The first public performance of the Freres Morvan took place in St Servais in 1958. Since then, they have sung at thousands of musical events ranging from small family gatherings to the huge annual rock festival, les Vieilles Charrues, at Carhaix, and are recognised as having played a major role in helping to preserve the centuries-old tradition of Breton music and dance.
What is perhaps even more remarkable, given the nature of the music business, is that the Frères Morvan command almost universal love and respect in their local community and throughout the whole of Brittany.
Over the course of their lives, the three brothers, François, Henri, and Yvon, have seen many changes, and their biography reads like a history of Brittany in the twentieth century.
Like many Bretons, their father, Fanch Morvan, was an unwilling conscript in the 1914-18 war: he spent four full years at the front, leaving his young bride, Augustine, to look after their farm in St Nicodème. One of Fanch’s brothers was killed in combat, and another only managed to avoid conscription by feigning imbecility to the French authorities.
After the War a time of relative peace and prosperity returned to Brittany, and Fanch and Augustine had five children - four sons and a daughter. Henri recalls this as being a time of great happiness: ‘People sang while they worked in the fields, and it was common for people to gather together in the evenings to sing and dance together’.
The occupation of Brittany by German forces in 1939 saw a return to harsh conditions. The Morvan brothers managed to avoid deportation to Germany – a fate which befell many other young men in the area – but life was perilous throughout the six years of occupation, taxes were high, farm equipment was requisitioned for the German war effort, and any sign of non-co-operation with the authorities was potentially fatal.
Little relief was experienced after Liberation. Yvon was conscripted to serve in the war in Algeria, while, at home, the Breton countryside started to experience an ‘exodus’ that soon left whole villages empty and falling into ruin: young people across Brittany became convinced that there was no future for them in their place of birth and set off to find work in the big cities, most notably Paris.
The Morvan brothers resisted the temptation to follow the general trend, and remained on the family farm, working with their parents, and learning to adapt to the changing times. In 1958 the farm was connected to the electricity supply, and in 1959 the family bought its first tractor. However, the brothers never lost touch with the traditional way of life, and, in particular, they developed a reputation for their singing and their range of songs.
When the ‘Circle Celtique de Callac’ organised its first ‘Fest-noz’ in St Servais it was therefore natural for ‘Les Frères Morvan’ to be invited to sing – and this was their first official public performance.
Over the years, the brothers have become famous for the welcome given to visitors to the family farm: from left to right, Yvon, François and Henri.
The brothers were soon invited to sing at more events and rapidly became a popular feature of Brittany’s emerging musical folk-culture. They sing without musical accompaniment, and, as is traditional in Brittany, many of their songs are danced to, whilst others are ballads, dating back to the nineteenth century. They sing in Breton, and all their songs were learnt from their parents: their mother had learnt an exceptionally large number of songs from her father, and once her sons started to become more well-known, she took pains to pass the whole collection on to them – the entire repertoire of 78 songs has now been transcribed and was published in book form in 2002.
Throughout their musical careers the brothers continued to run the family farm. As far as possible, they still accept every invitation that they receive, and they have never asked for an appearance fee; moreover, they have never signed a contract. In recent years François, who is now 83, has made fewer public appearances, but Henri and Yvon are still familiar figures at Fest-noz and fêtes across the region.