The journey of a Carol called Choirs of Angels provides an opportunity to examine the folk process in action and the impact of identity. Ralph Dunstan published this carol in Lyver Canow Kernow – The Cornish Song Book in 1929. He had learned this carol from his father who had first heard it 1862. In 1995, the author arranged this as an instrumental and the score below illustrates how the structure of the melody was changed:
The arrangement of the music as recalled by Ralph Dunstan’s father in 1862 is 4 bars of 5/2, 1 bar of 4/2, 2 bars of 3/2
The author’s arrangement of Dunstan’s version as Keur Eledh (Cor Elow). [i] Last 3 bars of Dunstan’s version ignored, four 4-bar phrases were added, each a variation on the first.
The carol was arranged as an instrumental by the simple expedient of increasing the speed and adding four variations. The author was engaged in a project[ii] that needed some original instrumental material with a Cornish connection and had “quarried” Dunstan’s collection for inspiration. The project involved a celebration of Cornish history and the story of the pilgrims’ route between Padstow and Fowey and thus the need for a Cornish identity influenced the choice of material. The outcome was the arrangement of a traditional carol as an instrumental that straddled the border between individual creativity and natural change within the folk process.
Keur Eledh as played by Radjel at Lowender Peran 2010
The drive to express a distinctive identity in Cornwall also influenced the subsequent trajectory of this tune. During the project it was paired with a song composed by John Mills,[iii] Tansys Golowan, also in 5/4 time. Both tunes were included as instrumentals in the Racca project of 1995 /1997 [iv] and had evidently stimulated interest as a further two 5/4 instrumentals were composed and included in publication of material from this project. To date there are at least eight 5/4 tunes that have been composed and are regularly being played at instrumental music sessions.[v] Whilst the introduction of newly composed 5/4 instrumentals into the repertoire of instrumental sessions in Cornwall is clearly a creative rather than reflective activity, drawing inspiration from Dunstan’s original carol is arguably a reflective one.
Cornish musicologist Mike O’Connor[vi] suggests that whilst 5 beats in the bar are not uncommon in vocal tradition they are rare in British instrumental tradition.[vii] He points out that they do sometimes occur in Breton music, however, and suggests that part of the attraction for Cornish performers was this link with Brittany. What we have here then is the chance arrangement of an element of oral folk tradition, i.e. four bars of a carol with an interesting time signature, triggering the composition and addition to the Cornish session repertoire of a number of tunes with the same unusual feature. It is clear that this is exercise of preference driven by the Celto-Cornish movement and the desire to interpret Cornish music as something distinctive. This drive is part of the process of oral tradition within a speech community and not artistic creativity on the part of an individual. Neither was there any commercial drive.
The desire for a Breton connection was subsequently expressed again when Karen Brown, a dance choreographer, wrote a dance in Breton style called Cabm Pemp (five hand) which was intended to fit with 5/4 tunes like Keur Eledh. [viii] As is the nature of reflective practice, it has met with a mixed reaction within the Cornish dance community in terms of how it well it fits in with wider Cornish dance tradition. As other parts of the process, such as selectivity and change, impact over time, it will be interesting to see if this becomes a recognised feature of traditional music and dance in Cornwall or one that remains a creative piece identified with the original composer.
There is a mischievous twist to this story in that Keur Eledh was written at a time of considerable debate on the spelling and grammar of the Cornish Language. It was originally called Cor Elow which is an alternative spelling of Keur (Choir) as Cor and an unconventional plural form of El (angel) as Elow. Likewise, Cabm Pemp (Cabm – Step, Pemp – five) comes from the same period of debate and could alternatively be spelt as Kabm Pemp or Kamm Pymp. Heated debate about spelling and grammar is fairly universal amongst minority languages and a natural “growing pain” that shows they are alive and kicking. From the point of view of the process of Folk Tradition it will be interesting to see what names remain attached to the tune and dance.
Merv Davey 2011 (for full discussion of identity and speech communities see Merv Davey PhD Thesis “As is the manner and the custom”, Institute of Cornish Studies, Exeter University, 2011)
[i] “Keur Eledh”, Keur – Choir, Eledh – Angels is the Standard Written Form of Cornish and used here for consistency. This title was originally spelt Cor Elow , Cor –Choir and Elow and alternative, unconventional plural form of El, angels now not used.
[ii] Forth an Syns – music from an ancient trackway, Pyba, 1995 CD / Cassette, format.
[iii] Tansys Golowan, Forth an Syns. Ibid.
[iv] Frances Bennett, et al. Editors Racca 2: Cornish Tunes for Cornish Sessions, (Calstock, RACCA, 1997).
[v] E.g. The Ring of Bells, St Issey and Liskeard; Neil Davey- Correspondences with author November 2010; on social networks e.g. Jackie Oates You Tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVcQY6jmUmY Accessed 2nd Dec 2010
[vi] Mike O Connor , Ilow Kernow 5 : Music in Cornish Culture. (Unpublished paper, Lyngham House music, 2009), p.132.
[vii] One example of British instrumental music in 5/4 is “Take Five”, composed by Paul Desmond, and popularised by Dave Brubeck Quartet on the album Time Out (1959, CS 8192). There is a paradox to discussion here in that due to the unusual time signature “Take Five” became associated with “Modern” as opposed to “Trad” jazz.
[viii] Cabm Pymp – five step. A Dance based on a combination of the Tea Treat Serpent Dance and the Scoot dances of North Cornwall: Resources, “Cumpas Cornish Music Projects” http://www.cumpas.co.uk/resources/resources.php, accessed 9th November 2010.