Is “Celtic” a myth? The Lever Harp in Brittany
January 21, 2016
This article begins with a linguistic difference between French and English. What do you, readers in English, call a harp without pedals and up to forty strings? “A Celtic harp”? “A lever harp”? “A non-pedal harp”? “A small harp”? All these definitions have their own associations; perhaps you deliberately choose one term because you believe in what it implies. A “Celtic harp” implies “Celtic music” (although “Celtic music” can mean many things). A “non-pedal harp” or “small harp” is almost pejorative, evoking the harp’s lack of pedals or stature.
French only has one word for the harp-that-is-not-a-pedal-harp: harpe celtique. In English, our company policy is usually to talk about the lever harp, to avoid the implication that this instrument exists exclusively to serve one type of music. But Camac’s life began with the harpe celtique, and more specifically by direct contact with a huge “Celtic revival” movement that has taken place in Brittany since the 1950s.
It is no coincidence that our factory is based in Mouzeil, Brittany, for Brittany has become a lever (or “Celtic”) harp centre. The land is buzzing with the most famous lever harp artists, such as Alan Stivell, Myrdhin, Dominig Bouchaud, Mariannig Larc’hanteg, and so many others. It is easier than in almost any other country to study lever harp to diploma level. Mariannig Larc’hanteg began the first traditional harp course (also the first traditional music course) at the Conservatoire de Brest in 1972, where Muriel Chamard-Bois now continues. Mariannig has moved on to the Ecole Nationale de Musique de Lorient. Dominig Bouchaud has taught at the Ecole Nationale de Musique de Quimper since 1981, and Catherine N’Guyen has taken over the Celtic harp class at the Conservatoire de Nantes after Marileine Bouchaud (Dominig Bouchaud’s mother, who incidentally was Jakez’s former harp teacher) retired. As for festivals and competitions, one of the most important lever harp meetings takes place in Dinan, les Rencontres Internationales de la Harpe Celtique, founded by Myrdhin in 1984. There is also the Kan ar Bobl competition, the Camac Trophy at the Festival Interceltiquein Lorient, the Concours Jakez François and now Dasson an Delenn.
How on earth has such an active lever harp scene developed in under sixty years? The gut-strung Medieval Gothic harp had existed in Brittany in the fourteenth century, but thereafter lay more or less in disuse as an indigenous Breton instrument (between the Middle Ages and modern times, the harp continued best in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and to an extent in Spain and the Tyrol). Revivals normally show us clearly what is being revived, but what the Breton “harpe celtique” is, and what it was, are two separate questions.
The Breton Celtic revival is a fascinating creation of an identity for the lever harp today. It does not tell us accurately what ancient lever harps in Brittany were like, because we do not really know. In any context, real definitions of “Celtic” are vague. The world’s original Celts were a diverse group of tribal societies in Iron-Age Europe. They began in the Hallstatt culture of Central Europe (now Austria), before spreading as far west as Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula, as far east as Galatia (central Anatolia, now part of Turkey), and as far north as Scotland. Today, Celtic influence has best survived in the six countries bordering the North Atlantic: Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Ireland. All these cultures have their own traditions and their own harps, from the Welsh triple harp to the wire-strung Scottish or Irish clarsach. There is no such thing as any one “Celtic harp.”
Even if there had been a clearly-defined “Celtic harp”, Celtic culture was primarily oral. Oral sources are even less reliable than written ones for historians, but that does not mean that they are not interesting. Writing was especially forbidden in Celtic religion. Perhaps it would have been too mundane for the Celtic world picture, which is far from black and white. Druids were also philosophers, astronomers, healers and poets. The bards – the harp-players – were supposed to use their harps in celebration of their princes’ great deeds. The epic poems and songs they composed communicate not only history, but legend too. It is unsurprising that one definition of “Celtic” today is a dreamy one, where fact and fantasy mysteriously intertwine. Alan Stivell describes this a propos Celtic art:
“More than any other civilisation, Celtic art displays a pronounced taste for curves, the expression of movement and primordial, secret forces. Mathematics plays a central role, geometry, for proportions rarely based on simple figures. The balance, the symmetries are hidden, must be felt. There abstraction rules: the same figure is distorted at the service of abstract ideas, ideas impregnated with mysticism or with superstition and a vision beyond the common world…” (Stivell, Telenn: La Harpe Bretonne)
Shrouded in myth, swallowed by the oral tradition, old “Celtic” culture was enthusiastically taken up in the eighteenth century by the Romantic movement. The Romantics rejected the Enlightenment’s logic and reason, in favour of rediscovering far-off, mysterious worlds. In 1761 James MacPherson published what he claimed to be translations of Gaelic epics by the ancient bard Ossian (complete with harp). The authenticity of these heroic fragments is dubious, and the Irish were furious that MacPherson had indiscriminately mixed Gaelic and Ulster legends, thus portraying Ossian as a glory to Scotland’s past rather than Ireland’s. Nonetheless, the poems remained extraordinarily popular and influential at the time: Goethe, Walter Scott and even Napoleon became fans.
Following the success of MacPherson’s The Works of Ossian, Son of Fingal, the harp became an increasingly prominent symbol in the minds of a group of intellectual Bretons in Paris. In 1839, the poet Auguste Brizeux published a suitably mournful poem, “La Harpe”:
“Chante, o harpe! – Les Bretons
Helas! ont bien peu de consolation.”
Whatever a casual hearing of the word “Celtic” might incite in our minds today (folklore, myth, ancient worlds, druids, harps carved in intricate lacework patterns, crystals), the revived interest in Celtic culture in fact took place among the intelligentsia: like Romanticism, it was an intellectual movement. Another member of the Breton-Parisian intelligentsia in the nineteenth century, Théodore de la Villemarqué, was researching oral Breton literature when he found mention of the harp of that time: “telenn” (also the word for “harp” in Welsh). La Villemarqué optimistically concluded that the harp had belonged to Ancient Breton bards; even to priests.
Regardless of whether the harp had been as important in Brittany in ancient times as in Ireland or Wales, it had definitely arrived in nineteenth century Breton intellectual culture. But there was not, as yet, an actual Breton instrument. Brittany, Wales and Cornwall had retained strong cultural bonds since the Roman age. There had been a mass immigration of Britons to Armorica (France), holding out against invasion as much as Asterix and Obelix. Once the harp began to reappear in Brittany in the nineteenth century, it did so really through contact with harpists from abroad. La Villemarqué went to Wales in 1838 to see the Abergavenny Eisteddfod, where he met Thomas Gruffyd, who played the Welsh triple harp. The Scottish harpist Heloise Russell-Fergusson similarly first visited Brittany in 1934, where she became much-feted. Even Brittany’s answer to a bardic harpist, Pol Diverres (1880-1946), took lessons from the Welshwoman Miss Bessie Jones. Diverres eventually moved to Wales to become keeper of manuscripts in the Welsh National Library.
It was Heloise Russell-Fergusson’s first visit to Brittany that sparked the manufacture of the first modern Breton harp. Fergusson helped Gildas Jaffrenou, a musical cabinet-maker interested in the harp, to build his own instrument. Jaffrenou later travelled to Wales, where he met the famous instrument-maker Arnold Dolmetsch. With Dolmetch’s further aid, Jaffrenou eventually succeeded in producing his first fine harp, one of six hundred he made up until the 1970s.
Jaffrenou built the first harps made in Brittany, after patterns from Wales and Scotland. At the end of the 1940s, it was Georges (Jord) Cochevelou – father of Alain Cochevelou, the boy who would become Alan Stivell – who conceived the idea of a harp with a fundamentally Breton identity. A cultivated man widely educated in languages, sciences, manual crafts, art and music, Cochevelou was also a member of An Oaled, the organisation for Breton cultural promotion. Alan Stivell supposes that it was probably when reading An Oaled’s journal, that the idea of building a harp dawned in Cochevelou’s mind: the word telenn appeared repeatedly as a symbol (malgré the lack of a real instrument) at the heart of Breton bardic events.
Cochevelou did not actually finish his first harp until April 1953, with a care that Stivell attributes to an emotional, cultural bond with the Brittany of old:
“…he wanted that his first harp would be so surprising, in the full sense of the word, that a shockwave would emanate from its strings, with the precision and spirit of kyudo (the Zen arc). His harp would come to be the masterpiece and the climax of his life, and transcend it… a somewhat mystic journey, moreover, a sociable one: with Christian and Breton mysticism, the harp of the Psalms and of King David as well as the harpe of Merlin.” (Telenn: La Harpe Bretonne)
Cochevelou, neither the first nor the last to view the harp as a girls’ instrument, intended the harp for his wife, Fanny. But Fanny was too busy working, playing the piano and bringing up three children to begin. It was the nine-year-old Stivell who first tried the harp, and who was seized in his own way as strongly and emotionally as his father had been:
“I stood amazed, without moving, not wanting anything to spoil this arrival from heaven, waiting until the moment the vibrations gave way to silence…my life had changed completely. It was a revelation.”
The Cochevelous hastily sought out a teacher for the young Alain. George Cochevelou invited Denise Mégevand to try the new harp, and asked her to teach his son.
Mégevand (1917-2004), a pupil of Lilly Laskine, was classically trained, but nonetheless appreciated the lever harp in itself. She owned a lever harp and played Medieval music, Renaissance music, and some Irish music, in addition to her classical work. In Alain Cochevelou she encountered such a strong passion for the lever harp, that by its force she found herself more and more drawn into its world:
“As soon as I gave him a piece to learn, I would have to come to him again so that he could play it to me. He had an intense desire to learn the harp. It was a passion! And he needed to learn core technique.
There are not two separate techniques to play the lever and pedal harp well, there is one. Everyone has to do exercises, scales, etc. But with Alan, there was no question of doing an exercise, if it was not on a Celtic theme… so I had to write kilometres of scores from everything that Monsieur Cochevelou gave me. It was a veritable factory, not an ordinary situation at all! For example, I wrote a heap of variations on a the Breton theme “Ar Baradoz”, to get Alan to learn thirds, fourths, fifths, octaves and cords. When it was on a Celtic theme, he accepted the exercise!”
(Denise Mégevand interviewed in Harpe Celtique: Le Temps des Enchanteurs by Thierry Jigourel)
Mégevand found herself intensely in demand as a teacher of this lever harp that the Bretons were increasingly making their own. She wrote a forty-page lever harp method, and became the first teacher of Telenn Bleimor, a Paris-based ensemble of five Breton harps,which was performed up until 1972. Many of today’s well-known Breton harpists began their careers in Telenn Bleimor: Madeleine Buffandeau, Brigitte Géraud (Baronnet), Mariannig Larc’hantec, Kristen Noguès, Françoise Johannel, and Rozenn Guilcher, to name but a few.
Mégevand continued her classical career in the Radio France orchestra: her huge contribution to the lever harp equally was never been one that confines the instrument to any one musical world.
“I am interested in contemporary music, in the creation of new works. I have done a lot of them – over thirty pieces have been written for me, of which many were commissions from Radio France. I often work on pieces written for harp and electronics…for me, the musical adventure never stops.”
Mégevand’s pupil Alan Stivell went on to pursue an extraordinary international career. His teacher recognised his passion for Celtic music, but never confined the lever harp to traditional music alone, and Stivell has also developed his early passion for traditional music into music that is absolutely modern. His music is the contemporary, popular, Celtic-flavoured and constantly-changing fusion sometimes called “Celtic Rock”. It exploded in popularity in the early 1970s, and was to prove more than just a passing trend. First signed to Phillips (Universal) in 1966, Stivell’s Symphonie Celtique (1980) fuses rock, a symphony orchestra, Celtic instruments and world music, and his latest album, “Explore” (2006), combines Celtic music with electro-rock, raga and hip-hop.
In recent years, a large proportion of music – certainly classical, folk and early music – has been dominated by questions of “authenticity.” But the development of the lever harp in Brittany reveals the diversity and life that can stem from a revival where the origins are fluid and uncertain! Equally, while it is probably fair to say that all harpists who passed through Telenn Bleimor bear a foundation belonging to the great classical French tradition, they have led,the lever harp in different directions. The late Kristen Noguès made her name through theatrical presentations, while Françoise Johannel became a renowned specialist in Medieval harp and the arpa doppia. Mariannig Larc’hantec, Madeleine Buffandeau and Rozenn Guilcher have become pedagogues who give pedal and lever harp equal importance.
Some harpists – not just those from Telenn Bleimor – have turned their back on classical training. Violaine Mayor and the late Katrien Delavier play or played with the nails instead of the pads of the fingers, on wire-strung harps in the Irish tradition. Gwenola Ropars in Carhaix prefers an oral method, as does Dominig Bouchaud in Quimper. Bouchaud argues that by far the best way to learn traditional music is orally, because not everything about traditional music can be written down.
Bouchaud was classically trained at the Paris Conservatoire before he came to the lever harp and traditional music. For traditional music, he has (with the exception of physical technique) consciously laid aside his classical education: be it reliance on scores or principles of classical harmony. He recognises that the lever harp has joined Breton traditional music, rather than being part of it since the dawn of time. Breton music is monodic and modal, Bouchaud points out, whereas the harp is essentially a harmonic and polyphonic instrument. Whether or not you believe that the harp was at the heart of ancient Brittany, Bouchaud’s intellectually honest research creates traditional music for the lever harp. He brings Brittany’s cultural heritage together with the instrument the land has undeniably adopted today.
Other Breton “harpers” are exclusively orally-trained. Job Fülüp is one. Originally a well-known bombard player, he is now a harpist in the “bardic” style, improvising and composing with his bronze-strung harp. His band, Fülüp Celtic Swing, combines Celtic music and jazz.
The famous neo-Breton bard Myrdhin also belongs to no French classical school: he is an autodidact, who since 1984 is the director of the Recontres Internationales de Harpe Celtique in Dinan. This is the biggest harp meeting in Brittany. It has three competitions (for composition, performance and improvisation), as well as being a major platform for all the most important Celtic artists in the world, and a centre for luthiers and ethno-musicologists. The Dinan committee have also published an interesting introduction to the “Celtic harp” across the world, complete with a CD: Anthologie de la harpe: La Harpe des Celtes.
Myrdhin too is a voyager, with his Afro-Celt band, or simultaneous collaboration with Peter Gabriel and the Senegalese griot Baaba Maal (a griot is a West African wandering poet, like a bard). This flexibility and liberty are key aspects of Celtic, or traditional, lever harp music today. Any sort of traditional music is learnt through oral imitation, and then the artist makes their own version: this is one reason why it is not written down. And so musicians freely join their traditional melodies with jazz, world music, blues, rock. Even classical music is not excluded: in the first place, one of the movements behind the Breton Celtic revival was Seiz Breur, a Paris-based group of Breton artists who promoted “Celto-classical” fusion between the wars.
Brittany has come to be as much a lever harp centre as Wales, Scotland or Ireland, and, like all these countries, rewrites the past into an expression of modern identity. The new generation of Breton harpists are personalising their traditional heritage and taking it all over the world: Gwenaël Kerléo, Cécile Corbel, Elisa Velia, Christine Merienne, Soazig Müller, Tristan Le Govic, Anne Postic, and François Pernel, for example.
In itself, the word “Celtic” does not mean much – or rather, it has many meanings, many myths, wound around it like the strings of its original and adopted harps. History is like this too, with its primary and secondary, oral and written sources. We are all made from our histories, and yet are also more than the sum of our parts. Whatever “Celtic” is, perhaps there lies its power. More than ourselves, only ourselves: the halls of our ancestors, in our own image.
Before I was a Celt, I was a string held on a bow
When I sang, golden leaves fell from the trees
I was a reminder of love’s follies
I was the river under the hazel trees
I was a crystal with a thousand sides
I was a willow sacrificed beneath the moon
I was a golden number of sloes
I was the Autumn wind
I was many promises
I was the music of the spheres
I was the wave that broke the most
I was island salmon by my island
I was essential on land and sea
I was the keeper of the cauldron
I was the glory of Fingal sung by Ossian
I was knocked breathless by Tara and his lands
Before I assumed my real form.
Myrdhin, inspired by Cad Goddeu (“the battle of the trees”) by Taliesin, Welsh bard of the fifth century
Armel Morgant: Harpe et Bretagne: Deux Siecles d’Histoire (article)
Thierry Jigourel Harpe Celtique: Le Temps des Enchanteurs (Celtics Chadenn, 2005)
Alan Stivell and
Jean-Noël Verdier: Telenn: La Harpe Bretonne (Le Télégramme Editions, 2004)
Various Anthologie de la harpe: La Harpe des Celtes (Editions Tannerie, 2001)