Although the earliest notated Gaelic harp tune looks like being Port Ballangowne, in the Skene ms written 1615-1625, some tunes can be dated much earlier than this, usually by association with poetry.
Poetry and music were intertwined throughout medieval Europe, with most poetry composed to be sung, not read privately, and vocal music being much more highly regarded than instrumental. It is an interesting fact however that while poetry was written down from almost 1500 years ago1, music remained an oral if not improvisatory art until much later. And while Ireland, Scotland and Wales led the field in the writing down of poetry, they lagged far behind in the writing down of the accompanying music, to the extent that no music survives that was written down by a Gaelic harper, and only one such manuscript of Welsh harp music is extant2.
The problem with this approach is that although we might be able to match a text and a tune, and if it is still performed or was caught on record in the 20th century, an actual performance of an ancient poem3, we really do not know very much at all about what music the harp would actually have played to accompany the singer. The Gaelic harp was used to accompany singing right up until the instrument fell out of use in the 19th Century, but the way the voice and harp interacted seems not to have been recorded anywhere4.
One big difference between medieval music and the 18th century music is that while the latter was played and sung by one person, who may have also composed the poem and set it to the music, the medieval performance was created by a team of three. The poet (file) composed the words, but did not perform them. They were sung by the reciter (reacaire), and accompanied by the harper (cruitire).
The nature of the very old syllabic poetry, with its absence of regular beats, and its short stanzas and correspondingly short tune, means that musical interest is sustained by singing the song in a flexible rythym, following the natural speech patterns5. Would the harper be expected to also know the words off by heart, and to play the tune as if singing it with the instrument instead of the voice? Or would the harper play some more regular chordal or figured background against the melody of the words?6
The medieval Welsh harp music preserved in Robert ap Huw's manuscript does not necessarily help in answering these questions. The music itself seems very different from what we know about Gaelic harp music. Music from Ireland and Scotland is primarily homophonic, based on a strong melody; the medieval Welsh music is not very melodic at all but is based on ornamented binary chord progressions. Also although there were clearly theoretical connections between the musical measures of cerdd dant (the art of the string) and the poetical measures of cerdd dafod (the art of the tongue), it is very hard to make detailed correspondances, and it is not easy to fit words to music7.
The most elusive and also most tantalising aspect of the music in Robert ap Huw's manuscript is that medieval and later writers consistently report that this music has its origins in Ireland8, specifically when Gruffudd ap Cynan brought Irish musicians across to Wales to codify Cerdd Dant. However mixed up and mythical these accounts may be, there does seem to have been genuine connections between Welsh and Irish music in the early Medieval period9.
Whether or not any of the musical principles that are described in Robert ap Huw's manuscript can be successfully applied to the performance of early Gaelic poetry remains to be seen10.