Anjela Duval and the traditional Breton ballad – Françoise H.M. Le Saux


In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s the Breton landscape was brutally reshaped in the name of rationalisation and increased productivity. The man-made banks that traditionally marked the boundaries of fields and sheltered a variety of wildlife in their hedges and trees were bulldozed down, dramatically modifying the nature of a once-familiar territory. This programme, known as the «remembrement rural», met with widespread opposition. Unfair redistribution of land caused tensions in local communities, while the destruction of the banks gave rise to fears (which turned out to be only too well-founded) that the absence of natural barriers would now allow the rainwater to flood villages and towns. As the full extent of the disaster was made perceptible, an increasing feeling of revolt tool; hold of rural Brittany; the dictates of the «technocrats» of Paris were violently attacked, and eventually led to acts of civil disobedience. By the mid 1970s, the communities of Brittany threatened try the «remembrement» were at the centre of what was seen as a minor civil war; the strength of the resentment at the high-handed way farmers were being treated may be felt in this extract of a letter from the Farmer’s Union (Syndicat de Défense et de Promotion paysanne) to the French Minister for Agriculture dated 20 January 1976:


“Ce remembrement rural, autoritaire et dévastateur, se fait de force, contre la majorité des cultivateurs de la commune. Imposé par la Direction Départementale de l’Agriculture qui se réfère à la loi du 9 mars 1941, datant de l’occupation nazie, ce remembrement antidémocratique détruit non seulement nos fermes, mais aussi les gens qui y vivent et ne peuvent être que révoltés devant les injustices et destructions de toutes sortes commises par l’Administration qui, elle, touche des pourcentages ou rémunérations accessoires sur tous ces travaux […]. Les paysans ne peuvent jamais avoir de recours valables contre ces dévastations abusives et malhonnêtes, d’où de nombreux cas d’hospitalisation, voire de suicides, dus au choc consécutif au sabotage de leurs terres, de leur environnement, de leur raison de vivre.[1]


The trauma so forcefully described in these lines is indicative of the strong emotional bond to the local landscape which Fransez Favereau sees as characteristic of the Breton psyche:


“Le sentiment d’appartenance se réfère d’abord à l’attachement à un lieu, avant d’être une référence à une culture, une histoire, une ethnicité, une langue.[2]


The destruction of ancestral field banks, and the ensuing depersonalising of the countryside for its inhabitants, was thus tantamount to a loss of identity, which called for resistance on the cultural as well as the political level. The «remembrement rural» is reviled in poetry and song throughout the 70’s; ballads in the traditional style, and more particularly kan ha diskan narrative dance-songs,[3] became powerful instruments of information and counter-propaganda The texts of these ballads are sometimes anonymous, but some of the better-known Breton writers and poets also contributed to the genre, foremost among whom was Anjela Duval.


Duval was born in 1905 into a family of small farmers; intimately bonded to her patch of land, she farmed the parental holding until her death in 1981.[4] Her work is remarkable for the flowing «naturalness» of her language in rhythmically and stylistically complex pieces; her poems are learned by children in Breton-medium schools, and a number of her pieces were put to music and sung much in the same way as the older traditional ballads. The themes of these songs are often markedly political in nature, passionately defending the endangered culture of her fathers. Anjela Duval’s pieces put to music (in close collaboration with the musician Fañch Danno, in the majority of cases), or susceptible to being put to music, may be placed under two main headings: a) poems, such as Benoni [5]whose form is directly shaped by the rhythm of the traditional ballad, and b) shorter poems, such as Karantez-Vro [6] which require the composition of an ad hoc melody.


One may note that a similar distinction may also be made with traditional «folk» material, which can roughly be divided into kan ha diskan dance songs, and ballads meant to be listened to at leisure. The kan ha diskan (so-called because two singers, or group of singers, relay each other at the end of each sentence to maintain the rhythm) frequently fulfils a function similar to that of broadsheets, commemorating important events or calling to action. These ballads were disseminated orally and memorised by dancing audiences; in the case of songs dealing with ongoing conflicts, stanzas could be added, omitted or reshaped in accordance with the course of events. The authors of the texts frequently use pseudonyms. Examples of this type of ballad dealing with the «remembrement rural» are Son an T.A.C.O. and Son an displanterien mein-bonn, both composed in 1974 by Pôtr Yann and sung by Pôtr Loeiz (two pseudonyms) on a record specially devoted to the issue of the levelling of the banks, «Nann d’an T.A.C.O» (Disque Mouez Breiz 45147).[7] Son an displanterien mein-bonn was still being sung at dances at the end of the decade, with a slightly modified text reflecting the relative success of the movement.


The characteristics of these modern kan ha diskan ballads agree with the description of the Breton «poésie populaire» made by the nineteenth-century collector Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué:


“Le rythme est comme l’aile du poète populaire […]. Il ne pourrait composer sans fredonner un air qui lui donne la mesure. […] La prosodie bretonne est donc fondée sur le mètre et la rime. Les vers s’assemblent de manière à former des distiques ou des quatrains généralement de mesure égale. Ces vers ont 3,5,6,7,8,9,12, et jusqu’à 13 et 15 syllabes Ceux de 12, comme en français, ont une césure au 6e pied; ceux de 13 syllabes, tantôt au 6e, tantôt au 7e; ceux de 15 au 8e. Chaque hémistiche, chaque vers, chaque strophe doit offrir un sens complet, et n’enjamber jamais sur l’hémistiche, le vers ou la strophe suivante. […] Les rimes ne se croisent point […]. En général elles satisfont l’oreille; quelquefois elles ne présentent qu’une simple assonance. [8]


Son an T.A.C.O., sung to a traditional tamm-kreiz tune, comprises 12 four-line strophes linked by rhyme or assonance; the lines are metrically regular, with eight or nine syllables per line. Son an displanterien mein-bonn, on a gavotte-type tune, comprises 19 couplets similarly linked by rhyme or assonance, with lines comprising between thirteen and fifteen syllables These texts were composed specifically to be danced to (which is not always the case: traditional gwerzioù, commemorative songs or laments, are frequently used as ‘`verbal material» when singers know the tune of a given dance-song but not the words); and though recorded on vinyl, cassette or c.d., their content is of immediate rather than long-term interest The tone is openly militant. Son an T.A.C.O. is a vitriolic attack; against the «remembrement rural», personified by the T.A.C.O., the Technocrate Araseur en Chef Officiel; Son an displanterien mein-bonn celebrates the heroic struggle of Breton farmers against officialdom, through the removal from the fields of the boundary stones. Both songs tell their story with a wealth of precise information: the number of people involved, their names, the villages concerned, and, in the case of Son an displanterien mein-bonn, the exact dates on which certain events happened. The farms deprived of water supplies because of the redistribution of land imposed by the T.A.C.O. are named as those of Le Bihan and of Fañch ar Floc’h of Kereffren at Landrevarzec (stanzas 6 and 7 of Son an T.A.C.O.): the uprooting of boundary markers takes place at Eskibien, Travrian (Trébrivan), Plourivo, Pont-ar-Veuzenn, Telgruc… The consequences of the levelling of the field banks by the T.A.C.O. is described with precision:


Foeltra ‘ra girjier, foeltra ra kleuniou,                He destroys hedges, he destroys field-banks,

Foeltret deg mil leo a gleuniou                     Ten thousand leagues of banks have been destroyed  [9]

Diskenn ‘ra douar d’ar stêriou                                The earth falls into the rivers

Mond a ra douar ‘mêz ar gwajou                   Water overflows from the streams

Diskenn ‘ra douar d’ar stêriou                                The earth falls into the rivers

Mond a ra douar ‘mêz ar gwajou                   Water overflows from the streams,

Beu’et parkeier ha kêriou.                                             Fields and towns are flooded

An Aotrou (ne) ra ket foultre kaer                    The Gentleman couldn’t care less

‘Benn ar fin kousto ker d’e ler.                          He will eventually get a good tanning for it.

Beu’et Montroulez ha Kastellin                                Morlaix and Châteaulin are flooded

Beu’et Kemperle ha Kemper                           Quimperlé and Quimper are flooded

An Aotrou ‘ra ket foultre kaer.                          The Gentleman couldn’t care less

‘Vid lakaad ‘nan da weled sklêr                     In order to make him see clear

Vo red boteza dan e rêr                                               He will have to have a kick in the backside. [10]


The T.A.C.O. is referred to in this extract as an «aotrou», a gentleman, or lord. Elsewhere in the song he is also described as belonging to a city mafia, «’ba’ kêr Gemper ‘touesk an aotroned», «in the town of Quimper among the gentlemen», wilfully ignorant of the reality of farm life, taking decisions «deuz e vureo pell diouz ar fank», «from his office far from the mud». He is dishonest: «Deuz konkour ar brasa geier / E teuy ar maout gantan d`ar gêr», «At the contest for the greatest lies, he would take the prize home», and fills his pockets at the expense of the farmers and their land. In depicting the T.A.C.O. in this manner, Pôtr Yann, aligns the resistance movement against the technocrats of Paris with the peasant revolts celebrated by older ballads, and is indirectly referring to a whole body of traditional songs contrasting the hard life of the «paour kaezh peisant», the poor peasant, with the life of luxury of the nobility.[11] In Son an displanterien mein-bonn, there is a similar feeling that the act of civic disobedience «committed`’ by the farmers is similar in nature to the uprisings that marked the end of the oppression of the Ancien Régime.[12] Present injury and past example thus give legitimacy to the violence of the response that these songs try to elicit from their audience, and the dance ends with an open invitation to take practical measures to put an end to the crisis: «Poent eo deom ‘ta, Bretoned, poent eo deom cheñch penn d’ar vaz», «It’s high time, Bretons, it’s high time we changed ends of the stick» (i.e., holding it rather than being on the receiving end).[13]


Much of the feeling and all of the themes found in these two songs are also present in Anjela Duval’s oeuvre, the animosity against the profiteering city-dweller, for example, is expressed with great bitterness in Dic’hoanag, «Despair», where an old farmer dreams of planting his pitchfork in the belly of the «aotrounez».[14] In most of the poems, however, the antagonism is depicted in predominantly cultural terms, as the fight for survival of a people subjected to an insidious form of ethnocide. Itron Varia Vreizh, «Our Lady of Brittany», composed on the model of traditional hymns and with a metrical form corresponding to La Villemarqué’s observations, is thus a long address to the Virgin Mary, imploring her to defend the Bretons threatened by linguistic extinction:


Hag-eñ eo reizh, Gwerc’hez santel

Gwelout ar vamm ‘komz d’he bugel

Ar yezh estren: yezh ar mac’her

Ha dilezel hor yezh ken kaer?

Ur vezh eo dimp

Gwerc’hez Vari

Ar Bed a ra goap ouzhomp-ni.[15]


(«And is it right, holy Virgin, to see the mother speak the foreign language to her child: the language of the oppressor, abandoning our own language that is so beautiful? It is a shame for us, Virgin Mary, the World is making fun of us.»)


This poem bears all the marks of having been written to be sung to a tune of a traditional type [16] Even though, on the page, its eight stanzas appear to be somewhat irregular, with seven lines per stanza and a fifth line that neither rhymes nor alliterates, it becomes clear on closer analysis that the fifth and sixth lines of the stanzas are in fact the two halves of an eight-syllable line. It is therefore possible to see this piece as a series of rhyming couplets arranged in stanzas of six lines, with a strong caesura on the fifth line. The only feature that does not correspond to the «traditional» model is the presence in Itron Varia Vreizh of run-on lines – a recurrent feature in Duval’s work.


The «remembrement rural» is the particular subject of two of Duval’s poems: Diskar ar C’hleuzioù «The destruction of the field-banks», published in Duval’s 1973 collection of poems Kan an Douar and Dirak an Dismantr, «In front of the ruin», published in the 1982 posthumous collection Traoñ an Dour. Eleven years separate the composition of the two pieces (1967 for Diskar ar C’hleuzioù, 1978 for Dirak an Dismantr), which therefore roughly span the period from the realisation of the damage done by state-imposed vandalism, to the eventual rethinking of the «remembrement» programme by the government.


On the page, Diskar ar C’hleuzioù does not appear to have any obvious stanzaic structure. However, like Itron Varia Vreizh, typography disguises an extreme metrical regularity. All the lines except one (and even there one may quibble) have eight syllables, and are linked together by rhyme in the traditional couplet form. It is reflective in mood, though, rather than aggressive, starting with a lament for the flowers which have lost their natural habitat with the razing of the field-banks; regretting the disappearance of the trees, and the discomfort of the resulting landscape for human beings. The speaker deplores the tact that wild fruit can no longer be gathered, that healing herbs are no longer to be found; and the poem ends with an appeal to ignorant youth to spare «labour sakr ho Tadoù-kozh», «the sacred work of your forefathers». The militant dimension is not absent from the poem, however, and this may have been the reason for the choice of formal characteristics allowing an easy circulation of the piece through the medium of song as well as in print. There is a strong ideological element in the poem, expressed in nationalistic terms (lines 12-13):


Mañ maezioù Breizh o koll o neuz!

Nann, n’eo mui Breizh, Tir ar Gelted!


(«The fields of Brittany are losing their looks! No, it is no longer Brittany, Land of the Celts!»)

Diskar ar C’hleuzioù affirms the Celtic nature of Brittany (as opposed, implicitly to Paris-controlled authorities, perceived as ethnically alien), and as such, in the context of its time of composition, would have been considered as verging on indoctrination, even though it seems innocent enough some 19 years on. It affirms the existence of a Breton identity, with a long and glorious history – Brittany is «ho Pro-kozh»?, «your ancient land» (1.36; an echo of the Breton national anthem), and every aspect of this land has been consecrated by the genius of the race. The banks levelled by ignorant people blinded by their thirst for money (11.32-33) thus become emblematic of a more general attack on national identity. This poem is an appeal to a wider conscience among the Bretons of the cultural specificity of Brittany; and an attempt to reverse the prevailing attitude of shame at not «belonging» to the dominant francophone culture. The message is expressed in moderate but clear terms, and is carried by a seemingly a-political issue that was close to the hearts of a great number of Breton-speaking people. As most of these Breton speakers were not able to read their own mother-tongue, an oral mode of transmission was essential for this «propaganda» to reach its target audience; hence the advantage of composing a text compatible with the rhythm of traditional tunes.


The situation in Dirak an Dismantr is somewhat different. The tone is altogether less restrained: the destroyers of the banks are called «drouklazherien an Natur», «murderers of Nature» (1.17) and «kalonoù dinatur», «unnatural hearts» (1.19), rather than the mild «yaouankiz diskiant», «ignorant youth» of Diskar ar C’hleuzioù (1.33). The personification of the Breton land is taken one step further: the fields of Brittany have been «badezet […] ‘vel ma vez graet d’ur bugel», «christened, as one does a child» (ll.9-10) by the Celtic forefathers. The levelling of the banks that marked their limits is thus tantamount to murder, while the term used to refer to the renaming of the new fields, «disvadezet» («disbaptised», 1.11), carries connotations of blasphemy and religious apostasy. The consequence of the «remembrement» is the impossibility of life – «ur gouelec’h a-raok pell», «a desert before long! (1.15) – and of either song or verbal expression:


Ar gwez ‘vel gedourien

Pa rae ‘n avel e reuz

Ar gwez ‘oa o difenn

Difenn an trevadoù

Goudor ar chatal mut

Kanañ ‘raent evel ograoù

Breman ‘n douar ‘zo mut

Mut al laboused … hag an dud.


(‘«The trees like sentinels/ When the wind stormed/ The trees defended/ Defended the crops/ Refuge of the dumb cattle/ They would sing like organs/ Now in the land are silent/ Silent the birds and the people», 11.24-31)


The quasi-mystical link between the Bretons and their land is expressed in terms of identity: the destruction of the land is also the destruction of the people who inhabit it; they lose their voice – and therefore their humanity.


Metrically, Dirak an Dismantr is less regular than Diskar ar C’hleuzioù. There is no obvious stanzaic pattern to the three blocks on the printed page, and the rhyme scheme is a mixture of rimes embrassées and rhyming couplets. The 31 lines of the poem vary from 6 to 8 syllables in length, and the syntax presents potential difficulties of comprehension to the listener (as opposed to the reader); the above extract is a good example of this. Even though the relative rhythmical regularity of this piece would theoretically make it possible to sing the opening lines have the distinctive ‘feel’ of a kan ha diskan introduction [17] – this is clearly a poem meant to be read as well as to be listened to. Duval is addressing a different audience; it is the mustering of faithful, and literate, troops, rather than an attempt to rally a wider public to her cause. There was therefore no compelling reason to remain within the constraints of the ballad form.


In both Dirak an Dismantr and Diskar ar C’hleuzioù, there is a striking absence of specific place-names which would place the action within a recognisable «terroir”: Duval’s poems are localised in Brittany, «Breizh», itself seen as part of an abstract «Keltia».18[18] This may be seen as an indication of «literariness»; however, a comparable indeterminacy of locus is not unknown to the corpus of «traditional» Breton songs as a whole. Even though narrative ballads generally give relatively precise indications as to the time, place and dramatis personae a number of more lyrical pieces tend to eschew such details in favour of a more «universal» approach to moods and feelings. [19]


Indeed, what Duval appears to have done on a generic level is to combine the universal dimension of the lyrical ballad with the vigour of the narrative ballad, which is more openly didactic (whether celebratory, elegiac or militant). This may have been suggested to her by the work of an illustrious forebear, the poet Y.-B. Kalloc’h, who died during the First World War after having produced some of the most remarkable poetry in the Breton language. Duval certainly used Kalloc’h’s poetry to explore language effects; his well-known autobiographical poem (and hauntingly beautiful song) «Me ‘zo ganet e kreiz ar mor», «I was born in the middle of the sea», is the template for her own Ar Barzh paour the first line of which is «Me ‘zo ganet en un ti plouz», «I was born in a thatched house». [20]Ultimately, however, the impression is that the main difference between Duval’s pieces and the two dance songs we have analysed is one of stability. Her poems may well be put to music, even be composed as ballads in the first place: she allows no space for reappropriation by the singers and their audience. There is no way of updating a narrative that has no specific temporal or geographical framework.


Duval thus combines in those poems she intended to be sung a rhythmical and stylistic structure that closely followed the conventions of the traditional ballad, but she treats her subject-matter in a different manner. Her approach was so influential that it has to a great extent become the hallmark of most of the «folk» songs sung and composed by contemporary groups. [21] Philippe Durand`s anthology contains three further examples of songs composed in reaction to the «remembrement rural». An Tourter «The Bulldozer», was first published in the periodical Ar Soner in 1966; the text was written by Visant Seité. A «kan-bale», or march, it addresses a bulldozer tearing up the countryside, calling it «Benveg an diaoul», «Tool of the devil», «ganet ‘kreiz ar brezel/ Tres an ivern war beb ezel», «born during the war with the image of death on each limb». As in Diskar ar C’hleuzioù the mutilated countryside remains unnamed; as in Dirak an Dismantr the tone is abusive, with an explicit linking of the vandalised fields and trees with the fate of the human population. The bulldozer is damned («milliget»), it kills treacherously and deprives people of their livelihood;[22] like the dance-ballads we have seen, it ends on a curse: «Kerz kuit da strakal gand ar foultr», «Go and get struck by lightening». The composite aspect detected in Anjela’s poems is especially prominent also in Marv eo ma Gwantenn «My valley is dead’», which laments the loss of wildlife, security and fertility in the speaker’s valley, all due to the destruction of the field banks. The abusive note is absent, but as in the «militant» ballads, it ends on an appeal to react: «Digoromp hon lagad pe anez ‘z aimp tout ganto», «Let’s keep our eyes open, otherwise we’ll all be made to go. [23] As for the third song, An nevez-hañv, ”Springtime”, [24] it is so similar to Diskar ar C’hleuzioù as to suggest conscious imitation on the part of Dir ha Tan, the group who wrote the words.


The excesses of the ‘ remembrement rural», which are the sole object of dance-songs like Son an T.A.C.O., are for Anjela emblematic of a process of cultural annihilation threatening the very core of her world. This world is ostensibly pre-industrial rural Brittany; and it is striking that texts inspired by her work tend to focus exclusively on the ecological or socio-economic stratum. However, Duval’s fear of silence and of the impossibility to communicate with later, French-speaking generations betrays the fact that, for all her love of her native land, her world is above all that of language. Duval’s «remembrement» texts thus inescapably partake of a different outlook to the other songs and ballads – even though they share a comparable mood and champion the same cause.

[1] Quoted by Philippe Durand, Breizh hiziv. Anthologie de la chanson en Bretagne. Pierre Jean Oswald: Paris, 1976; vol I., p. 326. (Hereafter referred to as Durand).

[2] Fransez Favereau, Bretagne contemporaine. Langue, culture, identité. Skol Vreizh: Montroulez, 1993, p.45.

[3] The kan ha diskan was experiencing a new flowering thanks to the revival of the fest-noz in the 50s.

[4] For the biography of Anjela Duval and a good bibliography, see Lenora A. Timm, A Modern Politicai Poet. Anjela Duval. A Biography and an Anthology. Edwin Mellen: Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter, 1992 (Studies in French Literature 5); hereafter referred to as Timm; also Roger Laouénan’s richly illustrated Anjela Duval. Nature et Bretagne: Quimper, 1974.

[5] Breton text to be found in Anjela Duval, Traoñ an Dour. Barzhonegoù. Al Liamm:Brest, 1982, pp. 94-95.

[6] Breton text in Anjela Duval, Traoñ an Dour, p.67; French translation and commentary in Durand (p.185-7); English translation in Timm, p. 11 and in the Anthology section.

[7] Both to be found in Durand, nos. 54 (pp, 214-218) and 92 (pp. 326-330).

[8] Hersart de la Villemarqué, Barzaz Breiz. Chants populaire de la Bretagne. Perrin: Paris, 1959 (repr. of the ed. of 1867), pp. LXII and LXTII.

[9] Two leagues are equivalent to approximately 5 miles.

[10] Son an T.A.C.O. stanzas 3-5, Durand p.215. My own translation.

[11] Durand has such a song in his anthology (no 101, E amzer an noblañs ) pp.359-361.

[12]  See stanza 15, where the «displanterien» burn documents, like their forebears:

E Pont-ar-Veuzenn ha Ploudiern ar mein-bonn a oa berniet.

‘Kichen ti-kêr Pont-ar-veuzenn ar paperiou ‘oa devet.

(«At Pont-de-Buis and Plomodiern the boundary-stones were dumped in a heap. By the «mairie» of Pont-de-Buis the papers were burned»).

[13]  Son an displanteren mein-bonn stanza 19. Son an T.A.C.O. also ends on a threat: «Tud laouen ‘vo er Finister / Pa vo botezet dan e rér», «There will be some happy people in Finistère when he (the T.A.C.O.) has a kick up the backside».

[14]  Anjela Duval, Traoñ an Dour, pp. 72-3.

[15]  Anjela Duval, Traoñ an Dour, pp. 143-136; quote stanza 5.

[16]  It was put to music by Soazic Noblet and sung by Franseza Riou on the record «Les Tregeriz: An Alc’houez aour» (Vélia 2217003); the record contains other songs and ”ballads by Anjela Duval. See Durand, pp. 89-93, and 342-345.

[17]  Tadoù-you va c’hendadoù

Eus Gwenva ar Gelted

Gwelit o tiverañ va daeroù

War ho labour dismantret

 («Great grandfathers of my forefathers/ From the Race of the Celts / Look at my tears dropping/ On your ruined work».) Compare with the introductory couplet of the political dance-ballad Gwerz Tabud Kemper: «Tostait, va mignoned; azezit tro war dro / Ma roin deoc’h hep dale keleier eus ar vro», «Approach, my friends, sit around me, and I will give you without delay news from home.» (Durand, p.298).

[18]  This feature is all the more striking for Duval’s extreme attachment to her own «terroir»  of Traoñ an Dour in real life.

[19]  These songs are frequently quite short: see or example Ar vatezh vihan, found in most anthologies of Breton folk songs and a favourite of choirs, where a young maidservant sings her delight at the beauty of the rural landscape.

[20]  Anjela Duval, Traoñ an Dour,  pp. 63-64.

[21]  See Fañch Danno, «Anjela Duval», Al Liamm 210 (1982): 74-77 on Duval’s influence on Breton song-writers.

[22]  An Tourter (Durand pp. 103- 106), stanza 6:

Piou an diaoul e-neus ijinet

Eur seurt benveg ken milliget?

A laz, a sko ‘vel eun treitour

A ra d’an den chom dilabour…

«Who the devil has invented such a damned sort of machine that kills, that strikes like a traitor, and makes man remain without work?»

[23]  Durand, pp. 101-103.

[24]  Durand, pp. 100-101.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email