The Beginnings

 

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What did cerdd dant sound like 500 years ago? It’s almost impossible to imagine! The earliest recordings of cerdd dant, or penillion singing, come from the beginning of the twentieth century – and even those recordings sound quite different to the way cerdd dant is sung today.

On paper, no record exists of a cerdd dant ‘setting’ or counter melody (gosodiad) until 1839, in The Welsh Harper by John Parry (Bardd Alaw) – but we cannot be sure that what appeared here accurately reflected the oral tradition at the time.

We can, however, be sure of one thing – that singing of some kind to harp accompaniment goes back a very long time, perhaps as far as the time of the Druids. Other people apart from the Celts had harps, of course, but over the centuries one essential element became important in Wales which would make the art of singing with the harp different: the special relationship between poetry and music. Cerdd Dant is essentially a means of performing poetry, and the words are always given the greatest priority.

"Penillion singing near Conwy" – from a colour lithograph, dated 1792, by the artist J.C. Ibbetson

(It is thought that, for a long period, the harpist and singer were one and the same, but by around the early middle ages the two arts had been separated.

There are several references to the art of singing with the harp in manuscripts from the Middle Ages onwards, for example in this quote from the Peniarth Manuscript, from around 1330:

Tri pheth a beir kanmawl kerddawr, nyt amgen: dychmycvawr ystyr, ac odidawc kerddwriaeth, ac eglur datganyat…..Tri anhepgor kerdd ysyd, nyt amgen: medwl digrif, a messureu kerddwryaeth, a thauawt eglur wrth y datkan


(Three things deserve to be praised in a musician, material wich is substantial and imagination, good music and a clear declamation….Three things are essential in music, an innovative mind, musical measures and a clear tongue to declaim)

In the Statute of Gruffydd ap Cynan, a sixteenth century manuscript (but which, according to tradition, was composed in Gruffydd’s lifetime, around 1100), we have the following:

A wedi hynny y dichon atkeiniad….dysgu i blethiadau oll a ffroviad kyffredin ai ostegion a thair ar ddec o brif geinciau ai gwybod yn iawn yn i partiau ac atkan i gywydd gida hwy

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(And subsequently all declaimers (singers)….can learn all the plethiadau and the common profiad and the 13 basic melodies and know them all in all their parts and how to declaim his cywydd to them)


Lewis Morris of Anglesey offers a glimpse of penillion singing in a letter to Owen Meyrick in 1738:

It is a custom in most counties of North Wales (but better preserved in the mountainous parts of Merionethshire &c) to sing to the Harp certain British verses in rhyme (called pennills) upon various subjects. Three or four kinds of them they can adapt and sing to the measures of any of the tunes in use among them, either in common or triple times, making some parts of the tune a symphony….these Penills that our Countrymen… this day sing to the Harp and Crwth, a method of singing perhaps peculiar to themselves
A depiction of a Welsh harpist by J.Michael Brown which appeared in the 'Cambrian Minstrelsie' (Alawon Gwalia) – a collection of Welsh melodies edited by Joseph Parry.