Music of  Brittany


Brittany is on the northwest coast of France and is a region unique in that country in its Celtic cultural derivation. Though long under the control of France and influenced by French traditions, Brittany has retained and, more recently, revived its own folk music, modernizing and adapting it into folk-rock and other fusion genres.

Brittany has been inhabited by the Celts since about the 6th century, and were independent for a time, though not united politically or, in all likelihood, culturally. Charlemagne, a Frankish king, conquered the Bretons and under his son, Louis the Pious, the Bretons were organized as a single nation under a single ruler, NominöeFor a time following, Brittany was an independent duchy but then fell back into French control in the 16th century.

Traditional Breton music

Traditional Breton folk music includes a variety of vocal and instrumental styles. Purely traditional musicians became the heroes of the roots revival in the 20th century, most importantly the Goadec sisters. Vicomte Theodore Hersart de la Villemarqué's collection of largely nationalistic Breton songs, Barzaz Breiz, was also influential, and was partially responsible for continuing Breton traditions.

Modern Breton music

Undoubtedly the most famous name in modern Breton music is Alan Stivell, who popularized the Celtic harp with a series of albums in the early 1970s, including most famously Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique (1971) and Chemins de Terre (1973). His harp was built by his father, who based it off the plans for the medieval Irish Brian Boru harp; this type was unknown in Brittany before Stivell. He later began playing the bombarde, a double-reeded shawm (or oboe), and began recording Breton folk, Celtic harp and other Celtic music, mixing influences from American rock and roll. Stivell's most important contribution to the Breton music scene, however, has probably been his importation of rock and other American styles, as well as the formation of the idea of a Breton traditional band.

Inspired by Stivell, bands like Kornog and Gwerz arose, adapting elements of the Irish and Scottish Celtic music scene.

Besides folk-rock, recent groups have included world music influences into their repertoires - especially younger groups such as Wig-a-Wag. Hip hop with a Celtic flavour has been espoused by groups such as Manau.

Brittany hosts annual rock and pop festivals, the biggest being the Festival des Vieilles Charrues (held in late July in Carhaix, Finistère), the Route du Rock (mid-August, Saint-Malo) and the Transmusicales of Rennes, held in early December.


Though the Breton folk revival focused on song in Breton and song in French is widespread, the Pays Gallo area of Brittany has seen a more limited revival in repertoire in Gallo and produces singers and groups including Ôbrée Alie, Yann Dour, while various bands, such as Tri Yann, have a selection of Gallo songs they perform.

Vocal music

Kan ha diskan (roughly translated as call and response singing) is probably the most common type of Breton vocal music, and is the most typical style to accompany dance music. It has become perhaps the most integral part of the Breton roots revival, and was the first genre of Breton music to gain some mainstream success, both in Brittany and abroad. The lead singer is the kaner, and the second singer is the diskaner. The kaner sings a phrase, and the diskaner sings the last few lines with the kaner, then repeats it alone until the same last few lines, when the kaner again joins in. The phrase's repetition is changed slightly in each execution. Kan ha discan can be songs about any subject, but must meet one of a number of a meters used in folk dances, mostly or round. Vocables, or nonsense syllables (typically tra la la la le lo), are sometimes used to drag out lines.

In addition to the Goadecs, the singer Loeiz Ropars largely responsible for maintaining kan ha discan's vitality in the middle of the 20th century, and the 1960s and 1970s revivalists drew largely on his work. They also venerated performers like Les Frères Morvan and Les Soeurs Goadec. During the folk revival, aspiring musicians sought out elder teachers to learn kan ha discan from, generally being viewed as successful when the student can act as diskaner to his mentor. Teachers of this era included Marcel Guilloux and Yann-Fanch Kemener. It was, however, Ropars adapted the fest-noz, a "night party" in rural communities, for a modern music festival scene, and set the stage for the folk revival.

Kantik is a type of religious hymn that is vocal but includes accompaniment from a variety of instruments, commonly including the harp, pipes and organ. Modern performers include Annie Auffret and Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde.

Gwerzioù and sonnioù are the two primary classifications of Breton unacommpanied folk song. Vocals for both types are usually by a soloist. Gwerzioù are characterized by a very gloomy, morbid tone, and the lyrics typically describe tragic murders and deaths, or lost love. Performers in this field include Jean Le Meut from Vannes, whose songs are mostly of the sonnioù variety, and are typically pastoral songs concerning love and marriage. More modern singers include Ifig Troadeg, who focuses on lyrically shocking gwerzioù, Patrick Marie, Marthe Vassalo, Klervi Riveère, Mathieu Hamon and Annie Ebrel.

The chansons de marin are sailor songs, balladsabout shipwrecks, sailing and loss, accompanied by instruments like the fiddle and accordion. The best known modern performer is Cabestan, along with L'Echo and Taillevent.

Instrumental music

Since the Breton folk music revival, Scottish bagpipes and Irish harps have been added to the Breton repertoire, though Brittany has its own piping traditions which have been historically unbroken, as well as other instrumental traditions.

The violon (which can mean either fiddle or violin) is an instrument played across France. Perhaps due to this wide-ranging appeal and lack of regional uniqueness, the instrument was somewhat ignored during the Breton folk revival in the mid-20th century. However, the instrument remains a common part of folk bands today. The violon has been played in Brittany since at least the 17th century, and was possibly the most widespead instrument in the land by the early 20th century. It was only a few decades later, however, that the accordion nearly wiped the violon out, and most fiddlers joind Irish bands, moved into jazz or otherwise left the instrument. The violon survived, however, and a new generation of performers include Christian LeMaître, Jacky Molard and the six-violin band Archetype.

The clarinet was invented in Germany in the 18th century, and was quickly added to orchestras, from where it moved into marching bands and the amateur musicians in them. By the 19th century, the clarinet had entered a number of folk traditions and spread to many parts of the world. In Brittany the instrument is called a treujenn-gaol (Breton) or a tronc d'chou (French), both of which translate as cabbage stalk. The Breton clarinet usually has only 13 keys (though sometimes as few as six), in contrast to the more common 24 key instrument used in jazz, classical music and other fields. This is because classical musicians discarded the clarinets with fewer keys as more complex and state-of-the-art pieces. In Breton music, two clarinetists typically play together, though it also played alongside ensembles with accordions and violins. The clarinet is a common part of Breton jazz bands, along with saxophones and drums, playing both jazz and traditional songs. The best-known Breton clarinetist is likely Erik Marchand, a former member of both Quintet Clarinettes and Gwerz. The bands L'Echo, Cabestan and Strobinell also use clarinets.

Like many of the 1960s and 70s folk revivals, Brittany spawned a folk-rock scene that used traditional elements in a pop-rock and roll format. Guitars were common by the 1970s, having been a lead instrument since revivalist legend Alan Stivell and guitarist Dan Ar Braz introduced them. Ar Braz was briefly a member (in 1976 and 1977) of English folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention. He has continued recording, alongside modern guitarists like Jacques Pellen and Soïg Siberil.

The wooden transverse flute entered Brittany via Ireland relatively recently. Revivalist legend Alan Stivell was the first noted Breton player, and was followed by the bombarde prodigy who switched instruments, Jean Michel Veillon. Veillon has been a member of a number of prominent bands, including Pennoù Skoulm, Barzaz, Den and Kornog, as well as producing some influential solo albums. Other modern performers include Carolyn Langelier of Tud, Yannig Alory of Carré Manchot, Yann Herri Ar Gwicher of Strobinell and Hervé Guillo of Storvan. In addition to the flute, Alan Stivell brought the tin whistle into several of his groups. They have since been used in bands like Tri-Yann, Strobinell, Barzaz and J Pol Huellou, often replaced by flutes imported from South American or Asia.

The accordion is now the most popular Breton folk instrument, the accordion only arrived in large numbers in the country in about 1875, but its popularity grew quickly. Among the reasons for this were the instrument's cheapness and durability, and could be played solo, and was easier to learn. Perhaps the most important reason, though, was the instrument's association with couples dancing like waltzes and mazurkas, which stood in stark contrast to the line and round dances familiar in Breton folk; the perceived sexuality of the instrument's common dances may have made it more attractive. By the 1920s, the instrument was by far more popular than any other. In the 1930s, chromatic accordions arrived in Brittany. Breton accordionists include Bruno Le Tron, Patrick Lefebvre, Yann Dour, Yann-Fañch Perroches and Alain Pennec.

Though harps had been common in Brittany since at least the time of Richard the Lionheart, the instrument had disappeared by the 18th century. Early in the 20th century, harps were imported from the British Isles by people like Gildas Jaffrenou, who built a "Breton harp" from the 14th century plans for the Brian Boru model. The plans came into the hands of Jord Cochevelou, who had one built by 1953. The first person to play it in public was Cochevelou's son, who would come to fame as Alan Stivell. Modern performers include An Triskell and Kristen Nogues.

There are two types of bagpipes indigenous to Brittany. The veuze is very similar to other western European bagpipes, while the biniou-kozh are much smaller and were used to accompany the bombarde. The biniou, which plays exactly one octave above the bombarde, and bombarde duo (sonner par couple) are an integral and common part of Breton folk music, and was used historically for dancing. The two performers play alternate lines that intersect at the end; the bombarde is not usually played every line, however, and is usually instead played every other line, or in three out of four lines. The Highland bagpipe, which was imported in the late 19th century, is sometimes called the biniou-braz.

The veuze has a chanter of conical bore fitted with a double reed and a drone fitted with one reed, both attached to a mouth-inflated bag. Its sound and design is similar to Flemish pipes and Galician gaita. In the 20th century, the term veuze came to be applied to the diatonic accordion, which had been recently imported, and the use of the bagpipes declined. Though still not common, it has rebounded since the Breton folk revival.

The biniou-braz, or Highlands bagpipe, was imported in the late 19th century, and became popular in the 1930s. It is now used in solo performances, along with a bombarde in a duo, and as part of the bagag pipe band. During World War 2, Breton soldiers saw pipe bands in Scotland, and brought the idea and instrument back with them to Brittany. There, they added bombardes and drums, and gained in popularity in the 1950s, just before the folk revival began.

The biniou is more common, and was originally designed from the veuze in order to play in a higher register. Its pitch is higher and its chanter smaller than any other European bagpipe. It is often played as part of a duo with the bombarde.

The bombarde is a double-reeded oboe, with six open holes and a seventh that can be opened with a single key. It has been in use since the 15th century, and has been played as part of a duo with bagpipes since the French Revolution. Later, in the 19th century, the biniou was invented, and plays exactly one octave aove the bombarde. Biniou-bombarde duos include Jean Baron and Christian Anneix, Youenn Le Bihan and Patrick Molard and Pierre Crépillon and Laurent Bigot.





  • (cordofoni) violon - Guitars - harp

  • (aerofoni) clarinet (treujenn-gaol, tronc d'chou) - flute - veuze - Accordion - Biniou-braz (Highlands bagpipe) - Biniou - Bombarde

  • (ancia libera)

  • (menbranofoni)

  • (idiofoni)

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