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Breton Concerto: Introduction

June 24th 2009 sees the first performance of a new concerto by Andrew Wilson, the "Concerto on Breton Themes" Opus 119, specially commissioned for the Dante Summer Festival. The performance is to take place in Saint Mary's Parish Church, Callington, Cornwall, with the Dante String Quartet and the Dante Festival Orchestra conducted by Tim Boulton. The Dante Festival Orchestra is formed of the best string players from a wide range of local schools, organised through Callington Community College

The work is a kind of twenty-first century Concerto Grosso in that it uses the Dante String Quartet as a concertino sometimes in opposition to the ripieno strings; sometimes in dialogue with them and sometimes accompanied by them either as soloists or as a group.

This is the second time Andrew has adopted this form the first was in the "Three Bridges Concerto" opus 35 first performed by the Ten Tors Orchestra in 2002, where the concertino group consisted of 2 violins, cello and harpsichord. He has also composed three solo concertos: for clarinet (Peter Cigleris and the South West Sinfonietta), organ and viola.

Origins of the new work

Some years ago now, coming towards the end of a most memorable holiday in Brittany, I made a visit with my wife and then small daughter to the beautiful city of Quimper. The centre of the town, around the cathedral, was alive to the sound of  traditional Breton music: the scrape and whine of the hurdy-gurdy and the ear-splitting bombarde and biniou. These unfamiliar sounds made a lasting impression on me and when I entered a little bookshop in a tilting, cobbled alley I was delighted to find a tiny volume of Breton folk tunes, dating from 1934 “Kantigou Brezonek”. The first shock this book held for me was its total unintelligibility! True the tunes, in normal staff notation made perfect sense, but the words! I considered myself a reasonable French reader, by the miserable standards of our smug island, but here was a language where hardly a single word resembled any I’d seen either in France or anywhere else. So, on my bookshelves the little book stayed for years unread and unappreciated.


When Krysia Osostowicz first approached me about composing a piece for the 2009 Dante Summer Festival and gave me the brief of including some link with the music of Brittany as it was to be a theme of the week, my thoughts immediately turned to that summer holiday and my little book. With more research and perseverance with the Breton language I discovered that what I had, was a collection of traditional Breton hymns: these are a million miles from our “Hymns Ancient & Modern”  however! I soon discovered that these melodies were fascinating in their diversity: often using unusual modal scales and complex irregular metres.


I chose four of my favourites and wove them into the new concerto which is a kind of musical journey to Brittany by an Englishman.

I. Allegro Vivo

The first movement sets off in holiday mood, the orchestra engages in constant banter with the quartet until we encounter the first Breton melody a 5/4 modal tune “O devez leun a joa” “O feast day full of love” traditionally sung at Breton weddings.


II. Kantigou

The second movement, “Kantigou” is based on “An Ifern” a tender melody which belies the nature of its original text, which is a colourful impression of the torments awaiting the wicked in hell, after the tradition of demonic carvings found in Breton churches. This movement is a set of variations on the folk tune, particularly featuring the solo cello (Bernard Gregor-Smith)


III. Biniou

The sheer exuberance of Breton music is represented in the last movement, named after the traditional Breton bagpipe, the Biniou. The binioù kozh has a one octave scale, and is very high-pitched; its lowest note is the same pitch as the highest on the great Highland bagpipe. It has a single drone two octaves below the tonic. In the old days the leather used for the bag was usually from a dog's skin, but this is nowadays replaced by other leathers which are easier to obtain, like cow or sheep. It is usually heard in duet with the Bombarde, a strident shawm that, appropriately enough also features in Cornish folk music. Two lively melodies “O ma ene, Kanomp” and “Aelez eus ar Baradoz” underpin this last movement with rhythmic drones and ostinati forming the much of the accompaniment.


Andrew has also created a version of this movement for Double String Quartet, and this will be performed by the Dante String Quartet and friends at their concert in Tavistock Parish Church on Sunday 28th June (preceded by a short talk by the composer about the work).