Historical instruments in traditional Cornish music

This is the start of a series of posts on the kind of instruments on which people played traditional music in the 18th to early 20th centuries, based on sources from the newspaper archives and elsewhere. By traditional music I mean the kind of music that is played spontaneously or performed in informal settings like pubs, taverns, chapel, church and village halls and during seasonal folk festivities such as the west Cornish tradition of guise dancing.

Processing bands

“concertinas, tin pans, flutina and bones”

St Ives, 1898.

There are several references to instrumental music being played alongside singing during the Christmas-time guise dancing season in west Cornwall (between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night).

In January 1887, The Cornish Telegraph reported “Bands of young people, in fantastic costumes, have paraded for hours, the processions sometimes being headed by a musical instrument, and followed by crowds of boys and girls yelling and hooting in a disgraceful manner.”

St Just 1891. “There was a very good market on Wednesday. The following day (25th ) there was the usual rendering of instrumental and vocal music by the two volunteer bands, and the choirs of the various chapels… On Monday evening the town was paraded by several parties of ‘guise-dancers’ and the bands could be heard discoursing sweet music.” [The Cornishman, Thursday 1 January 1891]

St Ives 1908. “Quite a new feature this year (or shall we say an old feature revived) was a band of over twenty performers. The “music” was not of the highest order, but it was certainly very popular and attracted a large crowd of interested spectators. [The Cornish Telegraph – Thursday 16 January 1908].

In St Ives, 1898, we get specific mention of actual instruments “being concertinas, tin pans, flutina and bones, “May horns.” [The Cornish Telegraph – Thursday 06 January 1898]. We should note that the writer refers to these as “musical instruments” in quotes, suggesting questionable musicality.

Tin pans, we imagine, were literally those, easy to get hold of and used percussively. A flutina is a kind of early melodeon or button accordion. Our friend has one dating from the mid-19th century tuned to the keys of F and C. Bones were literally a pair of bones, usually flat-ish (think ribs) or sometimes wood was substituted, and played between the fingers of one hand, beating out rhythms with the other hand or on body, arms and legs. Interestingly, no fiddles or whistles (too wet and cold this time of year? Not noisome enough?). May horns were tin plated copper horns like a hunting horn or vuvuzela.

Concertinas accompanying dancing in the pub for St Just Feast are mentioned by Willy Warren and Billy Waters in a fabulous conversation recorded by Ted Gundry in the mid-1970s, probably recalling times in the 1930s to 1940s. They mention, “I haven’t seen a concertina played for 30 years.” And then comments that they don’t know if anyone in the district could still play the concertina.

Listen from 1.19.

Man playing a flutina in the Admiral Benbow pub.
Playing a mid-19th century flutina at Penzance Cornish Session.

Singers and players

In Richard McGrady’s book Music and Musicians in Early Nineteenth Century Cornwall. The World of Joseph Emidy (1991) we get a glimpse of instrumental playing in the early 1800s. Before organs became the sine qua non of music in church, singing and instrumental playing went hand-in-hand, not just for religious purposes. McGrady cites the West Briton for 13 October 1826 describing 8000 people attending the laying of the foundation stone of the new church at St Day, “and the musical celebrations were provided by an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists ‘playing and singing appropriate pieces'” (p. 99). We don’t learn what the pieces were or what the instrumentalists were playing. Similarly a description in the Royal Cornwall Gazette of 26 October 1806 spoke of “sixty vocal and instrumental performers” at the cathedral church of St Germans.

While arguments continued over the cost of organs in this period (parishioners had to raise money not just for the expensive instrument but also an organist who could play it), we hear from William Tuck in his Reminiscences of Cornwall remembering his life in Camborne during the early 19th century, and containing memories well before that (p. 101). This excerpt deserves fuller citation as the visual image it generates is wonderful:

I am well informed that during the latter part of the seventeenth century the musical part of the Church Service was sung by men who used to wear breeches and buff gloves, standing in front of the orchestra, and each beating time by giving a slap on his pantaloons thus emphasizing the tonic in the scale. The instruments used on this occasion were Bassoons, Bass Viols, Flutes, Fiddles, Clarionets, etc.

William Tuck, Reminiscences of Cornwall, cited in McGrady, p. 101.
Women holding a bassoon between her knees at the Admiral Benbow pub.
Bassoon player arrives at Penzance Cornish Trad session, August 2019.

Bassoons and horse’s legs

Maister Berryman playin the bass viol an Maister Polmennor blawin es “horse’s leg” (thaz the baazoon).

The Cornishman, 21 December 1893.

It may surprise (or not) that bassoons loom large in much of our research into the historical instrumental tradition. This is not a sound we’re used to in modern Cornish Trad sessions except we were delighted last week that a bassoon player joined us at Penzance Cornish Session and we can’t wait for her to return. The sound added a really interesting bass to melodies that contrasted the higher register instruments such as fiddles and boxes. I hope she doesn’t mind us sharing this photo here, as part of the record of the Penzance session.

In a Cornish dialect story about Christmas time fun in The Cornishman of 21 December 1893, the description of Christmas Day singing and playing includes, “Maister Berryman playin the bass viol an Maister Polmennor blawin es “horse’s leg” (thaz the baazoon) and Uncle Jan Buzza playin the “sarpint” [serpent – as the name suggests, a winding bass woodwind instrument related to the cornet]. Bass viols, that we hear about as far back as the 17th and 18th century in Cornwall are a kind of ‘cello with five to seven rather than four strings, played between the legs. The same story goes on to describe carol or “curl” singers accompanied by the flute and “ufonium” (euphonium).

Cover of Ralph Dunstan's Cornish Dialect and Folk Songs book, 1932 showing an illustration of a bassoon player, fiddler and a man in long boots leaning against the wall, in front of a roaring open fire.
Cover of the first edition of Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Dialect and Folk Songs, 1932. Courtesy of the Morrab Library, Penzance.

The persistence of bassoons and woodwind in Cornish music into the 20th century continues to be evidenced by the world of Dr Ralph Dunstan, musician, musicologist and a significant proponent of the Cornish cultural revival of the 1920s. The cover of his second book of Cornish songs and tunes, published in 1932, shows an image of a bassoon player and fiddler probably in a chapel hall setting [might easily have also been a familiar scene in the local tavern]. Dunstan grew up in Carnon Downs and what is interesting about his collecting of Cornish music is that he had first had experience of hearing and playing music at community gatherings such as chapel tea treats. He was no mere pundit from outside.

John Dunstan, a descendant and relative, wrote a biographical article about Ralph Dunstan citing his instrumental playing (John Dunstan, ‘Cornishman of music’, Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 2016, pp. 31-52). In similar vein to churches and chapels earlier in the 19th century, until 1896 Carnon Downs Weslyan Chapel had an orchestra [more an ensemble or band than anything that would resemble a modern orchestra] before the organ supplanted instrumental players. Carnon Downs had “one or two flutes, a euphonium, and an occasional clarinet or bassoon.” (p. 34). As a boy, Ralph used to go and watch the Saturday night practices with his cousin William who played flute and clarinet.

In later recollections, Ralph Dunstan recalls the occasions when music was played.

Our great festal occasions were Whitsuntide and Christmas. How eagerly I looked forward to Christmas Day… The chapel was decorated with holly, ivy and other evergreens, and lit up by means of candles. Some of the players made nothing of walking five or six miles in order to be present. I particularly recollect dear old ‘Ebbie’ Webber, who lived several miles away [at Baldhu–JD], but was always present on Christmas morning with his bassoon — polished to the highest degree of brilliancy — and who played as if he were inspired. Certainly his playing was an inspiration to me.

Ralph Dunstan, ‘Recollections of Dr. Dunstan’, The Westministerian, 22 (1912), p. 3.

Dunstan was already experimenting with music and instruments from the age of three. He made up his own musical notation and played tunes on his fife (a small flute like a piccolo) or tin whistle. From about the age of 12, with support from his musical cousin William, Ralph Dunstan learned to play the piccolo, flute, euphonium (like a tuba but in a higher tenor register) and bassoon – apparently his favourite instrument (John Dunstan, p. 34). As a teenager he attended the Weslyan Day School in Union Place, Truro where he bought his first violin for 5 shillings (p. 35). There, he formed a band with violins, two flageolets (a kind of recorder with keys like a clarinet), a piccolo and sometimes a guitar. When he was a little older he started to play the harmonium (keyboard powered by bellows), bought for Dunstan by his mother.

The mention of a guitar is quite early and precocious for it was not the ubiquitous folk instrument it is today.

Photograph of Ralph Dunstan in his study at Perrancoombe with an array of instruments handing on the wall, including guitars, Banos, mandolins and a clarinet or flageolet.
Image from John Dunstan’s article, 2016, from his family archive. Note the various guitar, banjo and mandolin type instruments hanging on his library wall.

Violins, the tone of “old fiddle”

We are still adventuring through the British Newspaper Archive to find references to violins and fiddles in Cornwall — there are many. The violin was the instrument de rigueur of the 18th century dancing master and this is evidenced brilliantly in all of the collections of dance and other music in Cornwall discovered and published by Mike O’Connor, including the collections of William Allen of St Ives, John Giddy of Kea and John Old of Par. O’Connor comments in the introduction to Dancing Above Par (2006) that, “some of the tunes are by known violinists and are all within the compass of the violin. Occasionally ‘double stopping’ appears, so the music was not played on a wind instrument” (p. 4). The tunes in these collections are for dancing and musical interludes: reels, jigs, strathspeys and schottisches, waltzes and hornpipes.

Detail of a violin showing double purfling or edge decoration and a star or flower symbol in one of the corner bouts.
Decorative purfling on an early 20th century violin made in Germany.

Meanwhile we also have some beautiful stories of fiddle makers. The Cornishman of 29 November 1934 mentions the story of Albert Coad, a Penzance violin maker, originally from Redruth Highway. He was visited by famous violinist Albert Sammons who performed on the live radio broadcast from St John’s Hall featuring the Penzance Orchestra (there were a number of radio broadcasts from Cornwall in the 1930 and 40s and many involved music of some sort). Describing the high quality of Coad’s work, Sammons was reported to have said, “this combination of qualities produced instruments whose tone was of “old fiddle” richness.” By 1934, Coad was reported to be the only fine violin maker known in Cornwall. Coad’s day job was as a signalman for the railways.

List of historical instruments in Cornwall

Here is a list of 18 instruments associated with playing Cornish traditional music we have (so far) recorded from our sources c.1700-c.1940.

  • bassoon
  • bass viol
  • bones
  • concertina
  • clarinet
  • euphonium
  • fiddle or violin
  • fife
  • flageolet
  • flute
  • flutina
  • guitar
  • harmonium
  • May horn
  • piccolo
  • tin pan
  • tin whistle
  • serpent

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