of the poem, an inner-knowledge that may even address the mysterious nature of poetry itself. Furthermore, tree lore as ancient school of knowledge resonates largely with our spiritual, psychological, and symbolic imaginations today. During the last descending line in the piano at bar 58, Sanchez allows us to reflect upon the tree as a place of spiritual pilgrimage, as it reminds us that even when we believe we have acquired a mastery of our environment, an instance of severe loss can make one feel that life is  meaningless and his knowledge useless, and the only cure to find meaning again would be to consult the inner-knowledge provided by one of nature’s most important actors – the tree.   

The invisibility of wind makes it a perfectly suitable subject for an extended riddle, and in Sanchez’s setting of Song to the Wind (Kanu y Gwynt), he creates a kind of strategic tentativeness from the beginning by casting the text against a one-bar descending line that expands intervallically over the course of the opening section. In the second section of the poem beginning in bar 31, the speaker designates himself as an astrologer by claiming to have knowledge concerning the properties of the seven planets. In The Fold of the Bards (Buarth Beird), the speaker – most likely Taliesin himself – adds to his arsenal of knowledge by declaring what he has become, indicated by a shift to the present tense in the text. The fragmented chant-like phrases return, but Sanchez employs more harmonic movement in the piano part, resensitizing our ears for the unexpected, pivotal moment of the F major arrival (bVI) on ‘serpent.’ This moment suggests that while the speaker may be acquiring knowledge of the regenerative properties associated with serpent wisdom, the offset text and delayed resolution in the piano remind us that the serpent is not to be trusted.

The haunting nature of the subject matter in The Prediction of Kadwaladr (Darogan Katwaladr) – the only textual setting that has not been abridged –  is portrayed musically with steady repeated octaves in the piano while the primary motive characterizing the work, which occurs in the right hand, consists of a descending scalar fragment emphasizing the minor 2nd interval. The abruptness of the contrapuntal section against the carried-over C minor in the bass beginning in bar 21 masterfully portrays a kind of façade of whom the poetic speaker describes: in a sense, this contrast of texture in this passage may indicate the irony of one who claims to invigorate morals, when in fact they are corrupt and shallow. The textual intensification resulting from the speaker’s realization of loss is heightened by the shift towards Ab minor. This anticipates the climax of the setting in bar 44, which features a harmonically unstable deployment of the primary motive while the speaker of the poem seemingly innocently asks, “Did you see my friend playing with my spouse?” In the Book of Taliesin, the poem mysteriously breaks off at the last line, and Sanchez depicts this ending by a brief entrance of the initial descending motive in A major, only to be overtaken by a return to C minor in the last bar. It is in this moment within the narrative of the work that the speaker knows he must gain an inner wisdom if he is to cope with the severity of this tragedy. In the Juvenile Ornaments of Taliesin (Mabgyfreu Taliesin) the implicative I 6/4 harmony in the F minor harmonic environment arouses feelings of curiosity when Taliesin reminds us that death takes everyone, encouraging us to perhaps examine what we truly know about ourselves. We can take comfort in knowing that the older in age we become, the more knowledge by experience we have, and it is this premise that gives us the opportunity to realize that sometimes even the most profound questions can be answered by returning to the naïveté of youth.

In Sanchez’s setting of the The Hostile Confederacy (Angar Kyfundawt), the speaker’s boasts of knowledge appear in a question format, one in which he poses questions that only he alone knows the answers, conveying the impression that Taliesin’s knowledge has no limits. Celtic scholar John Matthews has argued that the rather nonsensical questions and statements posed throughout the text is Taliesin’s way of teaching by example: he may intend to provoke the reader to arrive at more profound answers to seemingly innocent questions. Perhaps it is only then that we will have acquired some of the poem’s innermost meanings, allowing the listener to have a truly meaningful aural experience.  It seems that Sanchez has used the inner guidance provided by Taliesin’s writings in order to arrive at the following comforting, yet profound realization in regards to how ethical individuals can cope with undeserved life circumstances: we must learn from what we face and remember, and it is nature – a kind of force that knows no betrayal, that breathed child-like wonder in our youth, and that is destined to hold our bodies once we are gone – that provides the last word for us.  Sanchez depicts this musically throughout the work with the eerie vocal dissonances that hover over the G and D minor tonal centers in the piano part. In the last line, “What is the imagination of trees,” he recapitulates the D major musical fragment containing the flat sixth from The Battle of the Trees, as if to leave the listener curious as to whether the speaker has achieved comfort upon accessing the Taliesin’s guidebook.

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