What is arguably the most prominent living Celtic tradition in today’s time? Without any doubt, it is Celtic music and to an extent Celtic dance. Celtic music acts as a bridge between the Celtic people who are divided by their languages and even acts as a substitute for some of the languages that have gone out of practice. Moreover, Celtic music is immensely popular throughout the world.
Celtic music is an area where it can be very hard to be sure how much of the similarity we sometimes hear between the music of different regions of the Celtic world is due to some sort of ancient connection, and how much is due to fairly recent cross-pollination between the musical communities of these regions. Probably there is a bit of both involved, but one thing is certain that Celtic music has evolved immensely over time as can be seen by looking at some of the musical traditions of the Celtic world.
This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Early Musical Instruments
The earliest known musical instrument that is associated with the people of central Europe is the great Iron Age war trumpet that is known as the carnyx. But unfortunately, it looks like that the carnyx has died out. We don’t have physical remains of musical instruments from the Celtic regions for the early Middle Ages. But still, at least some artistic representations are available. Pictures of a U-shaped stringed instrument called the lyre were put on their coins by the people from Gaul.
Thanks to the obsession of the people of Ireland with defining social status in a hierarchal manner, there is some information about the status of musicians in early Ireland. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the status of musicians was comparatively high and even among them the highest rank was given to the harpers. They were placed just before poets but had equal status with physicians, smiths, and other highly skilled craftsmen.
Learn more about Celtic religion and the Druids.
Celtic Music and Magical Powers
Celtic music also finds a mention in the Irish stories from earlier times for its magical powers. For example, in The Book of Invasions, the waves wickedly created by Tuatha de Danann around the island of Ireland for preventing sons of Mil to come there and claim the island are calmed down by the bard Amergin by using a song.
It is also known that there was a high level of distrust held by the English invaders of both Ireland and Wales for the native musicians. They had a fear that these musicians would pass many seditious songs among the people and also corrupt the English settlers there so that they would assimilate into the local culture.
The famous statutes of Kilkenny in 1366 in Ireland especially prohibited the English settlers from employing musicians from Ireland because “Irish minstrels coming among the English spy out the secrets, customs, and policies of the English whereby great evils have often happened.” This prohibition from the act further covered “tympanours, poets, story-tellers, babblers, rymours, and harpers”. The act also specified that both the offending minstrel and the English patron should be put in jail and the musical instrument of the minstrel should be forfeited to the crown. The attraction of Irish music (part of Celtic music) was so strong that throughout the Middle Ages, English settlers kept on employing Irish minstrels.
In Wales also, minstrels were looked upon as the elements that had the potential to cause disruption. In the wake of the great revolt of Owen Glyndwr in 1401, the English government of King Henry IV restrained the assemblies of Welshmen and ordered the imprisonment of wandering Welsh minstrels, bards, rhymers, and wasters, and other vagabonds in particular. However, the early law tracts and tales don’t say much about what this music was actually like. If we want to know something concrete about Celtic music, we will have to start in the 12th century, and we will need to look to the work of an outsider.
Learn more about Celtic art and artifacts.
The Earliest Description of Celtic Music
Paradoxically, the earliest written description of Celtic music has come from one of the most anti-Celtic, or at least anti-Irish, works in history, named, History and Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales. It is a fact that Gerald did not have anything good to say about the Irish, but he still admired and appreciated their art and liked their music in particular.
Gerald describes Irish music in this way: The movement in the instrument is not like the slow and easy movement in the British instrument to which people are accustomed but rather quick and lively. At the same time, the melody is sweet and pleasant to listen to. It is amazing that even at the great speed of the fingers they manage to maintain the proportion of the music. They are able to keep the melody perfect and full with undiminished art through everything—through the quivering measures and involvement of multiple instruments—with a charming swiftness, a varied rhythmic pattern, and a harmony that comes from inharmonious voices.
Gerald then says something about the style of ornamenting the melody that resonates very well with Irish music today. He says, “They so skillfully glide from one mode to another, and the grace notes so freely abandon around the steady tone of the heavier sound whose charm is so captivating. Their art might seem so perfect because they conceal it as if it is better when hidden.”
This description of Celtic music from an outsider indeed offers a different perspective, one that does not talk about its magic and corrupting powers.
Common Questions about the Magical Power of Celtic Music
The earliest written description of Celtic music is available in History and Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales.
No, we don’t have physical remains of musical instruments from the Celtic regions for the early Middle Ages.
Yes, Celtic music finds a mention in the Irish stories from earlier times for its magical powers.