By Jean-François Allain
• From the February 1995 Piping Times
Jean-François is one of a family who came over to Scotland from Brittany several times during the 1960s. They attended summer schools in Skye of the College of Piping and made great progress, as do most students. In 1967 Jean-Francois won the piobaireachd event at Glenfinnan Games and was second in the other two events, against considerable opposition,
For those who, like ourselves, would have to look up a dictionary to find the correct meaning, ‘acculturation’ means “the process of adopting features or customs of another civilisation.”
Before the Second World War, Brittany was one of those few regions in Europe where the bagpipe was still alive, if not particularly thriving. However, contrary to its counterparts in other countries, the Breton bagpipe (the biniou as it is called) never was a solo instrument. It would always accompany the bombarde (a kind of ‘shawm’ or primitive oboe), ensuring the continuity of the playing.
Shortly after the war, Brittany borrowed the Scottish Highland bagpipe, like other countries, but in a special way. In this paper delivered at a colloquy marking the 50th anniversary of the B.A.S. (Bodadeg ar Sonerien, the main Breton Piping Association), but specially adapted for the readers of Piping Times, Jean-François Allain, gives his views on the story of the Scottish bagpipe in Brittany.
The Scottish bagpipe: an image …
The Great Highland bagpipe carries a particularly pregnant image. Together with the kilt — this other strange invention — it is the greatest ambassador of the Scottish Tourist Office and it ranks high in the catalogue of cultural stereotypes (the tankard of the Germans or the baguette of the French, but also musical instruments like the Irish harp or the Andean panpipe). However, I wonder sometimes if the feather bonnet does not play a dominant role in the construction of this image, as does the French bérét, the Breton coiffe or the Tyrolian hat.
… exported throughout the world
The Scottish bagpipe has been exported all over the world. The readership of Piping Times is sufficient proof of this. Of course, in any country, one will find the odd person taking up a fad for queer instruments of all sorts. However, this remains a marginal phenomenon, which is not the case for the Scottish bagpipe, whose pattern of distribution is primarily linked to emigration and colonisation processes, which explains the correlation between the English-speaking world and the map of the Scottish bagpipe. In a case like Germany, which has quite a strong contingent of pipers, the main ‘instrumental’ factor in spreading the bagpipe was the presence of Canadian forces.
Incidentally, it is rather ironic to note the part played by the British Army in spreading the national instrument of the Scots when, two and a half centuries earlier, the English had banned the bagpipe for being a war instrument. Is this some sort of revenge?
However, if the Army acted as a marketing agent, it is probably thanks to the formula of the pipe band, which has several advantages: it stirs the masses and makes a strong visual (and sound) impact on the general public (in cities like Edinburgh, it’s now part of the urban landscape). But above all, itallows group practice: the beginners, the younger ones and the less-gifted can take part and find some reward in this activity.
This leads me to pose a first question. Did the Bretons borrow the bagpipe OR the idea of the pipe-band (called the bagad, which, basically, is a pipe band with added bombardes)? Was the ‘big pipe’ better adapted to this collective playing (for being more standardised) and more likely to appeal to the youth than the Breton traditional ‘small pipe’ with its very high pitch (one octave higher than the Scottish pipes) and its piercing sound? This question was certainly in the mind of our pioneers of the Breton music revival.
The ‘intrusion’ of the Scottish bagpipe
As a rule, the Scots export the bagpipe on a ‘turnkey’ basis: they supply the instrument, its particular technique and aftersales service, its repertoire, the pipe band, usually the kilt, sometimes the whisky.
The situation in Brittany differs widely from this general pattern, and this cannot just be explained by the fact that we had our own brand of bagpipe. We could have opted for the two-strata Irish model with the traditional pipes on one side, the imported one on the other.
It is even difficult to give it a name. Did the Bretons import the Scottish bagpipe? Did they borrow it? Can we talk of the ‘introduction’ or of the ‘intrusion’ of a foreign instrument? Incidentally, this latter term, used in 1949 by Polig Monjarret, one of the leaders of the Breton musical revival, tells us a lot about the problem facing the Bretons at that time of cultural revival: how to borrow from another culture without losing one’s own identity.
For my part, I would use the term ‘acculturation’, i.e. the “assimilation by one culture of an alien element,” for it must be noted that the Bretons adopted neither the Scottish repertoire (which is quite understandable: they had their own), nor the fingering, which is more surprising. (It would be interesting in this respect to examine the possible similarities with the way jazz musicians “diverted” various instruments from their original setting.)
Scotland and Brittany: two specific cases
Between the 16th and the 18th century, the bagpipe was widely spread in all parts of Europe (including England), but primarily as a popular and rural instrument (I shall not dwell here on particular cases such as the musette at the Court of the French kings). Against this general background, both Scotland and Brittany offer very specific — although widely different — situations.
To the outside observer, Scottish bagpipe music appears as very codified (in its typology and its construction), technically sophisticated (and fairly rigid), centralised and homogeneous (there may be different ‘schools’, but there are no local or regional traditions). Socially, it is not linked to rural community life (in this sense it is not ‘folk’ music) but directly to the establishment. Last but not least, the bagpipe has a military function: it is a war instrument and the regiments have their pipe bands.
Thus, the Scottish bagpipe can be seen as a national institution, a touristic symbol or a logo of Scotland. However (is this a consequence of that?), it does not seem to carry any ideological message; it is politically neutral, which was certainly seen as a fault by Polig Monjarret and the other political and cultural activists of post-war Brittany.
The Breton musical ecosystem
The Breton traditional bagpipe — the biniou koz, pictured right — has an altogether different status. Its main characteristic is that it plays a secondary role vis-à-vis the bombarde, which has always been and remains the leading instrument. As a corollary, the biniou is technically quite simple and it does not really lend itself to virtuosity.
As to Breton music, it was basically decentralised, polymorphous and open to outside influences. The repertoire and the style of playing vary according to different regions, and it is still possible, on hearing a tune, to tell in which area it is normally played — although attempts were made after the war to define a ‘baseline’ and to standardise the musical scene of the time in order to provide some point of reference, all the more necessary in a destructured society. Lastly, the biniou koz, like the bombarde, is a rural instrument, which was never associated with the bourgeoisie or the establishment and was only tolerated by the Church.
The musical ecosystem being so different in both countries, one could wonder what sort of niche the Highland bagpipe would find in Brittany.
The biniou bras
The Scottish bagpipe soon found a name in Brittany: biniou bras, i.e. the ‘big’ bagpipe, as opposed to the biniou koz (the ‘old’ bagpipe), also called biniou bihan (the ‘small’ bagpipe). But how Scottish was it to remain?
The Breton magazine, Ar Soner published in October 1949 an interesting paper written by Polig Monjarret. Entitled, ‘le biniou bras est-il un bagpipe?’ (‘Is the biniou bras a Scottish bagpipe?’), this article reveals all sorts of contradictions which will eventually take the form of conflicts between “traditionalists” (who try to deny the Scottish ascendancy of the biniou bras and ignore its special fingering and gracenoting system) and the so-called ‘écossomanes‘, who will soon be considered by some of their fellow countrymen as betraying their Motherland.
This description, necessarily simplified, must be replaced in the political context of the time. This being said, Polig Monjarret’s basic reasoning is as follows:
- The ‘écossomanes’ claim that the biniou bras, as it has been adapted and propagated by B.A.S., is the Scottish bagpipe.
- However, Dorig Le Voyer (another great pioneer of the Breton revival and a maker of bombardes and biniou) owns a drawing of a ‘veze guérandaise‘1 which shows this instrument as being very similar to the bagpipe.
- Therefore, “we have not imposed a new instrument but adapted an instrument already known in Brittany.”
To prove his case, the author uses very doubtful arguments: the pitch is very different, since the biniou bras is in B flat and not in A (in fact, musical scores are written in B flat); the fingering is different (when Emile Allain’s Traité élémentaire de biniou appeared in 1954, Polig will have then admitted, only reluctantly, the possibility of using the Scottish fingering and system of gracenoting). Follow other arguments of a very impressionistic nature like: “the general appearance of a Breton piper differs from that of a Scottish piper” or “you only have to hear play the Breton bagpipe to understand how different it is from the Scottish one.” I have an idea of what this meant at the time!
A success story
The question in post-war Brittany was therefore how to borrow a new instrument without losing one’s soul, how to spread group playing without copying too strictly a foreign formula.
This dilemma was the source of great tensions between the proponents of the ‘orthodoxy’ and various groups of dissidents, open to outside influences and, in particular, to the origins of the instrument.
It is interesting to note that the opposition between the traditionalists (we borrow the instrument but not the technique) and the ‘écossomanes’ (if you want to master the instrument and use it to its full capabilities, you have to master the technique which goes with it) soon found a parallel among bombarde players: on one side, the traditional and rather instinctive players; on the other, those who borrowed from classical wind instruments in order to elaborate the technique of the bombarde.
Paradoxically, the success of the biniou bras ensured the survival of the biniou koz, which found a new public and new performers. The latter requiring no particular training for an experienced bagpiper, many were prepared to have a go at it and adopt it whenever they wanted to return to the roots of Breton music.
The past 50 years: Scottish music vs Breton music
Here again, the outside observer can only be struck by the relative stability of the Scottish pipe music over the years. It seems it has reached a climax and cannot really evolve any more: the same set formulas are used (pipe-bands, competitions), there is little technical or musical innovation, the use of the bagpipe in folk groups, orchestras, etc. remains a limited (and often unconvincing) phenomenon. It does not mean Scottish music is not productive; it is just not adventurous. For instance, the few piobaireachd composed in the 20th century follow the ancient patterns, whereas one could easily imagine new types of bagpipe music, along the lines, for instance, of the so-called repetitive music.
The bagad, on the other hand, kept evolving, not only on the technical level. First of all, it is now more an orchestra than a military band. The main bagad competition, held in Lorient every summer, allows for a certain element of innovation: therefore, one can observe trends and fashions. After a period of great frictions between the traditionalists and the ‘musicians’, came the time of outside influences: Renaissance music, jazz, ethnic music; the drum section became a percussion section; all sorts of instruments find their way in the bagad: bass bombardes, clarinets, biniou koz, accordion, etc. To the jury, each competition comes very much as a surprise.
The biniou bras: a secondary instrument
It is clear, however, that the biniou bras remains a secondary instrument, just like the traditional biniou koz, and in spite of the existence of active associations and of various attempts to compose typically Breton pipe tunes, solo piping is an isolated phenomenon.
Any Scottish piper who hears bagad music nowadays must be struck by the limited role allotted to the pipes, which play intermittently (they stop, either completely, or the drones keep playing). We reach this paradox whereby what makes the specificity of the bagpipe — the continuity of the sound — is sometimes seen as a hindrance in contemporary Breton music.
As a conclusion
It is not clear what the future of Breton bagad music in general will be or of the bagpipe in particular, but the very fact that it is unclear means it has not reached its climax yet. It may still bring surprises.
The question raised by Polig Monjarret in 1949 and still being asked again and again by tourists and other non-specialists remains: “What difference is there between the Scottish bagpipe and the Breton bagpipe?” It would be interesting to make a poll among Breton pipers and find out how many possible answers this question may give rise to. Personally, I would be tempted to say: “same instrument, another music.”
1 The véze or veuze is a one-drone bagpipe (not unlike the Galician gaita) which was played (solo) in the area of Nantes, in the South of Brittany. It can be argued that the véze might have evolved to resemble the Scottish bagpipe (by the addition of two tenor drones). However, this was not the case as the tradition was discontinued, which also implies that the technique and the répertoire were partially lost. The véze has only recently been artificially revived.