” Rather Death Than Dishonor” Motto of Brittany
The Celtic country Brittany lies along France’s northern shore, with the English Channel to its north, the Celtic Sea and Atlantic Ocean to the west, and Bay of Biscay to its south, is indeed a land of enchantment. Brittany has some exquisitly breath taking views with its rugged coastline, chateaus, and medieval homes. Antiquities dating back to megaliths, crowd the land endlessly.
Brittany is where France’s Thalassotherapy originated, (Spa seawater treatments). Pont Aven housed some of the world’s most popular artist in the 19th & 20th centuries. Henry Bacon and Robert Wylie, (American artists), Henry Moret, Emile Bernard, Paul Serusier, Paul Gauguin, Picasso, Monet, Matisse and well over one hundred such artists came to paint the landscapes especially at Cote de Granit Rose, a beautiful naturally protected site where both land and sea are unforgiving with amazing shapes of pink granite rocks carved by nature’s wind and waves since the beginning of time. ( Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, lived here for several years). Brittany is world reknown for its beautiful white beaches and “Belon” oysters.
Like its cousins, Brittany also has its Bards.
Erwan Berthou (September 4, 1861 – January 30, 1933) was a French and Breton language poet, writer and neo-Druidic bard.
Jean-Baptiste-Théodore-Marie Botrel (14 September 1868 – 28 July 1925) was a French singer-songwriter, poet and playwright. He is best known for his popular songs about his native Brittany, of which the most famous is La Paimpolaise. During World War I he became France’s official “Bard of the Armies”.
Anatole le Braz, the “Bard of Brittany” (1859–1926) was a Breton folklore collector and translator. He was highly regarded amongst both European and American scholars, and known for his warmth and charm.
Pierre-Jakez Hélias (1914–1995) was a Breton stage actor, journalist, author, poet, and writer for radio who worked in the French and Breton languages. For many years he directed a weekly radio programme in the Breton language and co-founded a summer festival at Quimper which became the Festival de Cornouaille
For generations Bretons risked their lives fishing and trading on the violent seas and struggled with the arid soil of the interior. This toughness and resilience is tinged with Celtic culture: mystical, musical, sometimes morbid and defeatist, sometimes vital and inspired.
Brittany is one of the richest regions in the world for archeology – The alignments at Carnac rival Stonehenge – its first appearance in recorded history is as the mythical “Little Britain” of Arthurian legend. In the days when to travel by sea was safer and easier than by land, it was intimately connected with “Great Britain” across the water. Settlements such as St-Malo, St-Pol and Quimper were founded by Welsh and Irish missionary “saints” whose names are not to be found in any official breviary.
Celtic artistic identity has consciously been revived, and local festivals – above all August’s Inter-Celtic Festival at Lorient – celebrate traditional Breton music, poetry and dance, with fellow Celts treated as comrades.
Song remains at the heart of Breton music. In contrast to instrumental traditions, women have an equally important role in song. All song styles that are called “traditional” in Brittany are unaccompanied and unison in nature. The vast majority of ballad singing is performed solo. In both the French-language tradition of eastern Brittany and the Breton-language songs of western Brittany response style singing is very common, especially in songs for dance. In contrast to other areas of western Europe (including Brittany’s Celtic counsins) singing for dancing is very common and well appreciated.
Listed is a brief description of the types of Breton songs.
Lan ha diskan
Kan ha diskan is a particular type of responsive singing found in the Breton-speaking areas of central-western Brittany. Most commonly, it is sung by two people, a kaner (“singer” in Breton) and diskaner (“counter-singer”). The prefix “dis” is difficult to define but in this case it has the sense of opposition as in rolling/unrolling, winding/unwinding. The kaner begins and the diskaner repeats each phrase. The unique aspect of this style of responsive singing is found in the fact that the singers take up their singing on the last few syllables of each other’s phrases. This pushes the music forward with a particular emphasis.
This Breton language term has no English translation (in French it is roughly translated as “complainte”). It refers to a repertoire of ballads (in the Breton language) in which historical, legendary, or dramatic events are recounted.
This is the Breton term for all Breton language songs other than the gwerz. Included in this category are love songs, drinking songs, counting songs, and other “lighter” songs for dancing.
Some of the instruments most commonly used in Brittany are biniou bihan, (little bagpipe), biniou bras, (Scottish style bagpipes), and Veuze, a one drone bagpipe used since the middle ages. Three drone bagpipes are also played and are used in festivals and competitions. Bombarde is a member of the oboe family. Violon (fiddle), accordion, Vielle a roue, (hurdy gurdy), and Telemn, (celtic harp).
Dastum is a foundation in Brittany serving the Celtic community with collecting and preserving the music. It’s newsletter informs the public of the musical activities of Brittany.
I have enjoyed my studies of Brittany and hope this has helped you to understand more of how diverse and yet similar Celts are. It seems to this writer that music is the thread that holds us all together, and the rope we all cling to.