Music Kernow – Introduction

Categories Music Kernow, Music, dance and art

Join Tony Mansell as he introduces the Music Kernow series, a series celebrating Cornwall’s important relationship with music through the ages.

It serves us in sorrow and in joy, it helps our celebrations, it cuts across barriers and calms our anger. What could it be but music? Yet, like so many things that we take for granted, we have no idea where or how it started. Did some early hunter-gatherer idly tap out a rhythm with a couple of bones on a lump of granite? Did he then join with some friends to form the first group? A fanciful idea, perhaps, but maybe, just maybe, that was how it all started. Of course, we have no idea where this may have been but I like to think that it was in a place with real soul, somewhere where music is really appreciated, somewhere like Cornwall.

There is an immense and diverse range of music which can be fairly linked to Cornwall and this brief introduction is for a Cornish music series that will look at the wide range of music genres, all of it distinctly Cornish and special to us. It will include articles by people who share a common aim: to record and celebrate the history of Cornish music so that future generations can better appreciate their musical heritage.

Robert Morton Nance, the co-founder of the Old Cornwall movement, wrote that we should “Gather ye the fragments that are left, that nothing be lost”. He went on to say that these fragments we set ourselves to gather, not in the spirit of collectors of quaint and useless curios, but as gleaners of the folk-culture of Cornwall, upon which all really Cornish art and literature of the future must be based, and hoping that future generations will arise, Cornish still, to make good use of them. Would Nance approve of what has been done to collect and record this rich heritage and are we satisfied that we have done all that we can to cherish and to celebrate it? At a time when our Cornishness is being swamped by factors beyond our control: by the rapid influx of folk unfamiliar with our traditions and by governments which seem determined to mould us into a homogenous entity, it is more important than ever before to  safeguard our heritage before it is lost to time.

Dr Merv Davey (Telynyor An Weryn), the Grand Bard of Cornwall, will write about the history of traditional songs and dance music – folk music if you like. In the main it was written by the Cornish for the Cornish and sung to local audiences in the many halls, public places and pubs. And it is still being produced to be woven into the rich tapestry which we call Cornishness. It adds to our rich cultural legacy and Nance’s famous motto applies to it as much as it does to our language, our artefacts and our monuments. Merv’s knowledge of his subject is both passionate and eclectic, to such an extent that he is now referred to as “Dr Folk”. We are fortunate to be able to include his contribution.

Choirs are so deep-rooted in the Cornish music scene that we tend to think of them as belonging to us. Whether they be mixed choirs or those divided by gender, they abound across our land. There is, of course, an overlap with folk and traditional music as no choir repertoire would be complete without compositions of that sort and it would be rare to attend a concert that does not include some of the old favourites. There is something particularly distinctive about the sound of a Cornish male voice choir. It inspires pride and raises passion and that was never more apparent than when our “1,000 voices” took their talents to the capital back in 1983 to sing in the Royal Albert Hall. Our choirs have a rich history and despite the onslaught of recorded music, they retain pride of place in the Cornish music scene.

Photo: Pixabay 2017

Brass bands too, are not limited by any physical boundary. Indeed, Cornwall cannot fairly claim to be their traditional home but that was more to do with our remote location than any reluctance to adopt them with open arms. Indeed, in Cornwall they flourished with almost every community eager to have its own to help celebrate the wide ranging secular and religious activities. Tony Mansell (Skrifer Istori) will draw on his experience as a player and as a passionate historian as he reveals the innermost secrets of the brass band world. It is true that the number of brass bands has reduced across the years but that obscures the fact that the movement is in a healthy state with a huge number of young people taking part in its activities. The sound of a brass band is evocative, perhaps of euphonic tones on a balmy evening with the sight and sound of the sea in the background. Undoubtedly, brass bands hold a special place in our communal hearts.

Photo: Pixabay 2017

Kate Neale has undertaken extensive research on Cornish carols, or curls if you prefer. Cornwall has a great tradition of carol singing, many written by local composers. They are joyous and comparable with those produced by more illustrious composers. The non-conformist movement flourished in Cornwall and provided an ideal platform for composers like the miner, Thomas Merritt. He is perhaps our most celebrated writer and from his home in Broad Lane, Illogan, he produced many which were to echo across Cornish fields and valleys long after his death in 1908. Now, more than 100 years later, we are experiencing a revival with Christmas carol services dedicated to his music. Kate’s article will capture this with material from South Australia and California, two areas where Cornish miners settled and shared their culture and traditions.

Phillip Hunt (Lef A Vrest) has been a part of the Cornish music scene for many years: as a broadcaster, writer and as a concert compere. His work for the brass band music is extensive and there will be more about him in a future article. His activities have brought him into contact with a great number of famous musicians, some born in Cornwall, some who have made it their home and others who have been inspired by this mystical Celtic land. His articles provide a valuable insight into the lives and work of a few of these inspirational musicians.

The crowd and Cornish bagpipes depicted on the pew ends at Altarnun Church. (Photo: Tony Mansell 2017)

The history of the instruments used to create our music is fascinating. Their evolution continues as innovative ideas and technical advances make it possible to improve on earlier versions. Many of these instruments are not immediately associated with Cornwall, however, there are many clues, like the depictions on the pew ends at Altarnun Church which indicate that they were being played here many hundreds of years ago. One such instrument is the accordion; it is played in countries across the world but its origins are cloudy. Dr Garry Tregidga (Map Rosvean), Director of the Institute of Cornish Studies at Exeter University, is an exponent of this instrument and his article will throw light on its history and development in the nineteenth century.

This series is intended to be diverse: it will comprise ten very different articles – possibly more. The common thread is Cornish music, not necessarily unique to here but that which is special to us and strongly associated with Cornwall. We hope that you enjoy the series.

Tony Mansell (Skrifer Istori)

(Cornish Story – Music Series sub-editor)

Music Kernow will continue in next month’s issue. You can find out more about the next article and its release date by following Cornish Story on Twitter and Facebook.



Tony Mansell
Tony is the author of a number of books on aspects of Cornish history. He has also been heavily involved with Cornish Story, sub-editing the recent 'Music Kernow' series and the current ‘Kernow’s Smaller Villages’ series. He was made a Bardh Kernow (Cornish Bard) for his writing and research, taking the name of Skrifer Istori. He is the website manager for the 'Old Cornwall Society' and a volunteer with the 'Cornish Music Archive'. His interests include Cornish history in general, the Civil War in Cornwall (1642 to 1646) and Cornish Brass Bands and their music.