In Irish music I already cited some fine quotes from Carson’s Last night’s fun bearing on the mania for soulless competitions, including the tale of the three fiddlers. The final passage in this section is remarkable (p.98):
I find among these people commendable diligence only on musical instruments, on which they are incomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen. Their style is not, as on the British instruments to which we are accustomed, deliberate and solemn but quick and lively; nevertheless the sound is smooth and pleasant.
It is remarkable that, with such rapid fingerwork, the musical rhythm is maintained and that, by unfailingly disciplined art, the integrity of the tune is fully preserved through the ornate rhythms and the profusely intricate polyphony… They introduce and leave the rhythmic motifs so subtly, they play the tinkling sounds on the thinner strings above the sustained sounds of the thicker strings so freely, they take such secret delight and caress [the strings] so sensuously, that the greatest part of their art seems to lie in veiling it, as if ‘that which is concealed is bettered— art revealed is art shamed’. Thus it happens that those things which bring private and ineffable delight to people of subtle appreciation and sharp discernment, burden rather than delight the ears of those who, and in spite of looking do not see and in spite of hearing do not understand; to unwilling listeners, fastidious things appear tedious and have a confused and disordered sound.
That passage might seem like a fine description of Irish music today—but it was written in 1185, by Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hiberniae!
Generally (my book, p.291),
I wage a tireless campaign against the Chinese scholarly trend to make ambitious links between ancient citations and living folk practice, but here is one case where I totally support it. Comparable to the centrality of the keyboard for 18th-century kapellmeisters, the sheng master was the grand director of courtly ritual music right from the Zhou dynasty around the 6th century BCE, with an unmatched understanding of scales and pitches, a custom that has persisted throughout imperial history right down to today. Of all the wise sheng masters we have met in north Chinese villages, Li Qing was among the most outstanding.
Doubtless Irish music has changed in many ways since the 12th century, and that passage is just general enough to allow us to discern parallels that may not add up to so much—but still, it’s impressive.