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Music and Song

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Resources for pre-1600 Welsh Music

Question: What do we know about music in Wales before 1600? Tell me everything!

Answer: What I can do is point you to the available sources of information -- while the amount isn't vast, it's still too much to include here. What I'm covering here is "music" in the sense of tunes -- whether or not lyrics are attached -- rather than including the entire field of poetry and the complex issue of bards as a social class.

The best starting place, although it may not be easy to locate, is:

Williams has collected together early references to music in Wales, as well as meticulously tracking the earliest publications of Welsh (and Welsh-associated) tunes and references to those tunes. While this smallish book covers the entirety of pre-contemporary music in Wales, it covers the pre-1600 period fairly exhaustively for the time it was written. The later material is also useful because it catalogues the era of tune-collecting in Wales (and the habit of collectors to create their own, new lyrics for the tune, discarding the ones they heard as rough and unpolished!). This helps to put the current corpus of Welsh folk music into a better context with respect to the pre-1600 period. For our interest, Williams notes some pre-1600 references to tunes with Welsh associations, or those with Welsh references in the title. (This is in addition to including commentary by medieval writers such as Giraldus Cambrensis on Welsh music -- which are intriguing, but of little practical application.)

You can't talk about pre-modern Welsh music for more than five minutes without encountering mention of the Ap Huw manuscript. One edition of this work (with extensive editorial discussion, and one approach to transcribing the tunes in modern notation) is:

Since the time of this publication, there has been a major international conference on the manuscript and its interpretation and a number of other works discussing it (and often interpreting aspects differently) are available. Greg Lindahl has a web page set up with resources on this topic. If you're really ambitious, the original manuscript is also available in microfilm!

As a short introduction: the manuscript contains a discussion of the technique of playing the harp, with several dozen tunes written out (with variations) in a unique type of tablature. While the manuscript dates to the 17th century, it is based on an earlier work of the late 16th century and can reasonably be interpreted as reflecting 16th century practices. It is less clear that the musical style reflects medieval techniques (claims have been made, for example, that the material "dates to the 12th century"), although it does appear to be somewhat archaic and conservative in style. There are detailed explanations of various ornamentation techniques and of the relationship of musical structure to the tradiational "bardic" verse forms (which leads to the hypothesis that this music was intended as accompaniment to poetic recitation). The tunes themselves are, on the whole, not particularly "melodic" in the sense of having humable melody lines, but tend to be relatively short phrases repeated with multiple variations.

For a rather different take on the question "what music was being performed in pre-1600 Wales?", there is a surviving manuscript with the music and liturgy for a special mass for St. David's day, presented and discussed in:

Interpreting the music for performance would require some familiarity with the performance of medieval church music, but the Welsh character of the associated text is unmistakable. (The text itself is, of course, in Latin, but the association with St. David, as well as the provenence of the manuscript make it "Welsh".) Musically, it is a seamless part of the continuum of medieval ecclesiastical music -- which should come as little surprise.

Other possible sources of information that I've run across include:

Ellis, Osian. 1991. The Story of the Harp in Wales. University of Wales Press, Cardiff. ISBN 0-7083-1104-0

Crossley-Holland, Peter. 1942. "Secular Homophonic Music in Wales in the Middle Ages" in Music and Letters 23:135-162.

Williams, Ifor. 1937. "Cerddorion a cherddau yn Lleweni, Nadolig 1595" in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies: 08:8-10.

Wooldridge, H. E.. 1901. (Article on medieval Welsh music) in Oxford History of Music: Ox. UP 160-3, 318-.

Rees, Brinley. 1984. "Tair Cerdd a Thair Ton" in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies: 31:60-73.

Jones, T. Gwyn. 1922. "Cerdd Dant" in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 1/2:139-156.

Journal of the Welsh Folk Song Society

Travis, James. 1974. "Celtic Derivation of 'Somer is Icumen In'" in Lochlann: 6:128-135.

I have run across new articles on the topic of pre-modern Welsh music often enough that I am confident that there are more out there to be found -- although it's highly unlikely that there are any actual music manuscripts currently known that I haven't heard of. Reconstructing plausibly historic performances of Welsh music is a difficult task outside certain narrow parameters, and a task made more difficult when there is a desire for the music to be iconically "Welsh" in a way that distinguishes it from other historic music genres. The history of Welsh music is the history of a lively, vibrant musical culture that was secure enough of itself that it had no qualms about borrowing and trading with other musical cultures. Uniquely "Welsh" practices developed, flourished, and faded numerous times, and the aspects of the music that stamped it as Welsh at any given time-point may themselves have been taken from other cultures, just as the triple-strung harp -- now irrevokably established as a uniquely Welsh "folk" instrument -- was originally taken from an Italian development of the Baroque era intended for formal orchestral performance. What makes music "Welsh" in any era is its regular performance as an integrated part of Welsh culture -- not the titles of the tunes, or the lineal history of a particular work, or even necessarily a particular musical style. The St. David's Day Mass is "medieval Welsh music" because it was written and performed in the context of medieval Welsh society -- that the musical phrases themselves are identical to those used outside Wales and that the lyrics are in Latin do not negate this fact. If Elizabethan-era Welsh harpers were playing "Jenny Pluck Pears" and "Staines Morris" for their Welsh patrons, then in a very essential sense, we need to understand that "Jenny Pluck Pears" and "Staines Morris" were as much Welsh tunes at that time as they were English. The Playford dance tune "Chestnut" is the modern Welsh folk tune "Branwen" -- if usage has made it Welsh today, then surely usage also made tunes Welsh back then. And not all the borrowing was ever one-sided. There are theories (albeit not necessarily generally accepted) that the Welsh secular polyphony described in the 12th century by Giraldus Cambrensis contributed to the popularity of this style elsewhere in Europe. And chances are the tunes that were popular in both Wales and England were developed on both sides of the border.

Re-creating pre-1600 Welsh music is difficult enough without hobbling ourselves with modern notions of cultural distinctiveness. The above sources should help a great deal in reconstructing what Welsh people may have been performing for Welsh audiences, and that is Welsh enough for me.

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Storytelling and Music

Question: I'm looking for some information about the proper period (say about 1300) form of Welsh storytelling and music. As for the music, some specific examples to set a style would be good. Any references would be appreciated.

Answer: For storytelling, you've hit an ideal period. The majority of the Medieval Welsh literary tales that we have access to were written down around the 13th century. A few show evidence of having been composed/set-down earlier (e.g. "Culhwch and Olwen") and a few others are only available from significantly later manuscripts (e.g. the legend of Taliessin).

The main corpus of material that you want to be familiar with are the four "branches" of the Mabinogi, the four "native" tales, and the three Arthurian romances. There are several translations of these available and everyone has their own favorite among them.

But there are a number of other storytelling resources that should not be overlooked, simply because they are harder to find. Giraldus Cambrensis' writings about Wales from the late 12th century ("The Journey Through Wales/ The Description of Wales") include a number of short narratives that he heard and recorded on his travels. There are also a half-dozen or so Welsh-related stories in Walter Map's "Courtiers' Trifles". The Welsh chronicles -- specifically the "Brut y Tywysogion" -- contain a large number of descriptions of historical events that could be worked up into stories with little effort.

I'm afraid the musical situation is much more depressing. Fragments and snippits, hints and passing references, but very little in the way of concrete, usable resources before the late 16th century.

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Review: Two Worlds of the Welsh Harp -- review by Greg Lindahl (used with permission of the author)

For those of you interested in period Welsh harp music, the following CD is an extremely excellent rendition of some of the music in the ap Huw manuscript, which is the oldest known manuscript recording the Welsh harp tradition. This CD is great for not only showing that the Ap Huw stuff is quite playable (and much of it would make great music to sing a ballad to), but also it's an excellent example of how music has evolved between the 16th century and the 19th century. The "other world" is a set of 18th/19th century welsh harp manuscripts. If you play a few tracks of each for someone, and then play random tracks and ask which century the piece is from, most people will be able to hear the difference.

Taylor, William. Two Worlds of the Welsh Harp (CD). Dorian Recordings, 1999.

Includes Gosteg Dafyyd Athro, Y ddigan y droell, Kaniad y gwynn bibydd, Kaniad ystafell, Kaniad bach ar y gogower, and Kaingk Dafydd Broffwyd. The other material on the CD comes from the volumes of Edward Jones' Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards.

For more info on the ap Huw manuscript, click here.

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A 16th Century Welsh Christmas Play-list

Question: What kind of music did people play in period Wales? I've got some albums of Welsh folk music, and I figure it wouldn't have changed much, right?

Answer: If you look at the "ordinary everyday music" in cultures where we have lots of continuous records (for example, England, France, or Italy) you find that musical styles and forms change drastically over the centuries. It seems a bit silly to believe that in some cultures, the music stayed static and completely unchanging over the centuries -- just because our records of the music aren't as complete. Simply on logical principles, there's no reason to believe that Welsh (or Irish, or whatever) folk music has been completely fossilized for the last half millennium or so, when every culture for which we have complete evidence shows a different pattern.

Even apart from logical reasoning, if you look at the genres of music popular in modern folk-music styles, you can find types of tunes (e.g. hornpipes, jigs, waltzes) that are associated with particular widespread musical developments and can be dated, in a general way, by that means. So the question remains, if pre-1600 Welsh people weren't playing the same thing as 20th century Welsh folk musicians are, what were they playing?

The direct evidence isn't very plentiful. For one particular musical genre, for the late 16th/early 17th century, we have the Ap Huw harp manuscript, which appears to represent a somewhat formal and archaic "bardic" style of performance, perhaps meant to accompany recitations of poetry. (There are many opinions about the nature of this material -- don't go by mine alone.) But if, instead of looking for some sort of distinctive, characteristically "Welsh" musical style (which may be the wrong question), you ask, "What tunes were people in Wales playing?" then we can find a bit more evidence.

One very interesting document sheds light on this question. It's from the personal records of a late 16th century Welsh gentry family living at Lleweni, and records the names and repertoire of a number of harpers hired to perform during the Christmas season in 1595. (The document is transcribed and discussed in "Cerddorion a Cherddau yn Lleweni, Nadolig 1595" (Musicians and Songs in Lleweni, Christmas 1595) by Ifor Williams, in the Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, vol. 8:8-10.) The lists are introduced with:

Henwe y gwyr wrth gerdd a fu n lleweny wilie r natolic 1595

[Names of the men of music who were in Lleweni at the feasts of Christmas 1595]

Most of the men (and they're all men ... alas) have characteristically Welsh names, and have occupational bynames of a musical nature (telynor "harper", crwthor "crwth-player", prydydd "composer, poet":

The tunes have, for the most part, English names, and in many cases can be identified with known tunes. I've given the original name (as transcribed in my source) and then my interpretation of a modern English form, if I've got a reasonable guess.

The tune named "Seedanen" is one of the few with an identifiably Welsh name: Sidanen "the silken one" was a Welsh nickname for Elizabeth I.

It's somewhat chancy to identify tunes based on the title alone -- a title may be re-used for an entirely different tune, or the tune may have changed over time by the point when it is recorded. But when a tune of the same name is recorded at nearly the same date, then assuming a connection is a reasonable way to bet.

Playford (in the 1650, 1651 editions) includes:

Fitzwilliam Virginals Book

Shakespeare mentions:

Other identifications:

A diligent search of other collections of Elizabethan-era music may turn up further identifications, but it wouldn't necessarily be expected that all the tunes listed here would happen to have survived in notation.

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Words and Music

Question: Are there any pre-1600 Welsh songs for which we know both the words and music?

Answer: So far, I've only found one item that qualifies -- although I have hopes of the existence of others. The song is called Can y Gwanwyn "Song of the Springtime" and was written by Edmwnd Prys (1544-1623, but I haven't identified a specific date for the composition yet). He indicates that the verses are to be sung to the tune About the Banks of Helicon, a popular piece named after its use in a Greek-themed masque, and commonly borrowed for other lyrics. When I tried to put the two together, I found that a certain amount of metrical tweaking was necessary. There are places where the natural musical stress and the natural poetic stress don't seem to agree well. While the lyrics show many of the traditional techniques of formal Welsh poetry -- especially the prolific use of cynghanedd (repetition of the same sequence of consonants) and cross-rhyme (rhyming the end of one line with the middle of the next), the lyrics as a whole don't follow any of the classical verse forms, rather they follow the metrical structure already established for the tune in other sets of lyrics. The overall sense of the lyrics is very much in the romantic pastorale mode popular among English poets as well -- including Classical allusions, rather than following the conventions of "bardic" poetry.

The lyrics are given in The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse (the one with poetry in Welsh, not in English translation), but to my ear there are some faults in the lyrics as published there. I've introduced a few editorial changes of my own in the version given here to make the sense and the meter more consistent. (Overall, the meter is extremely consistent, once it establishes a form, so I think I am correct in interpreting faults in that meter as introduced errors.)

Can y Gwanwyn - Edmwnd Prys

Llef a roeson' llafar weision,
Ddoe a glywson' dan wydd gleision,
Glwysaidd ac eglwysaidd,
Teiroes i'r penceirddiaid tirion,
Llinos o'r llwyn, eos wirion,
Dwysaidd baradwysaidd.
Bronfraith bur araith berwalch,
Mwyalchen mwy'i awydd,
Ysgudogyll drythyll dro
Yn rhwydo llais yr hedydd
Yn canu
Yn tannu
Cymaint o awenydd
Cyn hoywed
Cyn groywed
Acen gywir awydd

Llwyn nid pell nodau heb ballu,
Llwyn Ebrillaidd llawn briallu,
Lle gwawd a llygad dydd,
Glyn a meillion glan am allu,
A gwyrdd ddillad gwir ddiwallu
Yn llenwi lawenydd.
A'r blodau ar drwynau'r drain
A'r fedwen fain a'r glasddail,
Gwiw yw'r ffynnon, glan yw'r man
Mae'n codi dan y gwiail;
Y croywddwr
Y gloywddwr
Lle teg lwyddiant,
Lle'i gysgu
Lle'i ddysgu
Holl glymau o ddesgant.

Mynnwn bob mwynder i'm hanned,
Mynnwn ganu Mwynen Gwynedd,
'Sgywair musig hoyw,
A'r Wyddeles Eurwydd enwir,
Ychen Fannog, crechwen feinir,
Mewn plas coed glas gloyw,
Canu'n llafar llawenhaf
A"r adar yn gyfrodedd,
Canu'n hylwydd gainc yr Arglwydd,
Eurglych clod a mawredd; [?sp? "eurgylch?]
Rhyw bynciau newidiog,
Tro lleisiau
Llysoedd tra lluosog

Aml yw cadair amlwg goedydd,
Aml yw colofn ddofn o defnydd,
Aml gwlwm mawl golau,
Lle aml osteg llawn melystant,
Aml eddigan mawl a ddygant
Y deiliaid y dolau.
Pob aderyn yn ei lais,
Pob pren a'i bais yn laswerdd
Pob llyslewyn yn ei rin,
Pob edn a'i fin yn bencerdd,
Nid clwyfus
Ond nwyfus
Rhyw bynciadau nefol,
Nid trwblus
Ond terblus
Fenws biau'r faenol.

Da i ddynion eu diddanwch,
Da i forwyn ei difyrrwch,
Dywsul da i weision,
Teg yw hyn, nid dig i henaint
Teg i ifanc, nid digofaint,
Glaswydd dolau gleision,
Teg y trefnodd Gwirdduw Dad
A'i rodd a'i rad mor hynod,
Teg pob osle, teg pob tro
Trwy na bo [di]m o'r pechod
A'r ddaear
Mor glaear
Yn gynnar a'r gwenith,
A'r llwyndir
Mor fwyndir
Lle rhoddir mawr fendith.

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