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Traditional Song in Brittany: 19th and Early 20th Century Text Collections

Documentation of the oral song tradition of Brittany was limited until the 19th century when the collection of popular song became a common activity for amateur scholars and Celticists. An interest in ancient Celtic literary roots expressed in the oral song tradition was to spawn a number of collections by amateur historians and gentry scholars of Breton antiquities. Beginning in the 1830s magazines served as a very important medium for the publication of song texts. Some of the earlier magazines were Le Lycée Armoricain, La Revue de Bretagne, La Nouvelle Revue de Bretagne, and La Revue de l'Armorique. Later in the 19th century and in the early 20th century a dozen other magazines were to follow.

The best known song text collection of the 19th century is Hersart de la Villemarqué's Barzaz Breiz, first published in 1839. This was the first major publication of Breton songs and it inspired other collectors as well as brought international attention to Breton traditions. The Barzaz Breiz gave evidence that Brittany had a rich cultural heritage dating back to its common Celtic roots in the British Isles. It was also important in giving prestige to a Breton language literature. The Barzaz Breiz was a product of the Romantic period in which it was produced, and was bitterly attacked by other Breton scholars for the liberties taken with the texts, especially the glorification of Brittany's independence from France. La Villemarqué collected his texts in a period (1835-40) when methods of transcription and edition were not so scrupulously defined, and controversy about the authenticity of his texts has continued to the present day. While La Villemarqué never adequately defended his work for himself, a detailed study of his collection notebooks by Donatien Laurent has shown that he did not invent the texts as some of his accusers had claimed. Study of La Villemarqué's field notes show that he was a good Breton language speaker and that texts were carefully collected, even if cleaned up and revised for publication to suit the tastes of 19th century readers.

Following La Villemarqué; was another influential collector, François-Marie Luzel (1821-1895). Between 1869 and 1890 Luzel published over 400 song texts from the Tregor region of northern Brittany in four volumes. In contrast to the literary retouching characteristic of La Villemarqué and other earlier collectors, Luzel's texts were more representative of his informant's renditions. Luzel was also an important scholar of popular theater, another major media for the Breton language still found today, although not as popular as in earlier centuries. Some of the other better known song text collectors of this period included Prosper Proux (1811-1873), Narcisse Quellien (1848-1902), Alfred Bourgeois (1824-1904) and composers and musicicologists L. A. Bourgault-Ducoudray (1840-1910) and Maurice Duhamel (1884-1940) who included music transcriptions and analysis.

Parallel to the collection of song texts in Brittany was the collection of folk tales, proverbs and folk beliefs, as well as linguistic studies of the Breton language. Some of the best known collectors of the 19th and early 20th century who also included song in their study were: Emile Souvestre (1806-1854), Anatole le Braz (1859-1925), Francois Vallee (1860-1949), Joseph Loth (1847-1934), Loeiz Herrieu (1879-1953), and Emile Ernault (1852-1938). While scholars focused on the Breton language traditions of western Brittany, there were also some who collected French and Gallo language traditions in eastern Brittany: Adolphe Orain (1834-1918) and Paul Sebillot (1834-1918).

The collection of song and folk traditions was dampened by World War I (1914-1919) with the loss of many young Breton men to the war (approximately 240,000 lost of a population of 3.2 million). This marked the beginning of a period of rural exodus as well as increasing influence of French institutions which actively promoted the French language and a standardized culture from Paris. While collection activity was greatly diminished until a revival of interest in folk traditions in the 1950s and 60s, there were always a few individuals documenting traditions of their region and their collection and activity has been important in providing a record of an ongoing oral tradition in Brittany.

Sound recordings of Breton music date from 1900 with wax cylinders of singers made by Dr. Azoulay who recorded «peoples of the world» at the Exposition universelle de Paris. Early recordings were also made by Francois Vallee of Marc'harid Fulup who was a renowned singer and the primary informant for Luzel's collections in the 1870s and 80s. Other recordings which have not been released were made in 1908 by Austrian Rudolf von Trebitsch and by the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires of Paris in 1939.

See the section on DASTUM for information on current collection activities in Brittany.


«L'enquête Ampère-Fortoul sur les poésies populaires de la France (1852-1876)» Laurence Berthou-Becam (The Ampère-Fortoul study of popular poetry of France, 1852-1876) - Musique bretonne 123 (May-June 1993): 3-11 - Preliminary findings of much more extensive research on one of a number of 19th century collectors.

«Gwerziou ha soniou Breiz-Izel» Maurice Duhamel - Musiques bretonnes - Editions Dastum - Reprint of a collection of 432 tunes collected from 1902 to 1912

«Guerzenneu ha sonnenneu Bro-Guéned» Loeiz Herrieu and Maurice Duhamel- Lorient: Editions Eromi- 1998 (first published in 1911) - With CD Kerrieu - Villages entre Scorff et Blavet Eromi 058 - 1998 - 15 selections from the collection performed by various singers and musicians.

«Aux sources du Barzaz-Breiz - la mémoire d'un peuple» Donatien Laurent - Douarnenez: Ar Men - 1989 - 335 pages - Based on careful scrutiny of original notebooks and letters over a 20-year period of research, the author has published a detailed analysis of the Barzaz Breiz, the most controversial and influential song collection to be published in Brittany. 45 introductory pages place this collection in historical context and detail the tedious work of transcribing the hand-written song texts. The bulk of the book is made up of the song transcriptions, Breton with French translations. A third section examines La Villemarqué as a collector. Includes a comprehensive bibliography and useful indexes.

«Barzaz Breizh - Chants populaires de la Bretagne» Vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué (Kervarker) - Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin - 1963; reprint of 3rd edition of 1867; 1st edition 1839 - 540 pages - Classic collection of song texts; songs are in French translation with smaller print version of original Breton texts at bottom of pages; some music and notes included

«Barzhaz-Breiz» Lesneven: Mouladurioù Hor Yezh - 1988 - 454 pages - First edition to give Breton version of texts prominent place; melodies for songs also included.

«Chants et chansons populaires de la Basse-Bretagne» François Marie Luzel (Fanch an Uhel) - Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose - 1869-1890 - Another very important collection of traditional Breton language songs; considered to be less "refined" than the Barzaz Breiz.

«Histoire de la chanson populaire bretonne» Patrick Malrieu - Dastum and Skol, 1983 - 95 pages - Summary of the history of Breton song texts and their collection; well documented with text reproductions and photos.


Various performers
Tradition chantée de Bretagne: Aux sources du Barzaz Breiz Ar Men & Dastum - SCM 013 - 1989
Compact disc with songs performed by contemporary traditional singers from the famous 19th century collection, Barzaz Breiz, by Hersart de la Villemarqué. accompanied by a 75-page booklet with history, background on performers, and song texts in Breton and French. Performers include Soeurs Goadec, Ifig Troadeg, Erik Marchand, Mari Harnay, and Yann-Fañch Kemener, and others including a wax cylinder recording of Marc'harid Fulup from 1900.
Barzaz Breizh, c'hoazh hag adarre. FR3 Bretagne/Le Lagon Bleu LBCD 03 (CD) LBK 03 (cassette) - 1990
Performers using a variety of styles to interpret songs from the classic 19th century song collection by La Villemarqué, Barzaz Breiz. Performers include: Reves de gosse, Y-F Kemener, Youenn Gwernig, Gilles Servat, Andrea ar Gouilh, Herve Queffeleant, Roland Becker, E.V., Dan ar Bras, Chorale du Bout du Monde

Gwerzioù ha sonioù Bro Dreger - le répertoire trégorrois, cent ans après Luzel - Tradition Vivante de Bretagne 13 - Dastum 138 - 2000

See also the section on DASTUM and for Traditional Song in Brittany for recordings linked to collectors of Breton traditional music.