The Celtic repertoire is currently preserved through very different performance styles or trends; on the one hand, there are those musicians who continue to study and perform the repertoire in a strictly traditional way; on the other hand, there is a body of musicians who, since the 1970s, have drawn inspiration from a “new traditional” musical style developed by such pioneering groups as The Chieftains and Ceoltóirí Chualann. Finally, there are the musicians who from the 1980s have transformed those traditions into “marketable, modern and syncretic forms.”
Every work of art is the child of its time and also,
very often, the mother of our emotions.Wassily Kandinsky
Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Munich, 1912
As I recalled in my essay “In praise of transmission”, which accompanied our first recording devoted to The Celtic Viol, “unlike some Oriental cultures which have evolved chiefly within an oral tradition, in the West only those types of music commonly known as traditional, popular or folk music have been preserved thanks to unwritten means of transmission. Just as the face is the mirror of the soul, a people’s music is the reflection of the spirit of its identity, individual in origin but taking shape over time as the collective image of a cultural space that is unique and specific to that people. All music passed on and preserved by the oral tradition is the result of a felicitous survival following a long process of selection and synthesis.” These processes of transmission are also paths of evolution, innovation and, therefore, paths of transformation by which they undergo the diverse influences of other musical styles that are foreign, modern or even very remote in origin, resulting in new and equally legitimate forms of interpretation.
The Celtic repertoire is currently preserved through very different performance styles or trends; on the one hand, there are those musicians who continue to study and perform the repertoire in a strictly traditional way; on the other hand, there is a body of musicians who, since the 1970s, have drawn inspiration from a “new traditional” musical style developed by such pioneering groups as The Chieftains and Ceoltóirí Chualann. Finally, there are the musicians who from the 1980s have transformed those traditions into “marketable, modern and syncretic forms.” The largest-scale phenomena in the internationalizing of Irish and Scottish music and dance were the megashows Riverdance, Lord of the Dance and Black 47. Tradition and innovation are closely interwoven with the performances of Lúnasa (live recordings at the Towne Crier Café in Pawling. New York, July 2003.) All these groups demonstrate new paths in which Celtic music is being refashioned and syncretised on the concert stage. Some feel these developments reveal the adaptability of the tradition, while others view commercializing endeavours as tangential: “In recent decades there have been a number of musical developments that have proved to be both offshoots of the main stem of traditional music and cul-de-sac from it: the introduction of electric instruments, the introduction of rock-music styles, and the introduction of other ethnic styles of performance.” (Nicholas Carolan. Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin. Carolan 2000).
Although these different ways of retrieving and updating the traditional musical memory are possible and legitimate, that does not mean that they are better than the more traditional versions, or that they are the only possible source of innovative interpretations available to us today. The vast repertoire of Celtic music has widely differing origins in time and space, each providing fascinating information about its character, technique, ornamentation, style and performance. They provide the key to versions that respect both the historical context and the new performance trends. In music, as in art, evolution and development are not necessarily synonymous with true progress.
Until well into the 19th century, this idea of progress led to the conviction in the so-called classical music world that each new composer of genius improved the art of composition and brought about an evolution of musical language towards a higher, more perfect art form. Each new generation of great composers was thought to supersede the work of the great composers of the past. Thus, in Les Vies de Haydn, de Mozart et de Métastase, published in 1815, Stendhal made this damning summary of the historical contribution of the principal nations to the evolution of the art of music. In his view, “After Guy d’Arezzo, who appears to have been the first, in 1032, to have hit upon the earliest notions of counterpoint, the latter soon found its way into Church music; nevertheless, until the advent of Palestrina, that is to say, around 1570, this music was no more than an amalgam of harmonious sounds almost entirely devoid of any perceptible melody.” In short, it is his assertion that “a run-of-the-mill painter or musician of today easily surpasses Giotto or Palestrina.” (Letter XVI. Salzburg, 28th May 1809). The writer’s opinion on the early music of the principal nations of the world betrays a complete ignorance of the great composers of the past: “The music of the Germans is spoilt by its frequent modulations and abundance of chords. The early music of the Flemish people was nothing more than an intricate web of chords bereft of thought. This nation’s music was, like its paintings, forged by dint of much meticulous work and patience, and nothing else.” He goes on to assert that “the melody of the English, when it exists at all, is too uniform. Astonishingly, the same thing goes for the Spanish. How is it conceivable that this sun-kissed nation, the land of the Cid and the troubadour warriors who swelled the ranks of Charles V’s armies, should have produced no famous musicians?” (Letter XIII. Salzburg, 18th May, 1809)
In an essay on Gesualdo, Aldous Huxley refers to the tragic loss of memory suffered by European musical awareness, an amnesia which persisted until the end of the Second World War. As late as the 1950s, he points out, the musical repertoire before Monteverdi, which lay buried under the various layers of modernism, was still waiting to be discovered. And it was not until 1829, when a 20-year-old composer and conductor called Felix Mendelssohn performed J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion for the first time since the composer’s death, that the world witnessed the historical revival which has continued with ever-increasing vigour to the present day. From the second half of the 20th century work also began on rediscovering notions of the style and sound of the original instruments; although every work of art obviously transcends its own age, it can never be timeless, for it bears the imprint of the age in which it was created.
In 1970, after coming across the manuscript known as The Manchester Gamba Book, containing a large collection of pieces for the Viola da gamba, with 22 different tunings or scordature, and subsequently discovering other manuscript sources in London and Dublin containing works by William Lawes and John Jenkins, as well as printed collections such as the Lessons for the Lyra-Viol published by Tobias Hume, Thomas Ford, Alfonso Ferrabosco, William Corkine and John Playford between 1605 and 1670, I began to become acquainted with the various highly characteristic tunings of the viola da gamba in 17th century English, Scottish and Irish culture, when the instrument still enjoyed great popularity. I was very surprised to discover how inventive musicians of this period were, and also how attentive they were to popular traditions. In fact, among the 22 different tunings, we find those referred to as “the bagpipe tuning” or “the Lancashire-pipes tuning”, which involves crossing the fifth and fourth strings to obtain an octave’s difference between the third and fourth strings. The aim was to imitate the Scottish and Irish bagpipes in a nod to 17th century popular music, which was very close to the traditional Celtic music preserved first in the oral and then in the notated traditions from the 18th and 19th centuries in various collections such as those published by George Farquhar Graham The Songs Of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1848), George Petrie Complete Irish Music (London, 1851, re-edited in 1902-1905), William Bradbury Ryan’s Mammoth Collection (Boston, 1883), O’Neill Music Of Ireland (1903-1907), P.W. Joyce (1909) and, at the height of the 20th century, those by James Hunter The Fiddle Music Of Scotland (Edinburgh 1979), Alastair J. Hardie The Caledonian Companion (Edinburgh, 1981) and Aloys Fleischmann Sources Of Irish Traditional Music, c. 1600-1855 (1997), among others.
The performance of this music for lyra-viol, or the lyra-way, prompted me to widen my field of study to include music from the Scottish and Irish repertoires, which I initially played on my bass viol tuned the lyra way, or using the bagpipes tuning. I was immediately struck by its many similarities to the baroque style: inégal playing and very distinctive bowing, as well as a great profusion of improvised ornamentation. Whereas in my earlier recording I chose to use only soprano viols (high-pitched instruments with a sound similar to that of the fiddle) in order to remain close to the repertoire of O’Carolan, N. Gow and S. Fraser, in the present recording, The Celtic Viol II, I have preferred to combine Nicolas Chappuy’s 1750 treble viol (in the pieces by Nathaniel Gow, J.S. Skinner and the anonymous pieces) and Pellegrino Zanetti’s 1553 bass viol with its powerful, warm sound (in the pieces from the Manchester manuscript and Ryan’s Boston Collection). On this occasion, we also have the Irish harps and psaltery played by Andrew Lawrence-King, and once again the improvised accompaniments in the style of the period: We have added percussion in the dance or rhythmic pieces, with Frank McGuire playing the bodhrán. We have selected 30 pieces, grouped in suites or sets according to their key. Once more, we offer a heartfelt tribute to the art of transmission and to the talent of all the musicians who have created this wonderful heritage, as well as to all those no less important figures who have kept it fully alive by passing it on from generation to generation. As Ciaran Carson suggests, the old tunes and songs unite the past and present each time they are performed: “Each time the song is sung, our notions of it change, and we are changed by it. The music/words are old. They have been worn into shape by many ears and mouths and have been contemplated often. But every time it is new because the time is new, and there is no time like now.” (Carson, 1996.)
This authentically vibrant music, with its cargo of vitality and joy, retains all its great expressive and poetic power. As long as there are musicians to bring it to life, it will continue to be a precious testimony to music’s indispensable role in shaping social, political and cultural identity and cohesion, which is also a universal message of harmony and beauty.
Fontfroide Abbey (France), 29th July, 2010
Translated by Jacqueline Minett