Early Gaelic harp music

There is a great deal of ancient Irish music lost in consequence of the attachment harpers latterly have for modern tunes, and which is what is now chiefly in vogue

The Memoirs of Arthur O'Neill, c. 1808-131

Does Arthur O’Neill mean by this that the older Irish music was neglected in favour of more up-to-date Irish tunes, or that exciting foreign tunes were displacing Irish music? There was certainly some of the latter going on in the 18th century; Echlin O'Kane played Corelli violin concertos on his Gaelic harp2, and Dominic Mungan played adagios by Handel3. However it is not clear how much these performances were exotic novelties or the mainstay of the harpers at this date.

Certainly much of the Irish music played by by the harpers was not particularly old, but was of contemporary composition and style. Denis O'Hampsey was an odd one out at the Belfast harpers' meeting in 1792, and it was only many years later that Edward Bunting eulogised him in print:

The pieces which he delighted to perform were unmixed with modern refinements, which he seemed studiously to avoid; confining himself chiefly to the most antiquated of those strains which have long survived the memory of their composers...

Edward Bunting, The Ancient Music of Ireland, 18404

So, the manuscripts of Edward Bunting5, which preserve such a richness of harp music, including some notes on playing technique and harmonisation, need to be used carefully. There is no doubt that some of the tunes were old at the time - Scott's Lamentation as played to Bunting by Denis O'Hampsey6 was reputedly composed in 1599 - but half of the music played at Belfast was composed by Carolan (1670-1738) who often incorporated European classical motifs and forms. A number of tunes were older but had been "updated" and had had new variations composed for them.

Also, of all the harpers interviewed by Bunting, the only one who used his fingernails was again O'Hampsey, the others using the soft tips of their fingers to play7. It is not clear how early the use of the fingertips had spread from the European classical tradition to the wire-strung Gaelic harp; it may have started as early as the 17th century. This has implications for the articulation and gracing of the tunes; the newer techniques perhaps suiting more modern music.

Scotland in the 17th century

In Scotland the Gaelic harp died out earlier than in Ireland, so there is no equivalent to Edward Bunting, noting down tunes straight from the harpers. However right up to the end Irish harpers travelled in Scotland - among them Denis O'Hampsey and Patrick Byrne - so there is no need to assume any great divergence in style or repertory1.

Instead, harpers in Scotland seem to have passed on their music to other musicians, so that harp tunes survive in scores set for lute, fiddle, and maybe even pipes2.

The name Rory Dall (Blind Rory) was used to refer to two completely different people, Ruairí Dall Ó Catháin (Rory Dall O'Kane) (c.1570 - 1660), an Irish gentleman harper who spent much of his life in Scotland3, and Ruaidhri Mac Mhuirich (Roderick Morison) (c.1656 - 1713/4), harper and poet to the MacLeods at Dunvegan4. Many tunes are attributed to "Rory Dall", or have his name in the title, prompting much argument between the Scots and Irish over which one they belong to. I lean towards the Irish one, not least because the Scottish Rory Dall seems to have worked primarily as a poet and a number of his verses, set to pre-existing tunes, still survive.

A class of tune strongly associated with "Rory Dall" is the "port". Although the word originally meant "a tune", it came by the 17th century to refer to a specific type of harp tune. They are characterised by a number of features, most notably a rather vague overall melody, a formalised rising introduction which may be the remnants of a tuning prelude, and division into two unequal sections5.

Another tune form often found in these Scottish sources is the lament, Cumha in Gaelic. These grand formal pieces can share features with Ports, not least of which is that both are sometimes given with variations written out6.

Much has been made of the presence, in the Scottish sources, of harp tunes with variations. Of course, the formal music of the Great Highland Bagpipe7, played in a living tradition from the 17th Century to the present day, is entirely built around the working out of formal and complex variations on a tune. Many people have claimed that the pipes took over the music of the harp in Scotland, and the presence of similar variation forms on these harp tunes seems to support this.

However it is important to remember that the harp tune variations that do survive are almost all in fiddle settings, and it is possible that the variations were added by fiddlers8. Nonetheless, many of the variations do work quite well on the metal strings of the Gaelic harp.

Such variatons seem to survive exclusively in Scottish sources, as when variations appear in Irish sources such as Bunting's manuscripts, they are much more baroque and European in style, and are commonly attributed to a named composer such as Cornelius Lyons (c.1680 - 1750).

There are also some Scottish pieces that occupy a slightly ambiguous middle ground; they are constructed in sections that follow on from one another, but are not strictly variations of an initial tune9. We must be aware that the nature of the old harp variation system is still far from clear.

medieval music and the connections with Wales

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.

Simon Chadwick