What did history sound like?
I can hear something working on a farm somewhere; I can hear a motorbike, the occasional jet, passing tractors and grain lorries. It’s tempting to think that history was quiet in comparison.
Every year in Quintin there is a celebration of the linen industry that made this part of Brittany important. During the fête, it’s possible to wander lanes that are usually hidden behind closed doors. These were the poor, dark houses where women twisted the threads into a yarn on a hand-held spindle. They would sit outside as often as possible, in heat and cold, just for the light. There would have been several women, with their children around them, chatting, singing, working their fingers for hour upon hour.
We went for a walk (and lunch, naturally) yesterday at Ile Grande, on the Côte de Granit Rose. It’s a peaceful place. The tide was out, the seabirds wheeled, and the masts of beached boats chinked in the easterly breeze. It’s so easy to think that it was always like this, but it wasn’t. This little island was riddled with stone quarries. In the 14th century, stone from here built Tréguier Cathedral. Right up until the 19th century stone was taken out on barges, loaded at low tide and floated out when it was deep enough to do so. Men worked with hammers and chisels at the rock in all weathers, and the island would have resounded with their rhythmic tapping.
Animals lived close to the farms – inside the longhouses, in the winter months. There would have been axes chopping trees and wood, the slow turning of soil. This would have been no silent countryside, but a place of agricultural industry day in, day out.
Times may have changed, but the past can be heard, all over Brittany – in the music.
Breton music echoes the rhythms of the workers who sang the simple songs as they spun their thread, or as they sat at the end of the day with the endless tapping of metal on stone still inside their heads. It’s often a sort of question and answer form – a theme played on one instrument, repeated on another. In the same way, a woman might sing a few lines, and her neighbour copy her, along the hidden lanes and back again.
There are bagpipes here, but they are nothing like the Scottish ones: even though they were really only introduced in the early 19th century, they have come to sound like Brittany, and at any fête you can almost guarantee a bagadou – a band of pipers and drummers walking through the streets. The cornemuse as depicted in medieval church grotesque sculpture is an early form, and far closer in sound to the Breton version than to Scottish pipes.
The main instrument, though, is the bombarde – the thing that looks like a clarinet, and sounds medieval. When you hear Breton music played by a small band of men and women, with a drum, a violin, and a bombarde, you hear it in your feet. You want to dance. You know the tune after a couple of verses, and you hum along.
There are so many fêtes in Brittany, all through the year, all with their own history to honour – linen weavers, onion growers, horse traders, fishermen. At every one of them, you will have the old music and the dancing of people in costume; black based, heavily embroidered jackets (and it was often the men who did the embroidery), lace head-dresses. There are clubs where you can learn the steps, in many towns and villages.
I don’t know what it is: the Celt ancestry? The working day, the need to get through by any means possible, whilst counting the hours in verses? The hills, where you can’t see the next clustered farm, and each one was a little hamlet all to itself?
Whatever it is, it’s still there, and it still calls.
History sounds like toes tapping, hands clapping, and a bombarde, piercing, slightly raucous, and heart-stirring, as a band passes through a stone-built street. It’s the sound of the people who worked with their hands and their backs, and who still had a need and the time for music.
It’s a question and an answer in the same song: yesterday and today. It’s Brittany.