The bagadoù of Brittany


By Hugh Cheape

Bagad Lann-Bihoué playing at a theatre beside the Atlantic Ocean in 2013.
Bagad Lann-Bihoué playing at a theatre beside the Atlantic Ocean in 2013.

We in Scotland might sometimes be criticised for regarding our own piping tradition genre. Participation in the Festival Interceltique in Lorient in Brittany in August enabled three Scottish t bands to experience the vitality, skill, and enthusiasm of a different but related tradition of the bagpipe family of Europe.

As a similar tradition to our own, what we can recognise most readily is the ability of individual players and the grouping into bands or bagadoù of pipers and drummers. For most of us, this is where the similarities end. In the first place, the piping sections include pipers playing the piob mhór, our own Highland pipes transplanted and vigorously rooted together with the bombarde, the keyed chanter blown directly in the manner that we might test a pipe chanter reed. The bombarde sounds in the same octave with the pipes but plays intermittently, sustaining the melody for perhaps four, eight or 16 bars before breaking off. Many of the bagadoù have their bombardes playing in harmony – this is not the simple part playing in ‘seconds’ but elaborate and impressive settings with snatches of counterpoint in more or less bars or particular phrases or coming to a magnificent crescendo at the end of measure.

The highland pipes are referred to as la cornemuse, or as le grand biniou, or as le biniou. The biniou proper, le petit biniou, is the traditional small bagpipe of Brittany, which has a chanter and a single drone, the relative size being reminiscent of the Northumbrian small pipes. The popular and functional role of the biniou and the bombarde playing in concert, the jeu de couple, is at any social gathering of any size, be it of the family or of the whole community, for weddings, dances, celebrations and public festivals, and also for religious festivals and pilgrimages, known in Brittany as les pardons. The two instruments play in octaves, with the bombarde sounding an octave lower, stating the melody and the high-pitched biniou echoing the measures in a beautiful and sometimes hauntingly sad note as the bombarde leaves off playing. Parts of the standard repertoire of the couples, for example, are the dance and song tunes in 4/4 time for the gavotte, the very popular brisk Breton dance. This is a type of dance that originated in France and became diffused over Europe and absorbed into the classical tradition in the Baroque era. In Brittany today, the gavotte is not the square contredanse of an earlier era but in the form of open files or closed circles en chaîne. As is characteristic of folk melodies, the tunes can be repeated at will to allow the dance to develop and, as they choose, everyone can link arms into the open or closed chains which snake in a sidewards movement round and round the floor to the steady rhythmic beat of the dance steps. To be drawn into these communal dances is a very happy experience.

Georges Bothua and Patrick Molard playing at a concert held at Edinburgh Academy in 1998. The concert was promoted by the Lowland & Border Pipers' Society.
Georges Bothua and Patrick Molard playing at a concert held at Edinburgh Academy in 1998. The concert was promoted by the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society.

Apart then from the couples of bombarde and biniou, the feeling of the music, even from the bands, is very different. It takes time to become accustomed to the part playing of the bombardes because we are not used to the consequent rise and fall in volume. The Scots tended to comment also that the music is repetitive, but Breton pipers occasionally passed the same comment about our performance. Greater knowledge and mutual understanding is, of course, the key to this attitude of mind. To do justice to the bands of our host country they played our music with us in: the massed bands, although we did not attempt any of their repertoire as a form of cultural exchange.

One feels that the pipe band in Brittany has taken some leaves form the Scottish book. Our own pipe bands developed their now familiar form in the course of the 19th century but in Brittany the founding of the first pipe band is still within the living memory of many. Their term, Bagad-Sonerion, is roughly equivalent to ‘pipe band’ in English. It is usually abbreviated to bagad, plural bagadoù. The words of course are Breton, the Celtic sister tongue, most closely akin to Welsh rather than to the Gaelic of Ireland and Scotland. Although it is a matter of history, it is not surprising that we should look to similarities between the Breton people and our own Celtic past. Between the fifth and seventh centuries, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, there was a leisurely migration from Britain into the peninsula of Brittany especially from Celtic Cornwall and under the leadership of princes of south and east Wales. The Celtic kingdoms so established in Brittany maintained their links with the west of Britain, the sea forming a unifying highway rather than a divide. Arguably the most important identifying feature of any people is their language and this attribute intensifies under pressure from a dominating majority linguistic group. Breton has survived in the face of French in the same way that Welsh and Gaelic have survived in the face of English although a sense of crisis is now strong in these three Celtic camps. In the same way that many of the terms of piping in Scotland are Gaelic it is reassuring to find that piping terms and tune names in Brittany are Breton.

We recognise one or two phases in the history of piping in Scotland when all was not well, such as in. the later 18th and later 19th centuries. The response to these crises was the patronage of the Highland Societies of London and Edinburgh in the 1780s and the founding of the Piobaireachd Society at the turn of this century. The founding of a Pipers Association in 1942, the Bodadeg ‘ar Sonerion, was the Breton response to a strong sense of decline in the art and its traditions. It must be not without significance that the. Beginnings of this renaissance came during the war- time German occupation of France when Brittany was very much in the front line.

The founding of the Pipers’ Association is taken to be the starting point of band playing in Brittany. It represented therefore a break with the old couple bombarde-biniou tradition that was also declining in the face of the growing popularity of the accordion. In the new bagadoù the instruments were of course cornemuses (not the biniou) bombardes and tambours. This was considered by traditionalists to be a youthful enthusiasm for playing in groups and an unnecessary importation of such: foreign elements as the Highland bagpipe, the drum corps and military style formation marching and drill The jeu de couple was bound to suffer in the face of such a stentorian novelty. The piping revival, therefore, had its critics and one compromise of Scottish pattern but modified to produce a softer sound. Few ambitious Pipe Majors would relish this and in fact most of the features that we tend to favour for band playing were restored and today sets of pipes and chanters of Scottish manufacture are much favoured in Brittany.

In spite of the reservations of the pessimists and the outcry of the scorners the musical revival was to become a general one for Breton piping and the couple bombard-binou have made a striking comeback to attain a position of popularity and respect in Brittany today especially with their strong social role.

The circumstances of war would make it difficult to form pipe bands, such activities no doubt being regarded by the occupying power as tantamount to sedition and civil disturbances. The first pipe bands appeared after the war and, not surprisingly, they were military bands. A pipe band was formed by servicemen at the depot at Dinan in the Côtes du Nord in 1947. The transitory nature of military life, especially within the framework of conscription, had two important consequences. In the first place, it was almost impossible to keep a body of players together for much more than a year. Secondly, on ‘the credit side, as the band was having to refill its ranks annually, the demand for pipers grew, the opportunities for instruction and learning developed and successive generations of ‘demobilised’ soldier pipers took their skills and enthusiasm back home with them. This first military pipe band folded after a few years but was succeeded by the pipe band of the depot at Rennes. In 1953, the first naval pipe, band was formed at the Lann-Bihoué base by Lorient in Morbihan. Those who follow the fortunes of the Breton bagadoù will know that this band is still flourishing.

In 1948, the first local pipe band was founded at Carhaix in the east of Finistère by the ‘Railwaymen’s Friendly Society of the Brittany Railway Network’. Later the same year a local band was formed at nearby Rostrenen in Côtes du Nord and a third local band was formed the following year at Quimperlé in southeast Finistère.

In July 1949, the first pipe band competition was held at the famous Fêtes de Cornouaille at Quimper at which Carhaix took the first prize from Rostrenen. From 1950 until 1953, the competition was held at Quimperlé some 30 miles to the east. In 1953, a National Pipe Band Championship was instituted at Brest where it was held annually until 1970. Since 1971, it has been held at Lorient as an integral part of the annual ten-day Festival Interceltique, organised by that town. For those who have not had an opportunity of visiting the festival or participating in it, this constitutes an annual gathering with concerts, theatre and recitals, exhibitions of art of all kinds, traditional sports, dancing and evenings of folk tale narrative and poetry, attracting groups of singers, dancers and instrumentalists from the old Celtic world of Galicia in Spain, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man and of course from all over Brittany, the westernmost province of France. The Festival has become le Festival des Cornemuses and the bagpipe provides the emphatic and enduring note of the whole event.

Bagad Cap Caval competing in Lorient in 2017.

The National Pipe Band Championship certainly enhances the Festival and brings the talents of the best Breton bagadoù to it, but for the bandsmen it is just one more, perhaps the culminating event of an annual series. The competition at Lorient is the final phase of a two-stage National Championship. Only those bands that have competed at the first stage in the preceding spring at Vannes are eligible for Lorient. The bagadoù champions are chosen on an aggregate because the points gained at the two competitions are added together for the final placing.

Analagous to the framework organised by the Scottish Pipe Band Association, the pipe bands of Brittany are classed in four categories or grades, known in Breton as rummad, meaning ‘type’ or ‘series’. The fourth grade comprises new bands or those experiencing some difficulties, often insignificant enough but crucial to-a struggling band. The third grade is subdivided into two groups those in group A are the bands selected in the local competitions for the participation in the Championships at Lorient, and those in group B are the bands not so selected. The second grade includes those bands that are considered to have attained a satisfactory level of ability. In effect, they are the bands between the novices and unsuccessful bands and the experienced prize-winning bands. The first grade comprises the best competing and prize-winning bands of Brittany. The National Championships are the final stage for deciding the grading of bands; on the issue of this the pipe bands in the second grade can then gain promotion to the first grade or find themselves relegated to the third grade. If the first grade bands fail to gain a sufficient number of points, they can be demoted to the second grade. In the last 30 years of National Championships, noted consistent prize-winners have been the Bagad Saint-Mark of Brest and the Bagad Bleimor and, most recently, winning the Championship for four successive years from 1975 to 1978, the Bagad Kemper (Quimper). The six bands that won a place in the first grade of the National Championship at Lorient this year were the well-known bagadoù of Quimper. Rennes, Nantes, Quimperlé, Vannes and Auray. In the competition this August, the Bagad Quimperlé gained the premier award.

In our experience in Scotland, bands come and bands go but the traditions of piping and bands continue to flourish, In Brittany the numbers of bands forming each year since about 1950 has been most striking and, not surprisingly, they have sprung up in places where Breton emigrants grants have settled. Several have been founded in the Paris area, the Bagad Bleimor being a well known. example, one has been founded at Tours, two at Lyon, one at Lille, one at Bordeaux, one at Cherbourg, one at Le Havre, one at Orléans, one at Avranches and one at Marseille. Those who know Bretons will realise that to move out of Brittany to settle elsewhere in France may, be tantamount to settling abroad. Bands have also been formed overseas, in North America. One may be optimistic about piping in Brittany because all the signs of a flourishing tradition may be met with, and, in order to broaden own knowledge and understanding Piping, we cannot do better familiarise ourselves with the bagadoù of Brittany.

*From the International Piper, September 1979.