Experimental workshops comparing the musical performance of vernacular poetry in medieval Wales, Ireland and Scotland

Award Holder

Dr Sally Harper

Higher Education Institute

School of Music, Bangor University

The indigenous 'bardic' poetry of medieval Wales, Ireland and Scotland shares distinct structural and functional similarities. Though all three cultures were highly literate, the sophisticated vernacular verse associated with them was primarily a 'performance poetry': it was designed for aural appreciation and declaimed from memory direct to an assembled audience. Our current tendency to read it silently, direct from the printed page, thus denies a vital layer of the sensory experience that once defined its very identity; the more so because this was once an accompanied poetry. There is strong evidence that music was used to complement its strict metrical qualities, and some of the earliest known texts invoke the self-accompanying poet who sings or declaims to his own harp or lyre (a role later devolved to trained bardic performers). The music of poetic accompaniment was apparently simple, although the evidence regarding its exact nature is partial and ambiguous.

The workshops described here (held in Bangor and Edinburgh) thus ventured 'beyond text' by exploring that lost aural dimension of poetic-musical performance. The central theme of the workshops was the relationship between poetry and music in all three countries, where invited participants evaluated and compared possible modes of delivery within a historically-informed context. Collaboration between (1) literary scholars, (2) music historians and (3) professional and 'traditional' performers from outside the academic spectrum was vital throughout the project. The programme brief was cirulated to participants in advance of the workshops, and the performers were asked to prepare set materials in different styles. Since the Claasical Gaelic poetry of Ireland and Scotland displays marked similarities (extending also to linguistic features), the performance practice of both countries was explored in tandem at the Edinburgh workshop, with significant input from speakers and performers from Ireland. The Bangor workshop focused more exclusively on the Welsh material, and also featured a 'contemporary' session addressing the problems of strict-metre setting from a more creative standpoint, drawing on collaboration between a Welsh-speaking poet, composer, and professional harpist.

The findings of each workshop have been analysed both in their own right and comparatively across the defined regions, leading to a series of important outcomes: 35 audio-visual clips entitled 'Voicing the Verse' / Y Gerdd ar Gân' (available via the Photo and Video Gallery), new translations of the poetry, and three related articles for the journal Studia Celtica (available online). The final project report and programme contribution statement may both be accessed via the 'Research and Workshops' page.

Image: harp_strings.jpg

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