Dolmetsch harps

the First clarsach
The "first clarsach", made by Arnold Dolmetsch in 1932.

In 1932, Arnold Dolmetsch made a number of small harps. His “First clarsach” was made for the Scottish harpist Heloise Russell-Fergusson. It bore an inscription: “This clarsach, the first / of its kind, was made at / Haslemere in July 1932, for Hèloïse Russell-Fergusson / by Arnold Dolmetsch”1

Inscription on the First clarsach
Ink inscription on the first clarsach.

More information on the making of this first batch of harps comes in a letter from Arnold Dolmetsch to Heloise Russell-Fergusson2, dated July 5th, 1932. He describes a number of clarsachs “made at the same time” of which one was delivered to Heloise, three were sold but “not delivered” yet, and one he calls “the cherry one”, made from “a very fine piece of old wild cherry wood” with a “deeper and more golden” colour.

Arnold Dolmetsch no.10
Harp labelled “Arnold Dolmetsch 10”, given to me by Iris Nevins.

Dolmetsch made two slightly different models, one with gut strings and the other with metal wire strings. Both have the same overall form and design, inspired by the form of the surviving medieval Irish and Scottish Gaelic harps; both were sometimes fitted with semitone-mechanisms. Heloise Russell Fergusson writes in April 1952: “Fifteen of these little metal-stringed harps were made & distributed & three somewhat larger gut-stringed instruments”3

The two types have very different sound, and playing style. The gut-strung instruments are in a well-established tradition of making harps that look like the medieval Gaelic harps but have gut strings and semitone mechanisms in the 19th/20th century ‘lever harp’ tradition. The wire-strung instruments on the other hand were ground-breaking in their time as an attempt to recreate the old wire-strung Gaelic harps which fell out of use in the 19th century.

However neither he nor other contemporary writers take much care to distinguish between them, or to specify which was being referred to. Both models might, more or less accurately, be referred to as “clarsach”, “medieval harp”, “small harp”, “bardic harp”, “harp of antique form”, or “Irish harp”.

...the little primitive harp for which [the Welsh music ornaments] were made, the crystalline tone... These harps had either Gut or Wire strings. They were always played by the Nails which were kept in proper shape for that purpose.

Arnold Dolmetsch, 19374

The first of these new reconstructions...were some small, gut-strung diatonic harps, whose slender proportions and strings at low tension produced a singing tone of sustained resonance...
Close upon these first harps came the small, metal-strung variety, favoured in Ireland, and the Highlands of Scotland, under the name of Clarsach.

Mabel Dolmetsch, 19575

The Hornimann Museum holds a number of instruments from the Dolmetsch estate, including two of these harps. The catalogue lists them as follows:

I:14 [A]
‘Caledonian Harp’
Haslemere c.1932
The instrument is in the form of a large Irish harp, including the characteristic bowed pillar and massive soundbox.
Thirty gut strings are attached to the left of the neck and 14 are fitted with a tuning blade which enables the harp to be set in a number of keys.
The carved and penwork decorative schemes are evocative of celtic ornament.
I:15 [A]
Irish harp
Haslemere c.1936 The Irish harp may be identified by its heavy appearance; strong, bowed pillar and deep, triangular soundbox. It appears to have been strung with metal throughout its history.
This instrument is fitted with twenty seven wire strings and with hooks for semitone adjustments.

Horniman Museum, 19816

The ‘Caledonian Harp’ I:14 [A] is illustrated on p.18, showing a harp modelled somewhat loosely after the medieval Queen Mary harp in the National Museum in Edinburgh. It is not clear to me where the dates and names of these two instruments come from.

My personal impression of these instruments is that while they are clearly modelled on the two surviving medieval Gaelic harps, the Queen Mary harp in Edinburgh and the Brian Boru harp in Dublin, Dolmetsch’s instruments are more slender and gracile. He places two soundholes in each side of the soundbox instead on in the front. Some are plain and undecorated, but many have carving on the forepillar which reproduces the fish head and eyes of the Queen Mary harp, and some at least of the instruments also have the linear designs from the front of the Queen Mary harp soundboard, as well as decorated roundels at the top and bottom of the forepillar.

The harp I have is labelled “Arnold Dolmetsch 10”. It appears to be made of cherry, and has 27 thin wire strings, mostly of copper alloy with a few wound basses. For more information on the research and restoration of this instrument, see my blog under “Dolmetsch”.

My harp looks very similar to Heloise’s “First clarsach”. It has the same slab-sided pillar. Hers has a much bolder grain. Hers also does not have the semitone hooks that mine does, though hers does have red and blue markings on the tuning pin ends and on the string shoes or bridges, just like mine has. These similarities of form make me more confident that mine, no. 10, is one of the original fifteen.

In the letter to Heloise of July 5th 1932, Arnold says he wishes to take back the harp she has, and substitute it for “the cherry one”. He says “I would exchange it for the one you have, of which I should remove the inscription. I should write a similar one on The Cherry Clarsach, and we should be within the truth, for all these Clarsachs were made at the same time...”

Did they make the swap? Heloise’s first harp (which now belongs to Helene Witcher) has been declared by a wood person to be of cherry. The scrapbook photo shows the same instrument. But I don't know how to assess this. The harp being held by Edith Taylor (see Legacy) looks to be very similar. They both have bold wide grain. My harp (no. 10) is much darker with a very different, more speckled grain, which I thought looked like cherry. I wonder if all of them were of cherry? What is the difference between Dolmetsch’s “old wild cherry” and the other wood he was using?

There is also the date. Heloise’s transcription of the inscription just says “July”, but the harp says July 1932. Yet Arnold Dolmetsch wrote proposing the swap on 5th July 1932, implying that she had already had her clarsach for a while, and that they had been corresponding about replacement strings.

Is it possible that mine, no. 10, is “The Cherry Clarsach”?


Thanks to Helene Witcher, owner of Heloise’s “first clarsach”, for allowing me to inspect and photograph it.

1. There is a photo and caption in Heloise Russell-Fergusson’s collection of photos in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, section C volume 2 f62r-v. The inscription is not visible in the photo of the left side of the harp, but is transcribed in the caption. The transcription omits the year 1932, and the name Hèloïse.^

2. Letter from Arnold Dolmetsch, July 5th 1932, to Heloise Russell-Fergusson. Glasgow Museums A.1970.6.e.[2]. Arnold mentions sending a replacement string, and says that his assistant sent “a complete set of strings some time ago’, so it is not clear how long after the completion and delivery of the first harp, this letter was written. He refers to the “clarsachs’ he has made, one of which is already in Heloise’s posession, one he wishes to exchange for the one she has, and three have been sold. He consistently refers to the instruments as “clarsachs” and though he discusses strings he does not mention if they are gut or wire. Thanks to Helene Witcher for showing me this. ^

3. Russell-Fergusson collection, section C volume 2 f62v.^

3. Arnold Dolmetsch, Translations from the Penllyn Manuscript of Ancient Harp Music, Early Welsh Music Society, Llangefni, 1937, p.5 ^

4. Mabel Dolmetsch, Personal Recollections of Arnold Dolmetsch , RKP, 1957, p148 ^

5. The Dolmetsch Collection of Musical Instruments , Horniamn Museum, London, 1981, p18 ^