School of Music

AHRC Workshops on Bardic Poetry

Experimental Workshops comparing the Musical Performance of Vernacular Bardic Poetry in Medieval Wales, Ireland and Scotland

Principal Investigator: Dr Sally Harper (School of Music, Bangor University)

Co-Investigator: Professor Dafydd Johnston (University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth)

For the main project website, go to http://projects.beyondtext.ac.uk/vernacularpoetry/index.php

Introduction

These two workshops, funded by the AHRC, formed part of a practice-led project focusing on the performance of medieval vernacular bardic poetry in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Although our modern appreciation of such poetry is now largely dependent on silent reading direct from the page, there is plentiful evidence from all three regions that this was originally a ‘sung’ poetry whose impact was greatly heightened by public delivery. The main objective of the workshops was therefore to explore that lost aural dimension through a series of experimental performances attempting restoration of a valid ‘song’ – whether unpitched heightened speech, pitched declamation, quasi-ecclesiastical chant, or full-blown melody with or without some form of accompaniment. Contributing performers explored very different modes of delivery, one group matching Gaelic heroic ballad texts to traditional melodies associated with the Ossianic lays; another declaiming Welsh strict-metre cywyddau to the rhythmic beating of a staff. More than 35 speculative performances were offered during the course of the workshops, each one prepared and evaluated within a historically-informed context, and drawing on the varied expertise of performers, literary scholars and musicologists from all three regions.

The immediate inspiration for both of the workshops grew from preliminary work on the performance of Welsh strict-metre poetry undertaken by Sally Harper and Dafydd Johnston for the AHRC-funded on-line edition of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poetry, http://www.dafyddapgwilym.net/. Both workshops set out to address three main research questions: (1) What evidence survives to inform our general understanding of the lost performance practice of each region, and how should it influence any attempted reconstruction? (2) What forms of declamation and accompaniment might be considered viable? (3) How can an informed exchange between (a) scholars and (b) performers further the discussion?

Tthe main outcomes and thematic advances of both workshops are seen most effectively in the complete audio-visual series ‘Voicing the Verse’ / ‘Y Gerdd ar Gân’, accessible via the main project website.

 

Workshop 1 (Scotland and Ireland)

Contributors

Prof William Gillies

Dr Margaret Mackay

Prof Donald Meek

Dr Lillis Ó Laoire

Prof Breandán Ó Madagáin

Margaret Callan (traditional singer)

Catriona Garbutt (traditional singer)

Patsy Seddon

Simon Chadwick (harp historian)

William Taylor

Workshop 1 (4 April 2009) was convened by Dr Margaret Mackay and held at the School of Celtic & Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh. The focus throughout was the organically-related Classical Gaelic verse of Scotland and Ireland. More than twenty experimental renditions of various poems were witnessed, falling into four main genres (Gaelic heroic ballads, the rainn agus amhrán verse of Ireland, Fenian lays, and formal Irish lament).

Outline and related audio-visual clips:

  • Sally Harper and Dafydd Johnston
    Introduction to the project: Brief report on current research and review of questions to be addressed

  • Virginia Blankenhorn (voice) and Patsy Seddon (harp)
    Tuar guil, a cholaim, do cheol! An argument for, and an attempt at, the oral performance of rainn agus amhrán verse Clip 17/35

  • Prof William Gillies
    The musical features of early strict-metre poetry in Scotland and Ireland

  • Donald Meek, with traditional singers Margaret Callan and Catriona Garbutt
    From the Era of Ossian to the Age of the IPod: The Transmission and Performance of Gaelic Heroic Ballads  Clips 28/35–32/35

  • Simon Chadwick
    The musical possibilities and limitations of an early Gaelic harp, demonstrating Davy Patton's replica of the 'Queen Mary' instrument
    Clips 33/35–34/35

  • Lillis Ó Laoire
    Reclaiming Syllabic Poetry: An Experimental Performance
    Clips 18/35–23/35

  • Breandán Ó Madagáin
    Irish lament in syllabic and accented verse Clips 24/35–27/35

  • Full review and discussion of all sessions followed by evening recital

 

Workshop 2 (Wales with Ireland)

Contributors

Pwyll ap Siôn

Eurig Salisbury

Gwenan Gibbard

Virginia Blankenhorn

Paul Dooley

Peter Greenhill

Gareth Siôn

Gwilym Morus

Twm Morys

Workshop 2 was held in Powis Hall, Bangor. It focused on the strict-metre canu caeth of medieval Wales, though with continuing reference to Ireland. It also included a ‘contemporary’ session addressing the problems of strict-metre setting from a more creative standpoint: a young Welsh-speaking poet (Eurig Salisbury) and composer (Pwyll ap Siôn) collaborated with traditional harpist Gwenan Gibbard to explore viable modes of text setting, resulting in an entirely new work. The second group, Datgeiniaeth, adopted a more historical approach, adopting the rhythmic principles of the Robert ap Huw music repertory, but in a far simpler way. In this case the accompaniment was reduced to an underlying rhythmic beat which again complemented and enhanced the subtle metrical qualities of the verse. Many positive comments were received about the resulting audibility of the cynghanedd: there was consensus that the approach felt both alive and ‘historically credible’.

Outline and related audio-visual clips:

  • Sally Harper and Dafydd Johnston
    Introduction to the project: Brief report on current research and review of questions to be addressed

  • Virginia Blankenhorn (voice) and Patsy Seddon (harp)
    Tuar guil, a cholaim, do cheol! An argument for, and an attempt at, the oral performance of rainn agus amhrán verse Clip 17/35

  • Prof William Gillies
    The musical features of early strict-metre poetry in Scotland and Ireland

  • Donald Meek, with traditional singers Margaret Callan and Catriona Garbutt
    From the Era of Ossian to the Age of the IPod: The Transmission and Performance of Gaelic Heroic Ballads  Clips 28/35–32/35

  • Simon Chadwick
    The musical possibilities and limitations of an early Gaelic harp, demonstrating Davy Patton's replica of the 'Queen Mary' instrument
    Clips 33/35–34/35

  • Lillis Ó Laoire
    Reclaiming Syllabic Poetry: An Experimental Performance
    Clips 18/35–23/35

  • Breandán Ó Madagáin
    Irish lament in syllabic and accented verse Clips 24/35–27/35

  • Full review and discussion of all sessions followed by evening recital

Links

Celtic & Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh

http://www.dafyddapgwilym.net/