Harp labelled “Arnold Dolmetsch 10”, given to me by Iris Nevins.
In or before 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 for Miss Russell-Fergusson by Arnold Dolmetsch”1
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.
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. „
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...
The Hornimann Museum holds a number of instruments from the Dolmetsch estate, including two of these harps. The catalogue lists them as follows:
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, more like oak or ash. Hers also does not have the semitone hooks that mine does, though hers does have dark (presumably 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? Against this is the appearance of Heloise’ harp in her photo. On the other hand, the photo was taken by Morley in London, so may have been made before the original delivery, and may show the first “first clarsach” rather than “the cherry one”. I also wonder if it is possible to find “old wild cherry” with bold wide grain.
There is also the date. Heloise’s transcription of the inscription just says “July”. Did she just forget to type the year? Should it be July 1931, so the swap was proposed after one year? Or should it be July 1932, which implies the inscription might have been made after the swap was proposed, i.e. that she is transcribing the second inscription?
Is it possible that mine, no. 10, is “The Cherry Clarsach”?
1. I don’t know the currentl whereabouts of this instrument. 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.^
2. Letter from Arnold Dolmetsch, July 5th 1932, to Heloise Russell-Fergusson. Glasgow Museums A.1970.6.e.. 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 ^