Mireille Helffer: a life devoted to music and ritual

Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy and Katia Buffetrille

Mireille Helffer passed away on Tuesday 17 January 2023. We would like to pay tribute to the friend who accompanied us over the years and to the pioneering researcher whose work sparked interest among young people. In 2017, we presented her with a collection of articles on the occasion of her 90th birthday.[1] In the introduction to the volume, we recounted her personal history, her encounters and her passions in life. Here we take up part of this text to evoke a woman whose enthusiasm for music led her to study Tibetan in order to penetrate the depths of this ‘musical offering.’

Helffer did not explicitly decide, let alone intend, to become an ethnomusicologist specialised in the Tibetan world. This is simply because, as she set out in life, like all the pioneers of her generation, the multidisciplinary fields such as ethnomusicology, and the ethnographic study of the Himalayas did not exist, at least institutionally. As she herself puts it, she ‘was swept along by events.’ Her research bears witness to a path which, through encounters and collaborations, but also by virtue of her perseverance in  pursuing a largely solitary field of study, developed over more than half a century and has inspired several generations of researchers. Three main stages in her career can be singled out. She initially devoted herself to the study of Nepalese bards (Gāine) and, more broadly, to the popular music of Nepal. She then turned to Tibetan culture, proposing an in-depth analysis of the musical aspect of bards singing the Gesar epic, based on recordings made in France. Finally, from the 1970s onwards, she strived to understand the ritual music of Tibetan Buddhism, based on materials collected from monks exiled in India and Nepal. Her numerous publications on musical notations and monastic musical instruments are indispensable references. Her work as a musicologist and anthropologist never eschewed a rigorous philological method. The foundations of her training lay in history and texts, supplemented by years’ practice of museography at Musée Guimet, which explains the privileged place that texts and iconography occupy in her work. It is perhaps precisely in the relationship between the written word and sound that the essence of Helffer’s reflections lies, whether it be the relationship between text and music (as in the epic) or the rapport between music and notation (as in musical notations), which occupied a large part of her research. 

Helffer was born in 1928 into a non-musical Catholic family. She took piano lessons at Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and met the pianist Claude Helffer at the Jeunesses Musicales. They married when she was 18 and had four children within the space of eight years. However, encouraged by her husband and influenced by post-war feminism, she decided to pursue her studies, which led to a particularly rich, committed and productive intellectual career. Although she was not predestined to become a specialist of the Tibetan world, it was her early academic choices that led Helffer to Upper Asia.

Her career began in 1947 when she enrolled for a degree at the Sorbonne, which included certificates in music history, aesthetics, ethnology and Indian civilisation. During Olivier Lacombe’s course in Indian philosophy, it became clear to her that knowledge of Sanskrit was essential for understanding Indian culture. Thus, in the early 1950s, alongside her classes on the history of music, she enrolled in Louis Renou’s Sanskrit class, to which all students interested in South Asia converged. It was there that she met Alexander Macdonald, with whom she would later collaborate for her first articles. The two of them also attended Rolf Stein’s lessons at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, which were devoted to the Tibetan epic. Helffer’s first steps in Tibetology were thus part of a classical and textual training. It was thanks to her knowledge of Sanskrit that Philippe Stern, chief curator at Musée Guimet, asked her to join the museum’s music section, which he created in 1953: ‘He invited me to be in charge of the record collection he had deposited at Musée Guimet. I started listening to all these records and, little by little, I found myself captured by Asian music,’ she recalls. She was taken on as a project manager for national museums, then, from 1961 onwards, as a CNRS researcher assigned to Musée Guimet where she remained there for many years, keeping her office even after being assigned to the Musée de l’Homme’s ethnomusicology department (1968). During the first years of her assignment, she was still a student. It was a formative period that made her receptive to questions regarding the written word, archives and archiving in music, which prefigured her future research on musical notations, iconography and instruments. She classified the recordings deposited in the collections, puchased records and created the sound programme to accompany exhibitions of objects in the museum. For many years she was the only musicologist working at the Musée Guimet, which enabled her to work simultaneously on various Asian musical traditions. 

In the early sixties, she was mainly interested in the classical music of India but her scientific research took her to Nepal. It was there that she did her first fieldwork (1966-1970). It was during that period that French scholars first carried out ethnological research in Nepal, with a marked interest in oral and popular literature. Some colleagues from the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) had brought back recordings – in particular of Gāine songs – and they didn’t know what to make of them. They invited her to join their projects. Helffer’s early work thus stemmed from collaborations with A. W. Macdonald on the subject of the Gāine, then with M. Gaborieau on the Hudkyā singers. This collaborative work culminated in the recording Castes de musiciens au Népal (1969), which features songs recorded by four researchers (M. Gaborieau, M. Helffer, C. Jest, A.W. Macdonald), and comes with two booklets, one in English, another in French, containing translations (prepared with the help of M. Gaborieau) of the songs as well as musical notations. This was an important scientific milestone that was highlighted in an exhibition at Musée de l’Homme entitled Népal, hommes et dieux. Helffer chose the musical illustrations for the objects and slides shown during this exhibition (December 1969-March 1970).

It was also at Musée Guimet that she made recordings with Lozang Tenzin, known as the Hor pa, a Tibetan who had taken refuge in France since the early 1960s and who could sing the epic text of Gesar, for which Rolf Stein had published a summarised translation of Ling’s version. It was on this recording that she based the musicological analyses developed in  her thesis (1972) published in 1977 under the title Les chants dans l’épopée tibétaine de Ge-sar d’après le Livre de la Course de Cheval. Version chantée par Blo bza bstan ’jin. It is a monument of meticulousness and rigour that sheds light for the first time not on the textual dimension of the epic, but on its living and performing dimension, on the musical work carried out by the bard. The quality and originality of this contribution was also recognised by her colleagues working in the People’s Republic of China, since her work was translated into Chinese in 2004. 

It was again at Musée Guimet that she discovered ‘a document containing Tibetan musical notations whose system intrigued me; it almost became an obsession.’ Indeed, this discovery was to be the driving force behind the next three decades of her research, this time devoted to monastic music. From then on, she would no longer work with professional or mendicant musicians, but would instead devote herself to meticulously deciphering the graphic vocabulary and writing conventions of these graphic representations with the help of learned monks. After having inventoried all the notations of this type in the manuscripts housed by the major Western libraries, she met a monk in 1972 at the Tibetan Institute in Rikon, near Zurich, who was able to read these notations and chant them. Noting the interest shown by her Tibetan colleagues in these studies, she carried out a first exploratory mission to a Tibetan monastery in India (1973), followed by numerous other surveys among several religious lineages. 

The year 1987 marked a turning point in her career, when she was at Payül Monastery in Bylakuppe, South India, to study the hitherto relatively neglected Nyingma musical traditions. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche performed an initiation ritual (lung) in the presence of many Nyingmapa dignitaries. Among them was Rabjam Rinpoche, abbot of Shechen Monastery in Bodnath, Nepal. He told her about the great difference in the musical traditions in his monastery and invited her to come and study them. “I accepted the invitation and since then never left Shechen where I was able to witness the whole tsechu ritual. I sat in a corner with the text and did not move. Little by little, year after year, as I attended these rituals, always the same ones, I was able to follow what was being done on the ritual text”.

Helffer’s second book, Mchod-rol. Les instruments de la musique tibétaine (1994) offers once again an impressive synthesis of many years of research, and its contribution lies just as much in the wealth of the materials exploited and described as in the methodology that the author had to apply in order to arrange it. The book presents and analyses instruments from several museum collections in Europe, America and Asia, relating them not only to a rich iconography, but also to the Tibetan texts themselves, from the various religious lineages – all original and unpublished sources, often difficult to access and interpret. In her conclusion, Helffer explains the ritual role, within Tantric Buddhism, of this ‘musical offering.’

In her article entitled ‘Quand le terrain est un monastère bouddhique tibétain’ (1995), Helffer explains at length the conditions of her successive investigations, her methodology, which was always fundamentally empirical, the way she recorded the music (how to record a long tantric ritual during an entire performance? ), the challenges of understanding the rituals (linguistically and culturally), the warm welcome she received or the painstaking work she carried out on these notations at a time (1975 to 1985) when the number of publications or collections on musical notations rose sharply, and thus increased the amount of written documentation to be taken into account.

Her third and final book, Music from the Roof of the World: The Sound World of the Tibetan Culture (2004), is an extended translation of a book that was previously published in Italian in 2000. It takes stock of a whole career of research. It presents for the first time, and with exemplary clarity, the whole range of Tibetan musical traditions, both religious and popular. It is a work of reference unequalled to this day. 

Helffer’s initial training in the extensive exploration of these large areas of Tibetan rituality was at the crossroads between musicology, ethnology and Tibetology, taking into account the rigour and the approach of each of these three disciplines. She was  associate member of the team Langues et cultures de l’aire tibétaine (CNRS, ESA 8047), which later became Tibet, Bhutan and the Tibetan cultural area (TBACT) of the research unit Centre de recherche sur les civilisations de l’Asie orientale. She always took part in the team’s ‘Rituals’ seminar chaired by Katia Buffetrille. Helffer was also one of the main initiators of a solid training course for young researchers in ethnomusicology. She created the first ethnomusicology courses at the University of Paris X-Nanterre (1976) and was one of the founding members of the French Society of Ethnomusicology (SFE) in 1983. From 1985 to 1989, she directed the Department of Ethnomusicology at the Musée de l’Homme. She retired in the mid-1990s but continued to participate actively in various seminars, to publish and to follow the work of students.She was a pioneering researcher and a passionate teacher, supervising many students and taking on administrative tasks. Mireille has left behind the vibrant memory of a person who listened to others and was always ready to help, whether in word or in deed.

[1] Katia Buffetrille et Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy) 2017 Musique et épopée en Haute-Asie. Mélanges offerts à Mireille Helffer à l’occasion de son 90eanniversaire. Paris, L’Asiathèque.


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