Monday, 22 June 2009

Fête de la Musique by Adela Meadows

Each year, June 21 marks the summer solstice for the northern hemisphere. The word “solstice” comes from “sol”, the first syllable of the French soleil or sun, and the Latin stare, meaning “to stop.” It’s the longest day of the year in these parts…a day when the sun seems to stop in sky.

We know now that the sun doesn’t move and it’s more a matter of the earth being at its greatest tilt…towards the sun for the northern hemisphere and away from the sun in the southern hemisphere…resulting in winter is Australia when it’s summer in France.

But to the ancient Celts, the sun did stop on that day, so it led to ceremonies in honor of Belen…the Sun God, God of Fire, and God of Light. It was a time of penitence…as usual…but more exuberantly, a time for joyous assembly with sporting games, music, and dancing.

The sun peeks out from behind the lion mouth spigot of this circa 1885 HB piece; part of the medicinal and pharmaceutical items made in Quimper, the form is called a broc à lavement and was used to perform an enema.

In 1982, Jack Lang, then the French Minister of Culture, decided the summer solstice would be a great day to celebrate all things musical; his idea grew and today, in more than 100 countries, June 21 is ingrained as the Fête de la Musique. It’s a major happening in the environs of Paris; public transportation runs all night, all the events are free, and they are held in every imaginable place…from isolated street corners to the courtyards of lofty museums. All night long, music fills the air!

Quimper faïence musical instruments fill a display case at a grand retrospective that was held in 1990 at Quimper’s Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Throughout France, the Fête de la Musique is an event that blends all genres of music…classical to punk…symphonic to electronic…emanating from amateurs and professionals alike. Everywhere you turn there are guitars, drums, accordions, pianos, violins, cellos…every imaginable instrument…even in Brittany…although the region’s emblematic musical instruments are the biniou and the bombarde.

The word biniou is Breton for bagpipe…the instrument is called a cornemuse in French. There are several different varieties…the most widely used in Brittany is a version very similar to the Grand Highland Pipes of Scotland.

Some depictions of binious:

An HB Quimper bookend from circa 1930.

An HB Quimper box from circa 1925.

A carved wooden hare plays the biniou…part of the decorative accents on a fifteenth-sixteenth century building in Malestroit.

An Henriot egg cup with a biniou-form base.

An HB Quimper cream pitcher.

A Porquier-Beau scènes bretonnes plate; the scene is entitled Ménétrier d’Audierne…a ménétrier is defined as a musician of village fêtes or celebrations.

An HB Quimper platter with broderie border.

Another centuries-old, wooden carving of a biniou-player.

An HR Quimper festonnée plate…festonnée means “scalloped” and refers to the undulated edge of the plate. Plates with edges this pronounced are sometimes said to have dents du loup...wolf's teeth.

Just as each region of Brittany had its own dialect and costume to set themselves apart, the musical instruments of each area had subtle and not so subtle differences…the binious from around Pont-l’Abbé had six holes, others had more, etc.

The bombarde is a specific form of oboe; some types are known as an hautbois in French.

Some Quimper faïence examples of bombarde players:

An Henriot box bordered in an unusual Celtic motif.

An HR Quimper plate with hand-curled edges.

An Henriot swan-form jardinière.

An HB Quimper vide-poche with broderie border.

This handsome bombarde player was painted on...

... this Henriot Quimper jardinière.

A biniou-form wall pocket vase features a bombarde player.

A home in Roscoff has a time-worn bombarde player carved in granite.

The sugar jar from an Henriot Quimper tea service.

An HR Quimper tulipière with eight openings.

An Henriot Quimper quintal or floral vase with five openings.

An HB Quimper vase, circa 1925, with the influence of Paul Fouillen demonstrated in the petit breton’s checkered pantaloons.

An Henriot sabot-form wall pocket vase in the ivoire corbeille pattern.

A rococo bannette signed HR Quimper.

The first Breton language mention of the two instruments dates from 1464, but the biniou and bombarde were actually in use there much earlier. They were not always so closely associated with each other, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the unique sound produced by the two instruments being played at the same time became so prevalent that it was almost as if the two became one. More a matter of one instrument being played by two musicians.

Sonerien is the Breton word for musicians and the more specific term couple refers to the combination of a biniou player and a bombarde player.

Traditionally, music was taught by the religious orders and the sisters saw that many of their blind charges received musical instruction in order that they may find some means of employment once they reached adulthood. One such person was a native of Quimperlé by the name of Matelin an Dall (1789-1859), who had been blinded by small pox when he was a toddler. He was a gifted musician and his virtuosity with the bombarde led to his playing for Louis-Phillipe in Paris and Napoleon III in Quimper. He is said to have played throughout Brittany at pardons and weddings, where, in a reported departure from the other musicians, he only drank milk.

As you can already tell, the celebration of music is nothing new to the Bretons…so it’s only natural that the potters of Quimper would have utilized music-related motifs.

This piece has a double musical motif…it’s a wall pocket in the form of a biniou decorated with a scene of a pair of strolling musicians…one playing the bombarde and the other, the biniou. The design for this particular motif originated with Camille Moreau when he worked for Jules Henriot during the time period of 1891-1895. After Moreau left the factory, the design remained the property of Henriot and it was used in the ensuing years.

Some versions are more painterly and others are more naive. Because vintage faïence was hand-crafted, each piece is slightly different…what looks like the same scene at first glance is never really quite exactly the same …with each piece having its own quirks and personality due to either the hand of the artist or the atmosphere in the kiln.

See for yourself…

An HR vase with chimèra handles.

An Henriot portecarte.

An Henriot tea pot.

An HR jardinière...

...also features the strolling musicians motif.

An Henriot rococo portecarte.

And, finally, this detail from a wedding procession depicted on an Henriot fish platter. As you can see, even though the motifs are the same, the rendering of each piece is different and thus, each has its own, unique qualities.

The same is true of the HB factory's musicians...

...this couple are featured on...

... an oval jardinière dating from circa 1885.

And this couple is featured on...

...a fan-shaped jardinière from the same era.

In the case of the two HB examples just shown, the pieces were both painted by the same artist.

The Porquier factory also produced pieces with scenes of musicians, like on this unusual jardinière

…with a scene entitled Ménétrier de Gourin.

While most of the musical depictions may appear to be centered on the biniou and bombarde, other instruments are honored as well...

This accordion player for example…

...part of a figural group designed by Jim-Eugène Sévellec for the Henriot factory.

Off the subject just a wee bit and perhaps somewhat difficult to show online, as everyone’s computer is set differently, but I’ll try to illustrate a method that can be helpful when attempting to date vintage Quimper faïence...

...this HR fan-shaped vase dates from circa 1900; look closely at the hat worn by the petit Breton… this early example, the areas of black glaze (magnesium) have brownish/violet colored tones. Compare it with this circa 1915 piece by the same factory…

…and you see that the hat on the latter, later piece is a more classic black. By itself, the brownish/violet characteristic is not a guarantee that a piece is from an early period, but it is a good indication that supports further investigation.

So, who are our favorite Breton musicians? Too many to name, as we enjoy the efforts of tried and true musicians as well as those of local neighborhood pick-up bands. Some of the better known groups that we enjoy include Bagad Kemper for a traditional sound, Sonerien Du for a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll flavor, and the David Pasquet Group for pure bombarde heaven.

Of course, where there’s music…

…there’s dancing…like in this lively scene on a Porquier-Beau platter.

When we are on one of our Brittany Shop ‘n’ Tours, the music is so infectious, that before you know it, we’re all joining in…we’ve had husbands who haven’t danced in thirty years jump up on their own acord and do the jabadao! Here’s a few music-related photos taken during some of our escapades…

A real life's like having a Quimper piece come to life!

A fest noz...evening Audierne with music by Sonerien Du.

A plaque created by Pierre Toulhoat at the Kéraluc pottery displayed at the Musée Départemental Breton.

A biniou player wearing the traditional costume of Pont-l'Abbé.

A spontaneous trio of very young petite bretonnes show us ol' folks how it's done.

The David Pasquet Group performs in Quimper.

This is what we think we look like when we are out there our dreams maybe!

The Robert Micheau-Vernez Quimper tile tableau at Quimper's railway station.

Eeeeek...I just looked at the time…get me writing about Brittany and I can go on forever! I’ll stop now because our fromagerie is due to close soon and it takes us a while to make up our mind when faced with choosing from among some 300+ options. Anyway, I hope this has given you an idea of the impact of music on the culture of Brittany and I will continue this discussion at a later date on our website.

Technically-challenged, I know there’s a way to sometimes embed links, but rather than fiddle with that...miserable musical pun are some links for you to cut and paste into your address bar. That way, you can sample some Breton music while we head off to ponder the many varieties of a solid food made from the thick part of milk.

For Sonerien Du:

For the David Pasquet Group :

For Bagad Kemper…this clip brings to mind the origins of traditional Celtic music…to arouse and inspire as one sets off to battle…they are obviously not in any hurry to fight, as the clip is about fifteen and a half minutes long.


  1. Another most interesting article Adela! Thank you.

  2. Fantastique! More reasons why we should all go to France! Including the fromagerie - 300 plus choices and all. Wonderful examples/photos.

  3. Adela, thanks for another beautiful entry! I continue to learn more and more with each new post from you. On today's topic, you might be interested to know that one of the QCI members, Kathleen Thomerson, will give a presentation on the "Biniou and Bombarde and Quimper Faience" when the group meets in Dallas in October. Many thanks for sharing all the wonderful photos of faience and other art that depicts these instruments.

  4. And the Autumn Journal will feature faience with a musical theme