Friday, December 21, 2007

Celtic Music

Episode Number: 014
Title: Celtic Music
Introduction Music: The Marsh of Rhuddlan - Traditional; Performed by Cheryl Ann Fulton, Triple Harp*
Exit Music: Megan's Daughter - Traditional; Performed by Cheryl Ann Fulton, Triple Harp*
Narrated by Nicolas Caporale - December 21, 2007

Let us begin by discussing the meaning and origin of the word “Celt.” It has been used over the centuries to describe many different things. Archeologists and historians usually associate the term with the indigenous peoples of Europe that thrived before Roman conquest. However, the adjective “Celtic” can refer to the styles or traditions of the peoples of the British Isles, past or present.[1] “Celtic” can also refer to the ancient languages of Gaulish and Old Irish and modern languages like Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Breton. The term is loosely used now to describe anything Irish or Scottish especially in art and music. You can thank marketing execs for the last one.

The word Celt comes from the Greek word keltoi which was used by authors such as Herodotus to describe the peoples living in what is now southwest Germany.[2] The Romans later called these people the Gauls and many accounts of them were recorded by Julius Caesar at the time of the Roman conquest of Gaul. However, whom Classical authors were referring to is still rather ambiguous. Allow me to quote Michael Dietler’s article in the September 1994 article of American Anthropologist:
Julius Caesar, for example, noted that Romans used the term "Gauls" to designate people who called themselves "Celts" (De Bello Gallico 1.1). Strabo, on the other hand, wrote that the inhabitants of the hinterland of the Greek colony of Marseille in southern France were called "Celts" and that Greeks simply projected this name onto all the barbarian peoples of northwestern Europe (The GeographyIV.I.14).

Around In this same region of continental Europe, archeologists have discovered significant amounts of artifacts with like designs and patterns that we refer to as the La Tène style, after a site in Switzerland where a large trove was discovered in 1867. Some characteristics of La Tène style artwork is “intricate spirals and interlace, on fine bronze vessels, helmets and shields, horse trappings and elite jewelry, especially the neck rings called torcs and elaborate clasps called fibulae. It is characterized by elegant, stylized curvilinear animal and vegetable forms, with elements akin to Scythian animal designs from the area of Ukraine, allied with the Hallstatt traditions of geometric patterning.”[3] It was in the fifth century B.C.E. that the La Tène culture first emerged and over the next five hundred years Celtic groups spread out over Europe.[4] They spread out as far East as modern day Turkey and as far west as the British Isles. Modern archeology has assumed that the Celts referred to by the Classical authors were the same peoples of the La Tène culture because they both inhabited the same region and because the Classical authors really did not mention anyone else living there. [5] The only written history of Celts in the British Isles comes from Caesar, who recognized that the inhabitants on the British Isles were closely related to the Gauls of the mainland.

Over the last couple of centuries, there has been much interest Celtic origins for the sake of national identity. In the early nineteenth century it was discovered that the surviving Celtic languages (referring to Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, Manx and Cornish) were part of the Indo-European language family. All of a sudden they were taken much more seriously by the academic communities in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as in German and other universities on the mainland. The Celts were seen as the first people to emerge as a unified culture in Europe, though probably they were individual communities that were united through trade and common religion practices. After the French revolution a national identity was needed to unify the people and Celtic heritage was the perfect solution. After Rome declined in the West, a Germanic group called the Franks established their kingdom over what was previously Gaul. Through the late 18th century the French nobility traced their lineage back to the Frankish king Clovis to establish their right to rule.[6] Therefore, it was the people of Celtic ancestry that stormed the Bastille and overthrew the long-reigning Frankish regime. At least this is what the revolutionists would claim. Napoleon even funded many archeological programs to uncover more evidence that further identified the French as the natural descendants of the Celts. Old Celtic maps defining Gaul’s ancient borders gave credence to Napoleon’s plans to expand over Europe.

When we use the word Celtic to describe nationalities we are describing the same nationalities that share the languages listed above. These languages are themselves split into two categories: Irish, Scottish, and Manx are referred to as “Q” Celtic and Welsh, Breton and Cornish are referred to as “P” Celtic.[7] What unites all these peoples is the fact that they now (or did) speak some Celtic language. When we use the word Celtic to describe music, the situation gets even more complicated. Nowadays the term is used to describe music that is traditionally Celtic, as well as anything that could be remotely included in the Celtic category if it means more record sales. According to Celtic Music by June Sawyers, “Traditional music refers to music that is oral and belongs to a living popular tradition.” Each Celtic area has its own unique customs and traditions but they all share common similarities. Piping is a common tradition throughout all Celtic lands. The Highland bagpipe, or Great Highland bagpipe of Scotland is probably the most commonly known, but Ireland has the uilleann pipe, northern England has the Northumbrian pipe, Brittany in northwest France has the biniou and Galacia has the gaita. The way notes are ornamented is also somewhat similar. Ornamented notes as applied to singing have singers playing with the syllables of words to stretch or shorten the word. For example, again citing Celtic Music: A Complete Guide: “...the word country – two syllables – may be turned into count-ter-ie, with three syllables, if the song demands it.” One might think of traditional Celtic music as music created by peoples that speak a Celtic language, or simply the “indigenous music of the Celtic lands.” [8]

As I mentioned previously, each Celtic land has its own unique musical history and tradition. When the Normans entered Ireland, music was already an established part of Irish life. Bards were patronized by the aristocracy until the English began invading the island. In an attempt to subdue the Irish culture in the early 16th and 17th centuries, musicians were persecuted. Henry VIII realized how important music was to Irish social life and he issued laws forbidding the practice of Irish musicians. Queen Elizabeth even decreed in 1603 that any bards or harpists found would be executed and their instruments destroyed.[9] It was not until the late 18th century that these laws were relaxed. In 1792 Edward Bunting (who was a young folk music collector,) transcribed the music played at the Belfast Harp Festival, but being classically trained he recorded the tunes in a major/minor tonal system rather than the modal system that they were conceived. This was evident in the fact that some of the pieces of music would have been impossible to play on the Irish harp as he had recorded them. Still, many Irish tunes may have been lost if he had not recorded them.

Traditional Irish singing or seanós is very ornamented and can be traced back to the days of the bards, when poetry and music was passed down orally. Macaronic songs were songs that alternated English and Irish text, as English became the dominant language in Ireland.[10] The jig, found in 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8 time may have originated in Italy but have become a stable of Irish dance music. There are three forms of the Irish jig: the single, which is usually in 6/8 though can be in 12/8; the double that is also in 6/8; and the slip that is in 9/8 time. Instruments common to traditional Irish music include the flute, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, the Irish harp and the fiddle. The oldest Irish harp still in existence dates back to the 14th century. It is named the Brian Boru harp, after and Irish king who died at the battle of Clontarf, on Good Friday, 1014.

Scottish music has three major sources of influence – Celtic culture in the Highlands, Anglo Saxon culture in the Lowlands, and even Norse culture near Shetland and Orkney. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of Scotland, the Highland Boundary Fault roughly runs northeast from the bottom of the middle third of the country in the West to the top of the middle third of the country in the East. Look up this episode on the website and you can see a diagram of this. The Orkney Islands are at the northern tip of Scotland and the Shetland Islands are still north of the Orkneys. Scottish Gaelic is mostly spoken in the Highlands and Islands, but there are multiple dialects of Gaelic spoken. In the Lowlands, English and Scots is primarily spoken. Music that is unique to Scotland is the waulking (which means working) songs and bothy songs. Waulking songs were very rhythmic and bothy songs were about living conditions under the bothy system. The bothy system was a system of housing unmarried males that worked on a farm for the farmer.[11] Traditional Scottish music is more vocal than instrumental, and traditional vocal music is usually unaccompanied. There were times when Scottish music was also banned so musicians developed techniques of emulating instrument sounds with their mouths. “Mouth music, for example, consists of nonsense syllables sung rapidly in a rhythmic manner.”[12] Generally speaking, bagpipes and fiddle dominated the dance music in the Highlands. The Highland bagpipe is comprised of a chanter with three drones, which is attached to a bag. The bag is filled with air through a blowpipe, which is refilled every few seconds to keep a continuous flow of air. The air then passes through the three drones (pitched at A) and through the chanter, which has a double reed in it to produce the melody. The chanter has holes that allow the player to play a melody. Applying modern terminology, the notes of the chanter make up the G Mixolydian mode. Nobody knows for sure when the bagpipe gained its popularity in the Highlands, but some scholars estimate it was around the year 1400. Traditional bagpipe music can fall into two broad categories: Piobaireachd and Ceòl Beag. Ceòl Beag, or “light music” is the more common of the two styles. Light music consists of marches, airs and dances such as the Strathspey, Reel, Hornpipe or Jig. Piobaireachd can only be played by a solo piper and is usually more expressive. Piobaireachd is the traditional style of Bagpipe playing. There is no steady rhythm, and each piece of essentially a theme and variations; the ground is played, and then repeated with different grace notes and ornaments to differentiate each variation from the others. A Piobaireachd can last between 10 and 20 minutes.

The native Welsh are the ancestors of the original British Celts. The Celts, being pushed westward out of continental Europe and then southwestward again by the Anglo-Saxons ended up in Wales. The Anglo-Saxon word for foreigner was weahlas and this is what they called the people living in what became known as Wales. When Henry VIII was king of England he ruled that any Welsh-speaking person could not own land or hold public office. This was yet another attempt to squash Celtic culture. Luckily some of traditional Welsh music prevailed and there is still a unique brand of “Welsh” music. The Welsh choir and the Welsh triple harp are good examples. The triple harp is different from the modern pedal harp in that it has three rows of strings to make all the chromatic pitches available rather than a pedal. The outer rows of strings are tuned to a diatonic scale (no accidentals) and the middle row contains the sharps and flats. Traditional Welsh musicians still play the triple harp though many players have begun to favor the modern pedal harp.

Brittany is a peninsula on the northwest tip of France. It has more cultural ties to the British Isles than that of France – it remained culturally independent from France as a duchy until the French Revolution in 1789. Dance music dominates traditional Breton music. Traditional accompaniment for dance music is played by the sonerion, which is made up of the bombarde and biniou playing the same melodic line. The bombarde was an early form of the oboe and the biniou was a bagpipe with only one drone. Breton music uses various modes which gives it a distinct sound. Here are some examples from the July 1918 issue of The Musical Quarterly that were collected by Charles Quef after his regiment was forced to retreat into Brittany during World War I[13]: EXAMPLES IN PODCAST.

The Anglo-Saxons also pushed the native Celts directly west into an area they called kern-weahlas, or, the land of the West Welsh. By the 10th century England absorbed this area, translated to Cornwall, into its formal boundaries. Carols are very popular in traditional Cornish music. However, rather than being associated with Christmas, in Cornwall carols can be any dance tune played at any religious feast. The feast could be Christian or pagan. The Isle of Man shares many musical similarities with Cornwall, though the native language was Manx. The last native speaker of Manx died in 1974.

All of the Celtic lands mentioned above have struggled to maintain cultural independence from larger bordering nations. Fortunately, they all were able to retain at least a portion of their unique brands of music that we can trace back to the middle ages in some places. Cultural revivals or renaissances have been chiefly responsible for modern interest in what is Celtic. These revivals occurred independently in each region, some in the mid-1800s and many in the 1970s. The folk music boom of the late 60s and 70s played a large role in modern interest in Celtic music and culture as well. On a side note, have you ever wondered why Boston’s professional basketball team is pronounced seltic and not keltic? The pronunciation of this word is a largely debated throughout the world. Most dictionaries list both pronunciations as being correct, though keltic is usually listed first. As mentioned before, the word came from the greek word keltoi (k-e-l-t-o-i). This word was borrowed by the Romans, but they did not have a K in their alphabet so they used a C. The Roman version may have found its way into English and they pronounced it with a soft C. Meanwhile German scholars pronounced it still with a hard C and that way was also introduced into English. Technically both pronunciations are correct but if I ever find myself in a situation where I am discussing East-Coast basketball teams I will probably still say keltic to avoid confusing looks from bystanders.


[1] Peter S. Wells, Who, Where, and What Were the Celts?, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 102, No. 4.  (Oct., 1998), pp. 814-816
[2] Ibid.
[3] La Tène culture “”
[5] Wells, 814-816
[6] Michael Dietler, “Our Ancestors the Gauls": Archaeology, Ethnic Nationalism, and the
Manipulation of Celtic Identity in Modern Europe” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 96, No. 3.  (Sep., 1994), pp. 584-605.
[7] June Sawyers, “Celtic Music: A Complete Guide”.  Da Capo Press, 2000., pg 5
[8] Sawyer, 7
[9] Ibid., 28
[10] Ibid., 10
[11] J. Drummond Smith The Housing of the Scottish Farm Servant, The Economic Journal, Vol. 25, No. 99 (Sep., 1915), pp. 466-474
[12] Sawyer, 12
[13] Charles Quef; E. Adcock, Breton Music The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Jul., 1918), pp. 402-408

*These pieces are available for purchase at


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