Saturday, 1 November 2014

Medieval Welsh Instruments

When I first invented the character of Mal Petroc, I made him a harper - because that's what everybody does, when they're seventeen and don't know much about history, and want to write about a musician.
If I was thinking about it today, I could choose from a far larger range of musical instruments, and today I discovered a new one - the pibgyrn! (other spellings are available!)

Here's a selection from the maker Moch Pryderi.

I was at a craft fair called The Big Skill, and one of the stalls was an instrument maker who had one of these. At first, I couldn't work out how to play it, because it seems to have a wide horn on each end. He showed me the reed (like a clarinet) inside the smaller of the two horns, and blew down it. He said it's like a Scottish bagpipe chanter, and can be fixed to a bag in the same way, though with a gentler sound. The pipe in the middle is made of elder wood, and the ends of sheep horn, and it was a thing shepherds could make while they were out on the hills, from readily available materials.
He also had a crwth, which is sort of a medieval Welsh fiddle - but he said that, when he came to make his first crwth he realised that it's a very different instrument to the violin. The bowing technique is different, and the aim seems to be to make a droning background sound for other instruments, such as the pibgyrn, to play melodies over the top. I once heard a crwth player, on Radio 3, and it is a very different sound to a violin - in fact, players back in the middle ages were told that they should not strive for a sweet sound. The chap on Radio 3 was playing as accompaniment to a singer, who must be the only Jamaican lady who can sing in medieval Welsh!

A crwth and pibgyrn

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