Generally speaking, central France is the largest territory of non-polyphonic singing traditions in the Western Europe. As Hugh Shields put it, “centuries of classical polyphony have made little impression on the monophonic popular tradition and its realization mainly as solo performance” (2000:542). Elements of polyphony and harmony are usually confined to the use of accompanying instruments, or, in vocal music, to the use of heterophonic singing.
Heterophonic elements had been documented in Breton (a specific historical region in western France) dance songs. Historical sources about the musical traditions of Breton society documented the staunch resistance of their pagan rituals, songs and dances. For example, the ritual dancing around a fire on St John’s Eve has survived, despite a religious ban from the 600s (Kuter, 2000:561). The singing style tuilage, where two voices (“singer” – kaner and “countersinger” – diskaner) alternate and sometimes overlap, exists in Breton (and neighbouring regions).
Other region with the elements of polyphony is the Southeast France and particularly the Southwestern corner of France. Here (mostly in Bearn) there is a tradition of two-part singing mostly in parallel thirds, although the use of traditional modes (for example the use of natural 7th step) suggest older origins of this type of polyphony.
This tradition of vocal part-singing could be connected to the influence of traditional musical culture of neighbouring Basques. Basques are known to be the only survivors of the pre-Indo-European population of old Europe. This unique position of the Basques is chiefly a result of the isolation of their language, the oldest and the only non-Indo-European language in Western Europe. Therefore, the presence of the tradition of vocal polyphony is quite interesting in this mountainous region. Basque traditional music widely uses the tradition of vocal polyphony, which has some traces of the late influence of the European harmonic language. This influence is mostly heard in the wide use of parallel thirds. Both Spanish and French parts of the ethnic territory of Basques are known to be regions of distribution of this kind of two-part singing. (See musical examples of Basque polyphony later, in a section dedicated to Spanish traditional polyphony).
Interestingly, one of the most developed traditions of vocal polyphony of the Western Europe (and Mediterranean basin), Corsica, is a part of mostly monophonic France.
Although paghjella was often mentioned in 19th century accounts of travelers, as it was a case with many other polyphonic traditions of the Europe, Corsican polyphony was not recorded until after the 2nd World War. Felix Quilici and Wolfgang Laade recorded this tradition in the 1940s and the 1950s. As soon as the Corsican tradition entered the scholastic circle, it became clear that it was one of the richest and finest traditions of vocal polyphony in Europe.
Polyphony is mostly spread through the inland, far from the coastal regions, often representing the forest-covered mountains of the central and northern parts of the island. By the end of the 1940s, when this tradition was finally recorded and documented by ethnomusicologists, it was mostly performed by local shepherds at informal gatherings. Its status was not very high and the tradition seemed to be fading. From the 1970s Corsican polyphony became a musical symbol of the Corsican political movement and made a big appearance on the international scene of world music (Bithell, 2000b).
The traditional polyphonic repertoire of Corsica consists of three main types of songs: the paghjella, the terzetti and the madrigale. Paghjella is the best known and the “most Corsican” local style. The term paghjella is connected to the term paghja (“pair”). Laade suggests this term could “refer to the pair of half verses, which together make one line of the poem and a sung strophe” (Laade, 2000:569). Paghjella is a three-part singing tradition with a few distinguishing features:
(1) All three parts – two melodic lines and the bass – are performed by individual singers. The bass is the only part that can feature more than one performer (Laade, 2000:569);
(2) The two top melodic lines sing highly ornamented melodies (melismas – ricucetti), first following each other, then joining and concluding the musical phrase together;
(3) The two top parts sing mostly in the same range, and there is no agreement between ethnomusicologists of which to consider the highest or the middle part: secunda or terse (interestingly, there is no part called prima!). Laade considers secunda (the one that starts singing) the highest and terza the middle(Laade, 2000:569), but Bithell considers secunda the middle (although the leading) voice and terza the highest (Bithell, 2000:6). According to the stratification of the voices in the cadence, as well as the stratification of parts in other three-part polyphonic European traditions, secunda seems to be the middle part.
(4) Paghjella is mostly performed by males, although two brilliant female singers (Patrizia Poli and Patrizia Gattaceca) were leaders of the internationally renowned group Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses;
(5) Dissonant chords and intervals play an important role in the paghjella tradition;
(6) Links with the European major-minor harmonic system are obvious, particularly in the bass movements on T, D and S, and in the final chord, based on the major tonic chord;
(7) The paghjella often starts in a minor key and concludes in the same, but major key (reminiscent of the endings of many polyphonic compositions of J.S.Bach).
(8) The rhythm, known among professional musicians as parlando-rubato, is free, which makes precise coordination between the voices challenging. Smooth rhythmic coordination is considered crucial for a good quality performance;
(9) The singing style is harsh and strained, particularly in the top voices, and the bass is more relaxed. While singing, performers usually stand close to each other, with hands cupped around their ears, and they often sing with closed eyes.
Each village usually had their own versu’s (the basic model of musical realization) and they were referred to as “u versu di Russiu”, “u versu di Tagliu” according to the village or region (Bithell, 2000:7). The central and most important region of the paghjella tradition is the forest-covered mountainous region of Castagniccia in central-eastern Corsica.
Another part of Corsica’s polyphonic tradition is connected to the influence of Italian music. Corsica belonged to the Italian cities Pisa and Genoa from the 11th to the 18th centuries. This influence is felt in such polyphonic genres as Madrigale, sirinati (serenades), barcarole, brindisi and dance songs (Laade, 2000:570-571). Their performance style sometimes is referred as a paghjella (“in a paghjella style”, Bithell, 2000:5). “Songs of Italian or French origin are always sung in a relaxed voice, and many village and urban singers sing Italian and modern Corsican songs in an operatic bel canto [‘beautiful singing’ in Italian, a famous operatic singing style in Italy] voice” (Laade, 2000:571).