Supported by a £33,600 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and further funding from the Cornwall Heritage Trust and Screen Cornwall, the project seeks to rebalance the awareness of women’s roles in Cornish music-making past and present.
Like other areas of Cornish heritage, mainstream ideas of the Duchy’s music are dominated by male figures and traditions such as male-voice choirs and brass bands, but women have always been active in leading and shaping Cornish music. Through my role as an historian and curator–and indeed more recently as a musician on the Cornish Trad scene, I have felt particularly strongly about this imbalance.
“The work of musical women in Cornwall past and present has been astonishing, for example, the founding of early operatic and orchestral societies was very often fronted by a woman. The composition of the earlier version of Trelawny—Cornwall’s unofficial anthem—was by a woman. The revival of Celtic-Cornish instrumental and sung traditional music and carols has also been significantly led by women, such as Hilary Coleman, Frances Bennett and Sally Burley. Without their skills in capturing, recording and sharing since the early 1990s we just wouldn’t have our rich traditional repertoire.”
Over the course of the 15-month project, which is the first of its kind, the Hypatia Trust will host a programme of events to explore and celebrate music of various genres in Cornwall through a female lens. A volunteer research group will be recruited to delve into archives around Cornwall and discover the stories and music of historical women. Composing and conducting workshops aimed at building girls’ confidence in these male-dominated areas will be delivered in partnership with the Cornwall Music Service Trust, a charity committed to supporting the aspirations of young people in Cornwall through music education.
Workshop on women in the history of Cornish Trad
One of these events will be a workshop led by me in association with CornishTrad.com and our efforts to share knowledge, history and information on Cornish traditional music with the world. It will take place at the Hypatia Trust, Chapel Street, Penzance on Saturday 4 April 10.30am-1pm. This half-day workshop will explore what we know about the history of women who composed, performed and shaped the identity of the Cornish traditional music we know today.
We are very happy to share news of a rare manuscript of Cornish music found in Penzance’s Morrab Library. It is of a song called Can Palores or Song of the Chough.
In March 2019, Cornish Trad editors Tom and Tehmina Goskar, were rootling in the pamphlets section of the Jenner Room when they found two documents slipped into the cover of a copy of Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Dialect and Folk Songs, 1932.
The song was composed by Dr. Ralph Dunstan, a Cornishman and musicologist to whom we owe much of our knowledge of traditional Cornish music and song. The musical manuscript is fleeting, providing barely 12 bars of a lilting tune, somewhat of a slow air, in D major, set for harmony singing. It is beautifully penned in Dunstan’s own hand with one of its verses in Kernewek, the Cornish language. Until the discovery of this manuscript no one in modern times knew the song’s tune.
1932 is a key year in the story of this find. Tehmina takes up the story.
The Western Morning News of 17 September 1932 contains an article by a correspondent called Cornishwoman. It describes a Celtic song, dance and theatrical concert performed at the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro under Dunstan’s direction.
The newspaper article refers to the performance of An Balores, a “Cornish interlude” in which Phoebe Nance took part. Phoebe Nance, later Procter, from Carbis Bay was made a bard of the Gorsedh the week before and took the name Morwennol—Sea Swallow. Could it have been Phoebe that performed Can Palores during her interlude? We know Phoebe was musical and also a fluent Cornish speaker.
It became clear that the four verses at the end of the play belonged to Can Palores that we found in the Morrab Library.
Having found the newspaper description of the Truro performance, it remained a mystery what the “interlude” called An Balores was referring to. Correspondence with Cornish bard, scholar and poet Pol Hodge mentioned that also in 1932 Robert Morton Nance had published a short play called An Balores. Luckily we were able to locate a copy from the public library quite quickly and it became clear that the four verses at the end of the play belonged to Can Palores that we found in the Morrab Library.
King Arthur is not dead!
The short and little-known play–published locally in St Ives and not widely circulated–involves four men and two women who debate the death of a chough on a bier in front of them. One of them is the justice. He questions the others about the reason for the bird’s demise. The play and song’s purpose is to link the symbolism of the (Cornish) icon of King Arthur, Cornish identity and the Cornish language, which, through its revival, will ensure that the chough and King Arthur – and Cornwall – will live on. The refrain of the song, which appears at the end of the play, is “Nyns-yu marrow Myghtern Arthur!” or “King Arthur is not dead!”
Morton Nance, who became Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedh a couple of years after writing An Balores, was also the founder of the Old Cornwall Society movement and a chief proponent of the Cornish language and culture revival.
“I have many other Cornish Songs of various kinds – several from Jim Thomas — I see no hope of ever publishing them in complete form with accompaniments.”
Letter from Ralph Dunstan to Henry Jenner, 18 July 1932 (Morrab Library)
The letter that was found with Can Palores was written on 18 July 1932, just months before Ralph Dunstan’s death on 2 April 1933. Dunstan writes to Henry Jenner, another leader of the Cornish language and culture revival and founder of the Gorsedh in 1928. In the letter Dunstan spoke of many unpublished manuscripts of songs he had collected from Cornish communities that he had hoped to publish so they may be enjoyed again. Tragically this did not come to pass and his musical archive is believed to have been destroyed either by going damp in a garden shed or possibly burned by his daughter.
“As Cornish speakers, our little choir makes a point of singing only in the Cornish language.”
Steve Penhaligon, Keur Heb Hanow choir
Modern day debut and talk
The song will enjoy its first public performance in 87 years at a concert at Morrab Library on Tuesday 2 July at 5.30pm. Cornish-language choir Keur Heb Hanow will perform Can Palores together with a selection of other Cornish folk songs. Tehmina Goskar will present a short talk on the historical context of the discovery.
Steve Penhaligon, leader of the choir said, “Keur Heb Hanow are really excited and grateful to be involved in the rediscovery and relaunch of this song.
As Cornish speakers, our little choir makes a point of singing only in the Cornish language. However, ninety-five percent of what we sing was written originally in English and then translated especially for us. So, it’s a rare and thrilling experience to be given something to perform that was written in the Cornish language.
The piece has added meaning for us as it was written by one the key language revivalists and second Grand Bard, Robert Morton Nance.”
An balores, du hy lyu, Ruth ha’y gelvyn cam ha’y garrow, War als Kernow whath a-vew, Kyn leverer hy bos marrow.
Ebon hued, with leg and bill Coral crimson, brightly planished, On the cliffs of Cornwall still Lives the chough they said had vanished.
Yn palores, ny a-wor, Spyrys Arthur, mo ha myttyn, Whath a-dryk, ha ryp an mor A-wra gwytha Enys Breten.
In a chough, as all men know, Arthur’s spirit, too, unsleeping Round our isle while tides shall flow, Over us his watch is keeping.
Myghtern Arthur, dre dha voth, Pan us gansa dha balores, Re-bo gans tus Kernow Goth Bys vynytha bew dha spyrys.
O, King Arthur, grant that all Who shall take thy chough as token, May upon thy spirit call To keep Cornwall’s faith unbroken.
Yeth Kernow, re-be hyrneth A’y growth yn enewores, Ena a-dhassergh ynweth Maga few avel palores.
So again our Cornish tongue, That has lain so long a-dying, Shall rise up as strong and young As is e’er a chough that’s flying.
Nyns-yu marrow Myghtern Arthur!
King Arthur is not dead!
Spread the tune and the words
Roz Peskett of Keur Heb Hanow, said that the revival of this Cornish song should be an opportunity for discovery, celebration and performance.
As proponents of Cornish music as a living tradition we agree. Update: We have pulled out the melody so that instrumentalists can play it at sessions or arrange it for band set lists.
We would love to see people use Can Palores as a source of inspiration for introducing the song into their choirs and bands or even adapting the tune for a session or contemporary piece. Kernow bys vyken!
Booking for the performance and talk is essential and a suggested donation of £4 will be requested on the night. For more information and to secure a reservation, please ring Morrab Library on 01736 364474.
Merv and Alison Davey of An Daras, and two of Cornwall’s longest practitioners of Cornish traditional music and dance, are giving a lecture called Cornish Folk Dance at Cecil Sharp House in London on 13 February 2019.
The story of folk dance in Cornwall, from medieval roots, through narratives of the nineteenth Century folklorists, the activity of the Celtic revivalists and on to the present day, is a fascinating one that reflects the distinct cultural profile of Cornwall.