The Book Of Secrets
Loreena’s sixth studio album and a worldwide chart success, featuring hit single “The Mummers’ Dance”. Recorded at Real World studios with a stellar musical cast.

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(English/French version only)

“A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s words are a good introduction to the third album in a trilogy of musical travel documents that began with The Visit. Recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in England, The Book Of Secrets was written and researched all over the world, and, following its release in 1997, would go on to sell several million copies around the globe.

The album features a cast of over two dozen musical collaborators, and the eight songs contained therein, including North American hit single “The Mummers’ Dance”, leads the listener on unexpected journeys. Follow the music from ancient Byzantium to a puppet-maker’s theatre in Sicily, or from the rocky island of Skellig Michael once inhabited by Irish monks in the Dark Ages to Venice and the journeys of Marco Polo, or from the tragic narrative of “ The Highwayman” to the thunder of hooves across the Caucasus and the echoes of Dante’s words found, unexpectedly, in a train journey across Siberia.

Over a number of years spent ruminating on the distinctive characteristics of the Celts, I began to wonder if their legendarily nomadic ways arose from an inner need. An involuntary response, rather than a pragmatic one; a restlessness that had its roots in an insatiable curiosity. I suspect it was my growing awareness of my own wanderlust and curiosity that made me aware of the real sense of connection I felt to the Celtic lineage, as part of that New World extension of a people who ranged so astonishingly far and wide. And the more I learned of pan-Celtic culture and its unexpected turns and twists, the more I was drawn to learn about the Celts’ contemporaries, which in turn set me off on tangents which might have little or no connection to the Celts themselves.

In casting your inspirational net as an artist, you become familiar with the humility that comes with watching your best-laid plans veer sideways, and recordings becoming something other than what you expected. So, you set out to travel to Rome . . . and end up in Istanbul. You set off for Japan. . . and you end up on a train across Siberia. The journey, not the destination, becomes a source of wonder.

In the end, I wonder if one of the most important steps on our journey is the one in which we throw away the map. In jettisoning the grids and brambles of our own preconceptions, perhaps we are better able to find the real secrets of each place; to remember that we are all extensions of our collective history.

These songs have been assembled like a mosaic, with pieces collected and fitted in one by one. They are also the souvenirs that come of sifting through shards of history and scraping away layers to reveal the fragile past, as I saw in Italy at an archaeological site at Chianciano Terme where ancient Roman layers reveal even more ancient Etruscan layers, or at the burial site of a mysterious Celtic chieftain in Orvieto.

My hope was that this recording might fuel curiosity in the same way as do the best books of travel stories. From all journeys, be they imaginative or geographic, the most important souvenirs to be collected are the reminders that people’s lives are fortified by family and friends; by our ability to create our lives like creating a piece of art; and by our efforts to reconcile our material needs with the importance of our connections to each other.” – Loreena McKennitt


Loreena’s notes on the songs of The Book Of Secrets:


October 1995, Athens: On a trip to the Greek capital, I find that during the course of interviews with local journalists, certain themes arise again and again: people’s spiritual needs, and the time and space needed to nurture that process…One writer mentions a monastery at Mount Athos: a place of reflection but alas, for men only…

July 6, 1996, Istanbul: One of the organisers of the Istanbul Jazz Festival reminds me that a certain section of the city can be traced back to Celtic roots… In tracing the mosaic of history, I am eager to learn of the influences that come from this place.

April 1997, London: I have begun reading From The Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple. The book, which pursues traces of early Christian life in the Middle East, is the account of his journey following in the footsteps of two monks who set off for Byzantium from the monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos in 587 AD. One of those monks, John Moschos, wrote about his arduous travels in a book called The Spiritual Meadow.

Dalrymple’s book highlights striking similarities between archetypally Celtic illuminated manuscripts such as The Book Of Durrow and The Book Of Kells, and earlier Byzantine works, and suggests that these influences may have been transported via the monastic migration from east to west in the early centuries after Christ.

The Mummers’ Dance

January 1, 1985, Stratford: I have just read an account of a mumming troupe which boarded a Polish ship stranded in the harbour in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on New Year’s Eve, to entertain the sailors. According to James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough, mumming has its roots in the tree-worshipping of the peoples who inhabited great regions of a forested Europe now long gone.

Mumming usually involves a group of performers dressing up in masks (sometimes of straw) and clothes bedecked with ribbons or rags, and setting out on a procession to neighbouring homes singing songs and carrying branches of greenery. It’s primarily associated with springtime and fertility, and it has a cast of stock characters, like the Fool, which recurs in some form or another from Morris dancing to the shadow puppet plays of Turkey and Greece and even the morality plays of the Middle Ages.

September 1995, Palermo, Sicily: Friends have brought me to see one of the last of a long line of puppet-makers by the name of Cuticchio. We were treated to a delightful private performance of the story of Charlemagne in a puppet theatre across the narrow street from the puppet-maker’s workshop.

October 31, 1996, Inishmore: A friend has told me of an unusual version of Hallowe’en that takes place on the island of Inishmore, off the west coast of Ireland. As no one speaks at all, “mum” is definitely the word. Characters wander into the local pub, have a pint and sometimes a dance, but these everyday activites are made surreal by the power of their silence. Outside, the roar of the Atlantic provides a suitably dramatic backdrop.

December 4, 1996, Real World Studios, Wiltshire, England: I’ve incorporated the chorus of a traditional mumming song into “The Mummers’ Dance.” The lines, rich with references to spring, come from a song traditionally sung in Abingdon in Oxfordshire.

May 1, 1997, Padstow, Cornwall: As with many time-honoured events, Padstow’s May Day festivities begin the night before. It’s not surprising to find a celebration like this in one of the most historically Celtic corners of England; it begins with a ritual carol, sung a capella, rich with references to springtime and St. George. May Day morning’s rendition of the song adds a full complement of accordions and drums which accompany a procession led by the “obby oss,” a “horse” figure costumed in a large hooped skirting and an almost African-looking mask.

May 15, 1997, London: Through a series of coincidences I refer back to Idries Shah’s book The Sufis and am fascinated to read about a particular Sufi ritual associated with St. George which incorporates a hobby horse.


September 13, 1995, Tuscany: I have been reading Thomas Cahill’s book How The Irish Saved Civilization, with its lively account of Irish monks in the so-called Dark Ages. Monasteries were often founded in harsh, remote outposts like the Skellig Islands off Ireland’s west coast. Monks occupied themselves with the copying of religious, literary and philosophical texts. Surviving manuscripts tell us much about the cultural identity and even individual characters of their creators via both the books’ beautiful ornamentation, and in the margins, the scribes’ own notations of a whimsical, personal or even racy nature.

September 20, 1995, Italy: “They change their sky but not their soul who cross the ocean.” I set out for Bobbio in Emilia-Romagna, which Cahill says was the first Irish monastery to be established in Italy when renegade Irish monks were banished to the continent. How strange it was to view these very early Irish times in the museum at Bobbio and see the name of Saint Columbanus.

If one were to search for a place that was as severely isolated in the mountains as the Skellig Islands are in the Irish Sea, this region of northern Italy would be it. What is the part that isolation plays in encouraging some to reach closer to the essence of God?

September 1996, Dublin: With these ruminations fresh in my mind, I find myself returning to Trinity College for yet another look at the beautifully illustrated Book Of Kells on display there.

Marco Polo

November 3, 1991, Venice: This first trip to Venice has been fascinating, not only because of the extraordinary exhibition of Celtic artefacts I have just seen, but because walking through the city itself has heightened my awareness of just how important Venice was as a crossroads between cultures. At every turn, the East is reflected in architectural detail, such as the Byzantine archways Ruskin mentions in The Stones Of Venice. Threads of history reverberate around me, including the story of Marco Polo, the thirteenth century merchant-adventurer who claimed to have travelled all the way to China. Some historians now suggest that Polo’s account, his “book of secrets” about the East, may have been cobbled together from many sources, growing gradually in the telling over the centuries.

March 1997, Real World Studios: At the beginning and middle of this piece, I have interwoven an authentic Sufi melody that I first heard performed by a group called Ensemble Oni Wytars.

The Highwayman

July 1993, Stratford: Some friends have offered the suggestion that I set Alfred Noyes’ poem “The Highwayman” to music. This dramatic, tragic narrative, rich with the imagery of 18th century rural England, could be fun to work on at Real World, where the surrounding landscape seems to exude that very atmosphere.

April 1996, Real World Studios: I come across a local tourist map which confirms that there was indeed a highwayman in the area a mere two hundred years ago! It’s easy to imagine the sound of horses galloping down a moonlit lane, or on the ridge visible from the studio.

La Serenissima

November 3, 1991, Venice: For a thousand years, the “most serene” and most glittering city of the Adriatic. This is a wonderfully quiet time of the year to explore the city. I walked down the narrow inner streets and canal edges, damp with mist; an unworldly blend of sight and sound. I passed through the city’s ancient Jewish quarter, whose walls hint at a darker side to Venice’s past.

July 1995, Stratford: I have just come across an amazing account of Venice in Jan Morris’ book of the same name. She describes, in delicious detail, the occasion of the young Henry III of France’s visit to the city in 1574. Upon his arrival, he was dazzled by an extraordinary pageant arranged in his honour: barges decorated with triumphal arches; rafts peopled by glass-blowers who created figurines as they floated past; paintings commissioned from masters of the era.

Night Ride Across the Caucasus

“Once you have tasted the secrets, you will have a strong desire to understand them.”

September 1995, Tuscany: I have been studying William Eamon’s book Science And The Secrets Of Nature, whose look at the history of science touches on how the mysteries of nature gradually became explainable. The book examines how knowledge was manipulated and withheld for the personal advantage of a few, and I am struck by thesimilarities of the dilemmas facing our present age.

February 24, 1997, Real World Studios: The news today is that science has successfully cloned a sheep called Dolly. There is much debate about the ethics associated with this development, and who (if anyone) should have this knowledge. Some are comparing its significance to that of the development of nuclear weapons.

September 1995, Tuscany: I read that certain Sufi works held that the task of alchemy was not necessarily to turn base metals into gold, but to make the elixir, a perfectly harmonious substance in which all elements are in balance.

In the science of balance, the key to alchemy provided a method by which one might discover the relationship that exists in every body between the manifest and the hidden. Eamon writes, “An intricate and inexhaustible series of hidden affinities and resemblances, nature hid itself within layer upon layer… The purely exoteric sciences were merely vehicles, so to speak, that carry the esoteric meanings hidden within them.”

October 1996, Cecil Sharpe House, London: Studying Middle Eastern music, I come across these words from ninth century philosopher Abu Sulaiman al-Davani: “Music and singing do not produce in the heart that which is not in it.”

Other near contemporaries suggested: “Those who are affected by music can be divided into two classes: those who hear the spiritual meaning, and those who hear the material sound. There are good and evil results in each case.”

“Listening causes me to find the existence of truth behind the veil.”

February 1996, Stratford: I have just finished reading Murat Yagan’s autobiography, I Come From Behind Kaf Mountain, which touches on his initiation to the Sufi path via equestrian training. As in the Celtic culture, horses figure prominently amongst his people, the Abkhazians.

April 2, 1996, Real World Studios: I have just received an invitation to perform at the Istanbul Jazz Festival in July. It will be my first visit to the city which was a meeting point of West and East for so many centuries and, as it is figuring more and more prominently in my thoughts of late, I cannot resist the invitation.

Dante’s Prayer

December 17, 1995, Trans-Siberian Railway: It is now Day 5 on this train journey across wintry Siberia. Travelling alone, it is strange not to be able to have a conversation with anyone, but one learns how much can be conveyed through actions, body language, a look in the eye… I saw some men on the platform today and one resembled my father. He had reddish hair and a long, very Celtic-looking face I would have expected to see in Ireland, not Russia… I am reminded again of the Celtic exhibition in Venice and the suggestion that the Celts may have originated in the Russian steppes. Perhaps the love of horses which began there is the very same that can be seen in County Kildare today.

December 18, 1995, Trans-Siberian Railway: Dante’s The Divine Comedy keeps running through my mind as I gaze out at the landscape passing before me, thinking of the people who inhabit it and how they share this human condition… Are we helping or hurting each other?… How has the West come to this place of transition? Honourably? What are we bringing them? What are their expectations? Are our lives really what they imagine? We always want to believe there is a place better than our own…


Produced by Loreena McKennitt
Assistants to the producer: Brian Hughes and Donald Quan

L.M.: vocals, piano, keyboards, harp, kanoun, accordion
Anne Bourne: cello (“La Serenissima”)
Aidan Brennan: Acoustic guitar, mandola (“Skellig”, “Marco Polo”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)
Martin Brown: Acoustic guitar, mandolin, mandola (“The Highwayman”)
Stuart Bruce: Assembled drone, vocal drone (“Prologue”, “Marco Polo”)
Paul Clarvis: Snare drum (“The Highwayman”)
Steafan Hannigan: Bodhran (“The Highwayman”)
Nick Hayley: Serangi, rebec, lira da braccio (“Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)
Brian Hughes: oud, electric and acoustic guitar, bouzouki, guitar synthesizer, classical guitar, vocal drone (“Prologue”, “The Mummers’ Dance”, “Skellig”, “Marco Polo”, “The Highwayman”, “La Serenissima”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)
Robin Jeffery: Victorian guitar (“La Serenissima”)
Martin Jenkins: Mandocello (“Skellig”, “Marco Polo”, “The Highwayman”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)
Manu Katché: Drums (“Prologue”, “The Mummers’ Dance”, “Marco Polo”, “Night Ride Across The Causasus”)
Caroline Lavelle: Cello (“The Mummers’ Dance”, “The Highwayman”, “Dante’s Prayer”)
Rick Lazar: Percussion (“Prologue”, “The Mummers’ Dance”, “Marco Polo”, “The Highwayman”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)
Joanna Levine: Viola da gamba (“Skellig”, “La Serenissima”)
Hugh Marsh: Violin (“The Mummers’ Dance”, “Skellig”, “Marco Polo”, “The Highwayman”, “La Serenissima”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”, “Dante’s Prayer”)
Osama: Violin (“Marco Polo”)
Steve Pigott: Keyboards (“Skellig”, “Dante’s Prayer”)
Donald Quan: Tabla, timba, esraj, viola, keyboards, vocal drone (“Prologue”, “The Mummers’ Dance”, “Skellig”, “Marco Polo”, “The Highwayman”, “La Serenissima”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”, “Dante’s Prayer”)
Hossam Ramzy: Percussion (“The Mummers’ Dance”, “Marco Polo”, “The Highwayman”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)
David Rhodes: Electric guitar (“Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)
Danny Thompson: Acoustic bass (“The Mummers’ Dance”, “Skellig”, “Marco Polo”, “The Highwayman”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”, “Dante’s Prayer”)
Bob White: Tin whistle (“Skellig”)
Caroline Dale: String arrangements (“Skellig”, “La Serenissima”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)

String quartet:
Jonathan Rees: First violin (“Skellig”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)
Iain King: Second violin (“Skellig”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)
Andy Brown: Viola (“Skellig”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)
Chris Van Kampen: Cello (“Skellig”, “Night Ride Across The Caucasus”)
Brian Gascoigne: Additional string arrangements
Doug Riley: Additional string arrangements

The Book of Secrets features a cast of over two dozen musical collaborators, and the eight songs contained therein, including North American hit single “The Mummers’ Dance”, leads the listener on unexpected journeys.

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