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Reviewed by:
  • Music in Welsh Culture before 1650: A Study of the Principal Sources
  • Patrick K. Ford
Sally Harper . Music in Welsh Culture before 1650: A Study of the Principal Sources. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007. xx + 442 pp. index. append. illus. tbls. map. bibl. $99.95. ISBN: 978-0-7546-5263-2.

This is a pioneering work in the study of early Welsh music. One of its great achievements is responding to the widely held assumptions by musicologists working outside Wales that there is insufficient material to make serious study possible, and that what does survive pales in significance in comparison with that of other music cultures. It is true that much of Welsh music culture was passed on orally for a very long time, even down to the eighteenth century, but there is nonetheless a great deal of information about early Welsh music preserved in archival data of an astonishing variety, all of which is meticulously scrutinized by Dr. Harper. In addition, there is abundant reference in medieval and later Welsh poetry to the uses of music in the courts of the Welsh princes and, afterwards, to the practice of music and poetry in the halls of the nobility.

The work is divided into three parts: the first part deals with the indigenous and well-documented craft of music and its uses in early Wales. The second part takes up the question of medieval and later Welsh Latin liturgy and its sources. The third part responds to a period of great social change in Wales engendered by increasing contacts with England and the corresponding importation and reflection of English tastes in music. There is, therefore, in this wide-ranging study of the sources an appeal to a wide readership. I would like to focus the greater part of my comments on the area that I know best, the native musical culture of early Wales.

Although in the early period we are dealing with an essentially oral culture, [End Page 1335] there is much to be learned about music in early Wales from several different sources. The nomenclature provides us with an early clue: the old Welsh word for a craft, cerdd, early on became restricted primarily to two crafts, that of cerdd dant ("string-craft," or music) and cerdd dafod ("tongue-craft," or poetry). These two went hand in glove, for poetry was recited, declaimed, chanted to string accompaniment, both harp and crwth ("crowd"). There are many references in the poetry of especially the period 1300-1600 to the music that accompanied the recitation of the poetry as to the musical predilections of the patrons of this poetry. The first four chapters of part 1 investigate this culture in fine detail. It is an area of research in which the present writer has spent considerable effort, and I can attest to the careful and rigorous scholarship with which Dr. Harper has investigated the material. Chapters 5 and 6 deal, in different ways, with historical and theoretical sources of traditional music. These include the earliest source for the twenty-four canonical meters of string music (ca. 1480), repertory lists, principal tunes, and so on. There are important texts here that are investigated in great detail. Chapter 7 is devoted entirely to the collection (retrospective) of harp music compiled in 1613 by the Welsh harper, Robert ap Huw. For many years the tablature of this remarkable document resisted interpretation, but great strides have been made in recent years, and this chapter gives us a summary of what is now known of its compilation, the key to its tablature and repertory.

Part 2, dealing with the sources of Latin liturgy in Wales, runs chronologically parallel to part 1. Of special interest here are the extended discussions of two works with considerable plainchant notation, the Bangor Pontifical and the Penpont Antiphoner. Part 3 demonstrates the very considerable influence of England in Welsh music culture —the popularity of English tunes, the increasing references to viols and virginals, even the introduction of some English verse conventions in the Welsh metrical psalter. If, as I suspect, parts 2 and 3 demonstrate the same rigorous scholarship as I find in the more familiar (to me) part...


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Archived 2009
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