Through the Ages – Welsh Song
The history of song dates as far back as history itself. Long before the existence of the printing press, before even the creation of the written language, stories and histories were passed from person to person, town to town, generation to generation. Unlike folk stories and urban legends as they exist today, these stories were not revised and improvised at the teller’s whim. Rather, they were memorized in all of their complex details. The process of memorizing a story as long and complex as, say, Homer’s Iliad was made easier by the fact that the stories were told as rhymed, metered songs.
Wales is commonly known as the Land of Song. Indeed, song is deeply imbedded in the Welsh culture. It is possible to trace the roots of Welsh song all the way back to the early Celtic civilization, in which both music and poetry were passed down through generations of bards.
Bards were storytellers who played harp and sang at weddings, funerals, games, and festivals. As the Bardic tradition expanded during the Middle Ages, competitive festivals (or “eisteddfod”), which led to apprenticeship and even educational degree programs, were held.
Welsh song became quite intensely regulated, with 21 official meters, delicate grammatical requirements, and specialized rhetorical styles.
Although Welsh song underwent a decline in popularity, with the Eisteddfod all but eliminated, a nostalgic revival in the 18th century has brought it back to the heart of the Welsh culture.
To the present day, the Welsh people (as a gross generalization) love to sing. Song remains central to the modern Welsh culture, helping to maintain interest in the melodious Welsh language, and it is a focal point for Welsh cultural identity.
Forms of Song
Welsh music is manifested in various forms, including choral singing, hymns and folk songs, and penillion (or “cerdd dant.”). In addition to the forms with a peculiarly Welsh sound, opera and pop music are widely appreciated, and employed using the Welsh language.
Folk music is a broad genre of song, which includes the traditional tunes that have been passed down through generations by harpists, bards, and churches. Folk songs are characterized by their simple melodies, and their emotional intensity, making them attractive form to strike up anywhere from the church chapel to the corner pub. Many popular folk songs, such as “The Ash Grove” (or “Llwyn Onn”) and “All Through the Night” (“Ar Hyd y Nos”), have been brought to the English language and are popularly known outside of Wales.
As mentioned above, many folk songs have been preserved through their employment in church services, often with the lyrics changed to suit the religious setting. Welsh hymns are usually sung in four-part harmony, and are just as popular as folk songs—both in and out of the pub! Welsh hymn is so popular that there is actually a community event devoted entirely to the singing of four-part hymns, known as “Gymanfa Ganu.”
As evidenced by the group efforts put forth at the Gymanfa Ganu, choral singing is quite popular. Historically, while the Welsh people were suppressed under English control, the harmonious unity of so many voices became an expression of group solidarity. In addition to the Gymanfa Ganu, and chapel choirs, choral music was (and is) often included in the Eisteddfod competitions, with expert children’s choirs, women’s choirs, men’s choirs, and mixed choirs. Men’s choirs, or “Cor Meibion,” have a special place in Welsh culture. These choirs are often built on the voices of hard labourers, especially coal miners.
In contrast to the deliberate simplicity of the folk music, is the extreme complexity of Welsh peniliion, or “Cerd Dant” (which translates to ‘tooth music,’ though it is probable that ‘dant’ (tooth) was original ‘tant,’ meaning ‘harp’). This form is usually a solo singer who sings in counterpoint with a harpist (in other words, the harpist and singer are performing totally different rhythms and melodies from eachother). The harpist plays the same musical line over and over, without slowing down or speeding up. The singer sings a text in a strict classical meter over the harp music, with each repetition of the harp line corresponding to one verse of the song. On each verse, the singer must enter at a different part of the harp line, but end at the same time as the harp, and each verse must have a different tune, none of which can match the harp tune. There is no conductor, nor any sheet music. In fact, the singer was traditionally expected to improvise their music, devising the lyrics (with appropriate rhythm and rhyme) and melody on the spot! Whew!
In less supremely Welsh forms, a large number of Welsh singers have made their way into the realms of popular music, often singing in English, but carrying the Celtic legacy out to the world. Tom Jones and Charlotte Church are well-known Welsh singers.
Welsh rock music is becoming quite popular, with some groups choosing to sing in Welsh, others in English. The Sterophonics and Manic Street Preachers are quite successful Welsh rock bands. Super Furry Animals have created a highly successful double-album, sung entirely in Welsh.
The Welsh National Opera has gained international prominence.
However, despite the market for music sales, the most popular Welsh music will always be free. A song belted drunkenly in a pub, or whistled under the breath while cleaning the house; a song at a wedding or a song at a funeral. The great beauty of Welsh song is that it needs no occasion, and it beautifully, plaintively or playfully, accompanies every moment in Welsh life, like a natural soundtrack for reality.
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