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Dolmestch harps - legacy

The Dolmetsch harps and recordings had a number of interesting influences on later developments in the harp scene. Also, the Dolmetsch company continued to make harps for sale up to the 1970s.


Brittany

Heloise Russell-Fergusson had a huge effect in raising awareness of the harp in Brittany when she toured there in 1934. Gildas Jaffrennou started his harpmaking career by measuring her harp:

En 1935, Gildas Jaffrennou prit les mesures de la harpe de Heloise Russel-Fergusson et en construisit une premiere dans son atelier de Carhaix. Cette harpe ne sonnait pas bien car les cordes etaient mal adaptees et elle fut abandonnee.

Francois Hascoet, 19841

I was told by Jean-Noël Verdier that the harp made by Gildas in 1936 was copied from Heloise’s Dolmetsch harp. On the other hand, the video of Heloise at the Gorsedd at Roscoff in 19342 shows her with her Clarke harp. Did she also take the Dolmetsch “first clarsach” with her on this trip?

Gildas’s first harp was a failure but in 1947 he made a second successful instrument “under the guidance of Mrs. Arnold Dolmetsch”3. The following year, Gildas was asked by Jord Cochevelou for information about harp construction. Jord made a harp in 1951, following Gildas’s instructions. He had intended it for his wife, but instead his son Alan became besotted with it and played it. Alan later took the stage name Stivell and became world-famous as a Breton harper.

The first harp that Jord Cochevelou made for Alan was fitted with gut strings; it was not until 1964 that Alan got a harp with wire strings. Gildas Jaffrennou’s 1973 book includes instructions for making gut- or nylon-strung “Celtic” harps (styled after the Clarke Irish harp) as well as wire-strung “bardic” harps; I don’t yet understand the exact connections between the different harp designs of Stivell or Jaffrennou, and the Dolmetsch instruments.

Alan Stivell used the 1964 wire-strung harp to play the Dolmetsch arrangements of the medieval Welsh music on his LP Renaissance of the Celtic Harp. This record was hugely influential internationally in raising awareness of Celtic harp music.


Scotland

Of course Heloise Russell-Fergusson was based in Scotland but she doesn’t seem to have played the Dolmetsch harp there at all. She did correspond with Arnold Dolmetsch in 1932 about replacement strings; did she have trouble with the harp? It is very lightly strung and the touch would have been very different to her Clarke harp. Heloise sold the Dolmetsch harp in 1945.

The person who acquired it in 1945 was a child, who took lessons from Edith Taylor at Rahoy. The harp’s new owner kept it and played it, but only at home privately. They said it was to be played on the left shoulder, the opposte to “other harps”. They finally sold it in 2017.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Miss Edith L. Ogilvy Taylor of Rahoy, Morvern, was a harpist who played a Dolmetsch clarsach with wire strings6. I don’t know how early she got it; she was active as a harpist and as Secretary of the Clarsach Society from the early 1930s, when she was based in Dunblane. The photograph below, shows her with a Dolmetsch harp, presumably her own. It is very similar to Heloise’s 1932 “first”, from similar wood, with similar but slightly different figuring in the grain.

Edith Taylor with a Dolmetsch clarsach harp
At Perth Mod, 1947. L-R: Heloise Russell-Fergusson, Edith Taylor, George Gordon 2nd Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair. Thanks to Helene Witcher for the photo and to Stuart Eydmann for information. See also Dundee Evening Telegraph, Friday 03 October 1947, p.1

Other photos of Edith Taylor at Rahoy in the late 1940s show her playing it left-orientation.

Miss Edith Taylor, the first honorary secretary of Comunn na Clàrsaich, has one of these on which she once played for the writer at a BBC ‘Country Magazine’ programme from Lochaline, Morvern

Francis Collinson, 19664

I think that this might be the programme made in Ardgour, broadcast on the Home Service basic, on Sunday 6th July 1952, 1.10pm5

However, Edith Taylor was very unusual and I don’t think there was any continuing legacy of playing on clarsachs with wire strings, at least not in public. When the well-established Scottish clarsach player Alison Kinnaird got an instrument with wire strings in the late 80s /early 90s she could not find anyone with any knowledge of playing technique until she met Ann Heymann visiting from America.


Ireland

Gráinne Yeats had a copy of the Mabel Dolmetsch gramophone record and the notated score. However I am not sure how much that fed into the revivial of early Irish harp - I think Gráinne considered this stuff Welsh and so only of peripheral relevance.


USA

The American harpist Rosalyn Rensch ordered a wire-strung harp from the Dolmetsch company in 19567.

Someone must of tooken no. 10 to the USA at some point. Iris Nevins inherited it from a person in New Jersey, who picked it up at an auction “many decades back”, and passed it on to me in 2015


References

1. [Francois Hascoet], ‘Gildas Jaffernnou, luthier’, Telennourien Vreizh - Harpistes de Bretagne, No.5, Autumn 1984, p. 15-16 ^

2. Eisteddford of Brittany, British Pathé film, online at britishpathe.com.^

3. Gildas Jaffrennou, Folk Harps, MAP 1973, Also Francois Hascoet, L’interet pour la harpe celtique, Revue TV-HdeB, no5, p. 15-16 (Autumn 1984) ^

4. Collinson, Frances (1966) The Traditional and National Music of Scotland. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1966. ^

5. Radio Times, Issue 1495, 4 July 1952, p.12. Also G.M.L. ‘A Radio Commentary’, The Glasgow Herald, 11th July 1952 ^

6. Luc Montigny (1951) "A Dutchwoman and the Gaelic", Scots Magazine new series vol LV no. 4 July 1951 p.301^

7. Charles Lynch, The Scrapbooks of the Rosalyn Rensch collection vol 1