To feel the enjoyment of the informal group singing of the English, one needs to go to one of the famous “singing pubs” of England. “Traditional singing in harmony has been recorded extensively” (Gammon, 2000:327). Unfortunately, the singing styles that have been documented during the last 100 years bear obvious traces of the influence of European professional polyphony. Fortunately, historical sources provide very important information about the wide distribution of the tradition of polyphonic singing in medieval England and other countries of the British Isles. One of the earliest and certainly the most important information about polyphony in England (and in fact, in northern Europe) comes from Giraldus Cambrensis from around 1180-1200. He described in detail the part-singing traditions in northern England and Wales. Cambrensis believed the British islanders learned the part-singing tradition from the Danes and Norwegians. After this interesting bit of information (as there is no live tradition of vocal polyphony in contemporary Norway and Denmark) there is very little information before the 18th century.
Before going further let us listen to Cambrensis himself, as citing his famous passage became a common place in the books on music history, and would be shame not to have it in a book wholly dedicated to the vocal polyphony. Readers, who have read this passage many times, can omit it, but those who will be reading it for the first time, I would suggest to remember that we are listening to a highly educated thinker who is talking about the musical life in Wales and England at the end of the 12th century:
“As to their musical euphony, they do not sing uniformly as this is done elsewhere, but diversely with many rhythm and tunes, so that in a crowd of singers, such as is the custom among these people, you will hear as many different songs and differentiations of the voices as you see heads, and hear the organic melody coming together in one consonance with the smooth sweetness of B-flat.
“Moreover, in the northern part of Great Britain, that is across the Humber and on the border of Yorkshire, the English people who inhabit those parts employ the same kind of symphonious harmony in singing, but in only two parts: one murmuring below and the other in a like manner softly and pleasantly above. Both nations have acquired this peculiarity not by art by long usage, which has made it, as it were, natural. Moreover, it prevails in both countries and is now so deeply rooted there that nothing musical is performed simply, but only diversely among the former people and in two parts among the latter. And what is more remarkable, children scarcely beyond infancy, when their wails have barely turned into songs observe the same musical performance.
“Since the English in general do not employ this method of musical performance but only the northerners, I believe that it was from the Danes and Norwegians, by whom these parts of the island were more frequently invaded and held longer, that they contracted this peculiarity of singing as well as their manner of speaking” (cited from Hibberd, 1955:8).
From the later historical sources we know that an interesting style of polyphonic singing – glee singing – existed in England. It was a non-professional tradition of singing in three or more parts, without instrumental accompaniment. The famous Copper family of Rottingdean, Sussex, is believed to be a continuation of the earlier glee-singing tradition. Their songs have been recorded and documented. There were also other forms of polyphonic activity ell in the 18th and 19th centuries: “Church and military bands played in harmony in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and were widely heard and sung to” (Gammon, 2000:327).
According to the available material, popular forms of harmonic singing in England are based on the common European classical system with parallel thirds and triad chords. However, some examples of early English professional polyphony presents another polyphonic singing style, based on the use of a drone, a small range of the melody, and secondal dissonances. Here is a rare example of earlier drone type professional polyphony.
Here we need to mention that besides the direct quite and detailed information about the vocal polyphony in England by Cambrensis, chronologically earlier sources from England also mention polyphony. Johan Scot Erigena, great Irish thinker of the 9th century, speaks about the simultaneousness of the sounds for the idea of musical harmony (Handschin, 1932:513). Handschin mentions even the earlier source from the 7th century, an Anglo-Saxon writer Aldhelm, who, according to Handschin “is the first medieval writer who distinctly refers to part-singing” (ibid, 513).
In the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis about part-singing in the British Isles Wales occupies the central place (Hibberd, 1955). Cambrensis’ claim that “you can hear in Wales as many voices [parts] as there are singers” might be an exaggeration, but there can be little doubt that a well-developed tradition of traditional polyphony existed in 12th century Wales.
An interesting folk tradition of reading the biblical texts in two parts (at a fifth interval) has been described by Kinney: “Declamation in the Welsh folk tradition is still to be heard in canu’r pwnc ‘singing the text’. As now practiced in southern Wales, the tradition is connected with reciting biblical scriptures at catechismal festivals, which became prevalent in the early 1800s. The style of sung recitation may, however, be much older. In a typical example, a passage from the Bible is announced, and the precentor sounds the note. One group enters immediately on the same note, a second part comes in at a fifth above, and the two parts chant together at that interval. The rhythm of the chant is clear, the tone firm and rather staccato, the diction clear. Phrasing is according to punctuation: the reciting tone dips slightly on each strong accent; but at cadences on commas or periods in the text, the dip may reach as much as a fourth. These cadences are snapped sharply, in a sixteenth-and-dotted-eight rhythm. The alternation of voices adds variety, as children chant in unison, then women in unison, then men, and the entire congregation once more in two parts” (Kinney, 2000:345).
The tradition of choral singing today is something of which the Welsh are rightly proud. The roots of this tradition can be found in the ancient predilection of Welshmen towards part-singing, described by Giraldus Cambrensis at the end of the 12th century, but more immediate connections should be made with the growing popularity of choral singing in the 18th and 19th centuries. The widely popular festival of choral singing “Gymanfa Ganu” has been regularly held throughout Wales for more than a century.
Not much evidence is available about polyphonic singing in Scotland and Ireland. Of course, Cambrensis’ information is interesting in regard to the singing traditions of Ireland and particularly Scotland (as Cambrensis mentions, the northern regions are more polyphonic). Interesting singing traditions from Shetland Islands, Hebrides and Orkney Islands (including the famous polyphonic hymn to St. Magnus) support the suggestion that both Ireland and particularly Scotland must have had traditions of vocal polyphony during the Middle Ages. Another reference to the existence of the tradition of polyphonic singing comes from the Irish Sagas. In a “Saga on the Sons of Usneh” there is mention of the tradition of three-part male polyphony. The Saga contains the names of all three parts as well: andord (tenor), coblach (baritone) and dord (bass) (Gruber, 1941:507).
On Tory Island, off the Northeastern tip of Ireland, the tradition of part singing is still alive. According to an article on Irish music in the “Garland Encyclopedia of World Music”, Tory islanders “favor duet or even loose choral singing more than singers elsewhere” (Shields & Gershen, 2000:381).