Il n'est ni ange, ni homme, que ne pleure quand chante la harpe
Poème des bardes bretons du VIe siècle
Représentée dès le IXe siècle en Irlande, qui en fit plus tard son emblème national, la harpe fut, jusqu'a l'époque baroque, l'instrument des classes supérieurs dans les pays celtiques. Contrairement aux Irlandais, Ecossais et Gallois, nous n'avons aucun instrument qui se soit conservé jusqu'à nous. Les témoignages concernant la harpe en Bretagne sont d'ordre linguistique, historique et iconographique. Cependant, les sources concernant la Bretagne ont tendance à confondre Bretons insulaires (Gallois) et Bretons d'Armorique. Pour compliquer les choses, la terminologie latine range sous citheria tantôt une harpe de petite dimension, tantôt une cithare. La cour du duc Hoël de Cornouaille, qui régna en Bretagne de 1066 à 1084, accuellait un tel cordophone. Le mot breton telenn, qui rappelle curieusement le gallois telyn, apparaît au XIXe siècle dans les écrits de La Villemarqué, qui l'a probablement réintroduit de bonne foi en s'appuyant sur des textes anciens. Celui de crouzh, plus douteux, et à l'orthographe peu vraisemblable, s'applique aujourd'hui à la petite harpe, dite bardique, aux cordes métalliques. D'après un manuscrit gallois du XIIe siècle, "tout gentilhomme doit avoir un coussin sur sa chaise, une femme vertueuse et une harpe bien accordée". De même que "trois objets ne sont pas saisissables par ordre de justice: le livre, la harpe et l'épée".
C'est dans les romans médiévaux de langue d'oïl qu'il est le plus fait allusion aux harpeurs breton, dont on loue à maintes reprises le qualités, en particulier dans l'accompagnement des lais. De manière générale, les harpeurs bretons, souvent de haute ascendance, avaient un statut social trés élevé. Attribut du roi David, la harpe est également de Merlin et de saint Hervé, patron des bardes et des musiciens d'Armorique. La petite harpe diatonique des Bretons, richement ornée de symboles zoomorphiques, comptait de sept à trent cordes métalliques jouées, semble-t-il, à l'aide d'un plectre. Elle disparut de la cour de Bretagne à la fin du Moyen Age et ne pénétra nullement les milieux populaires. Ce n'est que qu'au milieu du XXe siècle que plusieurs Bretons s'intéressent à la reconstitution d'une harpe ancienne, inspirée de la harpe irlandaise. Jord Cochevelou, émigré à Paris, pousse le plus loin ce travail organologique. Son fils Alan, encore enfant au début des années 1950, et qui prendra comme nom de scène Stivell, comptera parmi les premiers Bretons à faire résonner à nouveau la telenn, que l'on baptisera "harpe celtique". Le succès ne fut pas immédiat, mais l'instrument séduisit bon nombre de jeunes Bretons des classes bourgeoises, en particulier les jeunes filles. Aujourd'hui, la harpe celtique rencontre un grand succès dans les conservatoires en France. Instrument assez peu encombrant, financièrement abordable, elle séduit les enseignants de harpe classique, qui y voient avant tout un instrument d'étude. Par contre, en Bretagne, les joueurs de telenn s'organisent, et proposent festivals, concours er concerts. Leur enseignement s'inspire fortement des traditions orales. Idéale pour l'accompagnement de la voixle premier récital de Glenmor à Paris fut accompagné à la harpe par Denise Mégevand en octobre 1959, la telenn creuse patiemment sa place dans la fresque des instruments bretons d'aujourd'hui, y compris dans les répertoires à danser.
Translation by Michael Robinson. Please note that I am not fluent in French and this translation may be a bit rough. I welcome suggestions for better translations.
He is neither an angel nor a man who does not weep when the harp sings
6th century Breton bardic poem
Represented since the 9th century in Ireland, where it later became the national emblem, the harp was, up to the Baroque era, the instrument of the upper classes in the Celtic countries. Unlike the Irish, Scots and Welsh, we do not have any instrument preserved down to the present. The evidence concerning the harp in Brittany is linguistic, historical and iconographic. Moreover, the sources concerning Brittany have a tendency to confuse the inhabitants of upper Brittany (speaking Gallo, a Romance language) with the Bretons of Armorica. To complicate things, the Latin term citheria sometimes refers to a small harp, sometimes to a zither. The court of Duke Hoël of Cornouaille, who reigned in Brittany from 1066 to 1084, welcomed such a cordophone. The Breton word telenn, which curiously recalls the Welsh telyn, appeared in the 19th century in the writings of La Villemarqué, who probably reintroduced it in good faith supported by ancient texts. The term crouzh, more dubious, and poorly verifiable by orthography, is now applied to the small wirestrung harp, called "bardic". According to a 12th century Welsh manuscript, "every gentleman should have a cushion on his chair, a virtuous wife and a well-tuned harp". Likewise "the three things that may not be seized by law: a book, a harp and a sword".
It is in the medieval romances in the langue d'oïl that most references to Breton harpers occur, in which are frequently praised their qualities, particularly in the accompaniment of lais. Usually the Breton harpers, often of high descent, have a very high social standing. Attributed to King David, the harp also belongs to Merlin and to Saint Hervé, patron of the bards and musicians of Armorica. The small diatonic harp of the Bretons, richly ornamented with zoomorphic symbols, comprised 7 to 30 metal strings, played, it seems, with the aid of a plectrum. It disappeared from the Breton court at the end of the Middle Ages and did not penetrate at all into popular circles. It was not until the 20th century that several Bretons became interested in the revival of the ancient harp, inspired by the Irish harp. Jord Cochevelou, an exile in Paris, pushed this organological work the furthest. His son Alan, still a child at the beginning of the 1950s, and who took the stage name Stivell, is counted among the first Bretons who made the telenn, which was termed the "Celtic harp", resound once more. Success was not immediate, but the instrument attracted a good number of young middle-class Bretons, particularly girls. Today the Celtic harp finds a great success in the conservatories in France. An instrument that is little enough cumbersome, financially affordable, it attracts the students of the classical harp, who seek before all a practice instrument. On the contrary, in Brittany, the players of the telenn organise and plan festivals, competitions and concerts. Their instruction is strongly inspired by oral tradition. Ideal for accompanying singingGlenmor's first recital in Paris in October 1959 was accompanied on the harp by Denise Mégevand , the telenn found patiently its place in the picture of modern Breton instruments, including the dance music repertoire.
Check out this site for a brief description of Mont St. Michel, which fails to mention that in peak summer season it has all the charm of Disneyland (tasteless souvenirs, expensive food, long lines, gigantic parking lots, hordes of obnoxious tourists bused in from every tourist-exporting nation in the world, etc.). Our research indicates that Mont St. Michel is the only place outside Paris in which Eiffel Tower paperweights may be found. The spire was put on in the 19th century, by the way, so despite its cool appearance it was never there to welcome the medieval tourists (er, I mean "pilgrims"). In the winter, I've heard, this might actually be quite a nice place to go. Our guidebooks all said you could wander around the crypt at midnight, but apparently this particular tour was discontinued.
We will provide one travel tip if you happen to be in that area. The restaurant with the giant chicken on
the roof actually has pretty decent food at a quite reasonable price. (The first time we went by we thought
that it was a giant snail, this being France, but actually it's a giant chicken. Made us Californians feel right
In contrast, Avranches is a pleasant place where the inhabitants carry on interesting customs such as cooking giant omelettes. As reported in La Gazette de la manche, d'ille-et-vilaine et mayenne, 20 Sept., 2000:
You'll notice that in the background there's a lady wearing the traditional high coiffe
found in Normandy and Brittany, and also several accordion players. All this and not a souvenir
Eiffel Tower in sight. But having established the cultural superiority of Avranches, let's get
back to the manuscripts.
Although Mont St. Michel is now actually in Normandy, historically it is considered to be part of Brittany. As well as this, many of the early monasteries in France were founded by saints from Ireland or Celtic Britain, a number of whom are said to have arrived on floating stones. This is not true of Mont St. Michel itself, but the manuscript sample on the left definitely shows an influence from the style of the Irish manuscripts such as the Book of Kells.
The manuscripts are interesting in their own right, containing some incredible art work. Included in the price of admission is the loan of a big magnifying glass so you can see the amazing detail. It's hard to imagine how the monks were able to do this fine work without some kind of magnifying lens. There's a theory that the concept of the lens may have been left over from the Romans, who did sometimes use lenses made of crystal, but there doesn't seem to be any mention of it in medieval records until a much later period.
Each book is open to one of the most impressive pages.
It's a pity you can't flip through the other pages, but of course the books have to be kept in climate-controlled cases.
The colours are still brilliant after all this time.
We were there simply to admire the artistry of the manuscript illuminations, but we were very interested to see that three of the manuscripts on display showed pictures of harpers. Of the three harp images, two were for sale at the exhibit shop. I found an online copy of one of them which you can see to the right. If I get some time I may scan the other one that we got also.
These being religious works, the picture is supposed to be King David. But like most medieval works, the illustration shows contemporary rather than historical styles. The other images are consistent with the one shown here. The harper plays on the left shoulder, and plucks the strings with fingernails. This is exactly consistent with the records of how the Gaelic harp was played in Scotland and Ireland. We can't tell from the picture if wire or gut strings are used. However, the Gaelic harps played in this manner all had wire strings.
I would imagine that, since Avranches is not too far away from Dinan, where Alan Stivell grew up, he and the other Breton harp revivalists were well aware of these images. The manuscripts show a noticeable Irish influence in the artwork, and the harps are played in Irish fashion. Should it not also be reasonable that the old Breton harpers were heavily influenced musically by the Irish? We have already shown that Irish harpers were well-known on the medieval pilgrim routes of Atlantic Europe.
If Breton harpers look to Irish models to revive their lost tradition, these illustrations show that
they may well be following in the footsteps of their ancestors.
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