Piping Among the Bretons – A History, Part 1

This article is taken from the March, 1968, edition of the US-based magazine ‘Piping World’. Though more than half a century has passed since its publication it will be particularly instructive to those readers who know little of the piping tradition in that part of the world.

The peninsula which juts out some one hundred and eighty miles into the Atlantic from the northwest corner of France comprises the ancient province, and once independent duchy, of Brittany.

Although unrecognised as an entity in any modern political sense, Brittany differs ethnically and culturally as much from France as do Wales and Scotland from England.

The Bretons are, in fact, Celts closely related to the Welsh. Their language (although substantial differences may exist between the modern spoken languages) is very close to that of the Welsh, and even the Scottish or Irish Gael can spot an occasional familiar word: ty/tigh [house], du/dubh [black], or amzer/aimsir [weather].

Their economic situation is not unlike that of their Celtic cousins: they farm small holdings, they fish and go to sea, and they emigrate in great numbers.

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Fairly vigourous home rule and language preservation movements have flourished among them for many years. And they have a piping tradition. Baines [Anthony Baines in his book ‘Bagpipes’] classifies the biniou (the traditional bagpipe of the Bretons) as being ‘unmistakably one of the family of . . . the Scottish Highland bagpipe’.

It is a much smaller instrument, with a single drone and a more ‘globular’ bag. Its chanter, only about 5½” long, has but seven finger holes; its single (bass) drone is only about 14″ long, and the blowpipe approximates the chanter in length.

The binou

Because the blowpipe is so short, and because the chanter is played by the tips of the fingers, the traditional biniou does not serve well as a ‘marching’ instrument. While the character of its sound is similar to that of the Highland pipes, its volume and tone are much lighter.

For centuries, the biniou has been played in accompaniment to the bombarde. The bombarde is a ‘bagless’ pipe, approaching the Highland pipe chanter in length, and fitted with a similar reed.

The reed is put between the lips when playing the instrument in much the same manner as an oboe reed is pinched between the player’s lips. The use of lip pressure extends the range of the bombarde to two octaves; a key is provided to enable the little finger of the ‘bottom’ hand to play the last hole.

The bombarde

Although it is possible that Breton pipers played the Highland pipes previously, it seems most probable that the first Breton to adopt it was one de Guilherm of Belle-Isle-en-Terre, in north-western Brittany, about 1895.

But it was not until the mid-1930s that significant numbers of Bretons began to play the piob mhor. Baines singles out one of the more prominent of these, Dorig Le Voyer (now [1968] a maker of pipes and bombardes in Rennes), to ‘blame’ for discouraging the playing of biniou and bombarde in duet by the introduction of ‘these powerful new bagpipes’.

Unfortunately, both the French authorities and the German occupation forces took a very dim view of piping (on either instrument) during the late thirties and early forties.

Bombarde and binou played by the brothers Couriaut at Lorient Festival in 2008; recording courtesy Youn Pensec

Apparently, both regarded piping as being too much an expression of independent Breton spirit and disruptive of the kind of homogeneity an embattled nation or foreign despot required.

The result of this prolonged ‘discouragement’ was the reduction, by the end of WW2, of the number of pipers in Brittany to somewhat below twenty!

  • To follow: the post-war boom in Breton piping.

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