minstrel: penillion singing and flute

hrjones at socrates.berkeley.edu hrjones at socrates.berkeley.edu
Fri Apr 14 16:48:30 PDT 2000

On Fri, 14 Apr 2000, Christina van Tets wrote:

> So my questions:
> I'm trying to track down information on penillion singing.  It sounds as 
> though Giraldus Cambrensis talks about it (though I can't be sure that's 
> what he means) in his Welsh Itinerario.  Does anyone have any more reliable 
> period references to the technique?

As a start (although hardly a final word), W.S. Gwynn Williams, in "Welsh
National Music and Dance", devotes an entire chapter to Penillion
singing.  He notes two different traditions by that name, the
"southern" style that varies from the usual method of singing verses to an
existing tune only in a tendency to extemporize the verses, and the
"northern" style (the one most people associate with the term) which
involves singing the verses to an extemporized counter-melody to any of a
stock set of tunes.  (This is a brief background for those unfamiliar,
Cairistiona -- I'm certainly not trying to tell _you_ anything new.)

Williams offers an unsupported belief that the latter style originates
with "the old bardic vocal tradition, or art of the Datgeiniad".  But the
earliest descriptive passage he quotes that clearly describes the
Penillion style is from 1738, "it is a Custom in most counties of
No. Wales ... to sing to the Harp certain British verses in Rhyme ... upon
various Subjects.  Three or 4 kinds of them they can adapt and sing to the
measures of any of the Tunes in use among them either in common or triple
times making some part of the Tune a symphony as in Italian operas, motets
and concertos."

I'm not sure which passage in Giraldus you're thinking of.  There's one
that appears to be talking about extemporized harmonies, but I don't know
of any that describe the Penillion style.  There was so much stylistic
change in music from the 16th to 18th centuries, that I'd tend to be much
more skeptical than Williams that even a very characteristically Welsh
style of the 18th century must necessarily be ancient in origin.  On the
other hand, Williams offers an intriguing hypothesis that the Penillion
style developed out of the nature of medieval Welsh metrics, with the
syllabic-based and irregularly-accented verses tending to call for a
looser association with fixed tunes than a more regularly accented poetic
style would develop.

It's an interesting question, but hard to argue conclusively.  The
accentual quirks of Welsh verse do present some problems to my
sensibilities when fitting them closely to fixed tunes.  When I sat down
to actually fit Edmwnd Prys's "Can y Gwanwyn" to the tune he designates
for it (About the Banks of Helicon), the verses have very clearly been
written to fit the metrics of the tune to a large extent, but every once
in a while the placement of the stress in the words misses the expected
musical stress.  (That is, "expected" based on my modern musical
sensibilities.)  It seems quite unlikely (given the overall close fit
between the lyrics and tune) that the Can y Gwanwyn was intended to be
sung to the designated tune in Penillion style, on the other hand, the
same accentual "problems" from which Williams argues _are_ present in this
piece, although to a much smaller degree than in the medieval bardic


Heather Rose Jones         hrjones at socrates.berkeley.edu

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