I just got home from a performance of the Chinese Opera Orchestra of Shanghai, which was founded in 2010 to preserve and popularize Chinese traditional music, according to the program booklet, and they do play Chinese traditional music and Chinese folk music — and certain hybrid compositions, part Chinese and part European. And since the musicians include several cellists and bassists, you would expect that wide a variety. After the first two pieces, “Celebration Overture” and “Dance of the Golden Snake” (the former a modern composition, the latter composed before 1935), a young woman introduced the bulk of the instruments of the orchestra in functional clusters, and performers played briefly on the instruments in turn. The clusters were reminiscent of European groupings: bowed strings, plucked strings, struck strings, woodwinds, percussion.
One instrument they didn’t introduce looked like a small pipe organ resting on the player’s thigh, played with what looked like a tuba mouthpiece, producing a high-pitched nasal drone. A quick consultation of Wikipedia[i] convinces me that it is a keyed sheng, not least because she did introduce a traditional sheng (which is smaller, uses fewer pipes, and was, in this case, higher-pitched — and its player had been hidden by the bulk of the string section from my notice). I assume that they did not introduce the keyed sheng because it is a 20th-century instrument, developed only around 1950. They also didn’t introduce the cello and bass.
The reed of the sheng vibrates at a fixed frequency, and notes are played by closing a hole on a pipe, so that the whole pipe resonates to the frequency of the reed. When the hole is open, the pipe does not resonate at the frequency of the reed and no sound is produced. Obviously, the more pipes you have, the more notes you can produce, and a keyed instrument allows for more pipes to be played. Wikipedia states that “[t]he traditional performance style is to sound two or three notes at the same time by adding a fifth and/or octave above the main melody note. When a higher note is not available, a lower note a fourth below the main melody note can be played instead.”[ii] The traditional sheng and its predecessors can be traced back to the seventh-century B.C.E., about a millenium before the Welsh poetic forms I have been discussing were being developed. Since the sheng is played by alternately blowing and inhaling, the drone and its companion notes can be played continuously — rather like the Scottish highland bagpipes and Irish uilleann pipes. The keyed sheng offers evidence of a living tradition of performance on these instruments. Can we say the same for Welsh verse?
Even though the earliest known poetry in Welsh “was composed in what we today call Scotland by Taliesen and Aneirin in the sixth century,” [iii] there is no evidence that the Welsh bards (and that is the proper term, although in Welsh it would be “bardd” and pronounced like John Barth’s surname) used bagpipes. No drones, they preferred mouth music, and the intricacy of their verse forms is a direct result of the musicality of their language. They studied their art for many years, served as officers of the king, performed with the harp in court and town, and taught their successors the boisterous and beautiful demands of their craft. In contrast to the wandering Irish poet, or poets settled in the schools in Ireland, “[i]n Wales there seems to have been more settlement of poets in the houses of the great, and that is how we see them referred to in the statement of their privileges in the Laws of Hywel Dda.”[iv]
Hywel Dda was a tenth-century king who formulated Welsh law that lasted to the end of the thirteenth century. “Three grades of poet are mentioned in laws of Hywel Dda, the penkerdd or chief poet, the bardd teulu or house poet, and cerddor or minstrel-jongluer.”[v] The legal rights enumerated for the penkerdd indicate that he was treated as a noble in the court of the king, or kings. And that lasted up until the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last prince of all Wales, in 1282.[vi] But in the interval until English law was imposed upon Wales in 1536, the chief poet lost his pre-eminence, and sometimes was forced to wander like the Irish bards, serving often as no more than a house poet, trying and maintain the old order in irregular meetings with other poets, in the face of the new disorder. But a funny thing happened to poetry in Wales. Cut loose from the royal houses, it became an art of the common man. Under English law, after all, all Welsh were commoners.
Group B. The Cywydd measures[vii]
Of the next cluster of verses of official meters, the four cywydd measures, only two seem to survive this period of turmoil. It was during this period that the twenty-four measures were “established in the fourteenth century and modified in the fifteenth.”[viii] In the following sections, the first description quoted is that of Williams. All the English examples, and any further explanation of the measures, come from Humphries.
9. The awdl gywydd. “The unit in this measure is a couplet of seven-syllable lines, the first line rhyming with a word at the pause near the middle of the second line. The last syllable of the second line then carries the main rhyme.” Humphries clarifies this: “[a] quatrain of seven-syllable lines, lines two and four rhyming, lines one and three rhyming into the third, fourth, or fifth syllable of lines two and four.”[ix] Here is an example, from “Harp Music”:
Softly, let the measure break Till the dancers wake, and rise, Lace their golden shoes, and turn Toward the stars that burn their eyes
Williams adds to his description: “After the elaboration of cynghanedd in the fourteenth century, this form was very rarely used for cywydd construction, being replaced by the deuair hirion couplet. But the lesser orders of poets went on using it and it has thus passed into the popular poetry and hymnology of modern Wales. Two awdl gywydd couplets made a convenient four-line stanza and this measure was much used by later poets in the free metres.” So this convenient couplet becomes the measure of the poetaster, rather like iambic tetrameter in the United States.
10. Cywydd deuair hirion, or long-lined couplet. “The unit here is again the seven-syllable couplet but this time the rhyme is final and unaccented (as in dress-brightness) [that is, dress rhymes with the unstressed final syllable in brightness]. Dafydd ap Gwilym wrote his cywyddau in this measure and since his time it has been the regular cywydd measure.”[x] Humphries says of this meter and his poem: “Couplets, in seven-syllable lines, rhyming a stressed with an unstressed syllable. My ‘Cymric love song’ is inaccurate, in that the lines do not contain the fill quota of seven syllables.”[xi] And here are the first two stanzas in all their inadequacy:
On the side of a hill In the month of April
I was with her In wonderful weather.
The playfulness of the cynghanedd makes up for the shortness of the line.
11. Cywydd deuair fyrion, or short-lined couplet. “This couplet of four-syllable lines has been very rarely used and is not often met with outside manuals of versification.”[xii] Humphries describes it as “A rhymed four-syllable couplet,” offering his poem “From the Green Book of Yfan” as an example, with the added feature of alliteration:
Margaret Morse, Mistress of horse, Marshalled a troop Matched, head to croup, Marched through the dales Mauling all males.
Of an example in Welsh from the work of Einion, Williams says that “[t]he measure is charming enough, but not tolerable for long.” Humphries manages stanzas M, N, O, P, Q and R before his creampuff collapses of its own weight. But then he offers a more sober example in “Cycle.” Here are the first two stanzas:
Bells in autumn Toll a rhythm Slow and solemn Calling welcome To the kingdom Of the lonesome
Can a sound throw Any shadow? The sift of snow Fills the furrow. Whose white arrow Fells the hero?[xiii]
12. Cywydd llosgyrnog. “The unit here is usually three lines, two of eight syllables and one of seven. The first two lines rhyme with the middle of the third line, which carries the main rhyme with the sixth line. The Welsh poets are thought to have learnt this measure from a common mediæval Latin hymn.”[xiv] Williams does not offer any information on what hymn that might be, but the possibility of the derivation shows how Welsh verse was changing even as it was being codified. Humphries offers a more complex, but more complete, definition of this verse form: “A six-line stanza, the syllables running eight, eight, seven; eight, eight, seven. Lines one and two rhyme with the middle of line three; lines four and five with the middle of line six; and three and six rhyme with each other.” His poem “The Champion” illuminates this rather complex description nicely. It also shows how the traditions of the Eisteddfod are sustained in Wales to this day, and how they offer a different and more grave sport than any we indulge in:
Beyond the outskirts of the town The buses park, the folk step down. Who wins the crown of the bard? Now every inch of Rhyll’s green sod Is taken for the Eisteddfod: The test, by God, will be hard.
The match is on; no football game, No tennis tournament, — the aim For which they came being song. The music, rising wave on wave, Gives, more than combat ever gave, Proof of the brave and the strong.
Robed in their blue or white or green, Solemn and bearded, tall and lean, Of Druid mien, the old men, One in a golden corselet, go, Better to listen, to and fro, Over and over again.
Late in the day, they summon one To honor’s place, the golden throne, There to be known as the best. Hebog, the Hawk, puts on the crown As the six-foot sword is drawn, sheathed, drawn, And the sun goes down in the west.[xv]
The element of displaced combat, of contest without bloodshed, is indicated by the “six-foot sword” even more than the assertion that “The music … Gives, more than combat ever gave, Proof of the brave and the strong.” Suppose in our day the same reverence, in custom and in law, held for poetry that holds for football in our culture (and, though in Wales, football means what we call soccer, Humphries was an American professor of literature). What strong voices would emerge from BYU and U of U, from UVU and WSU, from USU and SUU, to challenge and to triumph in the truly head-banging combat of verse?
But hold on, I hear you say — wouldn’t that upset the whole concept of a university?
[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheng_%28instrument%29, accessed 21 September 2011.
[iii] from Gwyn Williams, An introduction to Welsh poetry, from the beginnings to the sixteenth century (Freeport, N. Y. : Books for Libraries Press, 1970) [reprinted from edition published London : Faber & Faber, 1953], p. 5.
[iv] Ibid., p. 7.
[v] Ibid., p. 8.
[vi] Ibid., p. 11; this was obviously before the heir to the throne of England became the Prince of Wales.
[vii] Ibid., p. 236-237.
[viii] Ibid., p. 232.
[ix] Humphries, Rolfe. Green armor on green ground : poems in the twenty-four official Welsh meters, and some, in free meters, on Welsh themes. – [New York] : Scribner’s, 1956, p. 70.
[x] Williams, p. 236.
[xi] Humphries, p. 70.
[xii] Williams, p. 237
[xiii] Description from p. 70, poems from pp. 18-21 of Humphries.
[xiv] Williams, p. 237.
[xv] Description, p. 70; poem, p. 22.