minstrel: Welsh Songs

Heather Rose Jones hrjones at uclink.berkeley.edu
Mon Oct 27 18:24:46 PST 1997


On Mon, 27 Oct 1997, JANET MICHELE RHEW wrote:

> Hello all!
> 	I've been lurking on the list for quite a while now and have decided
> to come out of hiding to ask a question. I am trying to find Welsh songs 
> within period that have at least a little documentation. If anyone has any
> idea where I could find these or would be willing to send copies of these to
> me, I would greatly appreciate it.

I've been researching this topic for many years now and have met with
little other than frustration.

To summarize a complex train of logic (which I will expand, if you like)
it is extremely probable (to the point of near certainty) that many of the
period Welsh poems that we have surviving were (or could be) sung. We have
scads of references to Welsh people singing in period (including the
reference by Giraldus Cambrensis to impromptu multi-voice harmonies). But
when the question comes down to "what tunes were the lyrics sung to", you
hit a brick wall. For the most part, people in period Wales just weren't
writing music down. (You have to wait for the 18th century for that --
that period saw an absolute explosion of collections of "Welsh traditional
tunes". But if you compare, for example, the English folk music recorded
in the 18th century with the English song tunes recorded in period, you
realize that the connections between the two periods are tenuous and very
tricky to interpret.)

Here is the sum total of period Welsh-associated tunes I have discovered:

There is a 14th century "service for St. David's Day" that has survived,
with music accompanying the (Latin) lyrics. Because of the manuscripts
provenance and the saint in question, it would be perfectly reasonable to
consider this "Welsh music", however, in style, it is indistinguishable
from comtemporary church music elsewhere in western Europe. ("Matins,
Lauds and Vespers for St. David's Day" ed. by Owain Tudor Edwards.
Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990.)

The best known period Welsh music manuscript is the "ap Huw" harp book.
Although the surviving copy dates from the early 17th century, internal
evidence makes a clear case that the original dates to the late 16th. The
book is a tutorial for harp music (including discussions on ornamentation)
and includes a large number of "measures" and tunes. The music does not
strike the modern ear as "melodic" being more a long the line of chord
progressions with variable realization -- often along the lines of a
"theme and variations". Given certain similarities of descriptive language
between this book and period Welsh poetry manuals (particularly the
reference to "24 standard measures/meters") some have speculated that the
tunes recorded here were used as a "ground" against which poetry was
either recited or sung (but likely with an unrelated melody). While the
musical interpretation of the notation has been fairly well worked out (in
spite of the author's unique notatation system), the relationship between
this music and vocal performance is not at all clear. ("The ap Huw
Manuscript" Claire Polin. The Institute for Mediaeval Music, Ltd.,
Henryville, 1982.)

The only case I have yet found where we have period Welsh lyrics _and_
know the precise tune they were sung to is a poem called "Can y Gwanwyn"
(Song of the Spring) by Edmwnd Prys (1544-1623 actually since I don't know
the composition date of the song, it's possible that it's post 1600, but
we can assume that Prys's musical sensibilities were shpaed in period).
Prys had the courtesy to note that he wrote it to be sung to the tune of
"About the Banks of Helicon". A copy of the Welsh lyrics can be found in
"The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse" (p.248ff), however my own metrical
analysis suggests that this text is corrupted in places (i.e., there are
places where the established meter and rhyme scheme fail catastrophically)
and when I perform it, I use a slightly modified version of my own. My
original thought was that a song written to match an existing "foreign"
tune would have little stylistic connection with the main tradition of
Welsh poetry, by an analysis of the meter Prys created for the song shows
very strong connections with the traditional poetic meters and suggests
techniques whereby other surviving poems might be adapted to contemporary
tunes. (The first verse is an absolute masterpiece of the intricacies of
_cynghanedd_ and left me gasping in awe.)

Beyond that, W.S. Gwynn Williams' book "Welsh National Music and Dance"
lists a number of near-period tunes (particularly dance tunes and airs)
whose titles suggest a Welsh connection (e.g., the tunes "Landaffe",
"Bangor", and "S. Asaph" in Ravenscroft's 1621 "Whole Booke of Psalmes").
It is difficult to say for certain, however, whether these tunes derive
from a specifically Welsh musical tradition.

That's my best so far.

Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn


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