I have acquired two discs which I think might be the oldest recordings of early Irish harp music, recorded in April 1937. I have not yet played them to hear what is on them – I am still trying to source a suitable stylus for my turntable.
They are one-off lacquer gramophone records, also known as transcription discs – the 1930s equivalent of a cassette tape, for direct recording as a one-off copy. These are not reproductions or duplicate pressings so are almost certainly the only copies that exist of these takes.
Here’s the handwritten label of one of the discs, a double-sided 10-inch disc:
Take 3. N.D.G
(The other side of this disc says “Tests – A.D. on outer ring – II.IV.37”)
And here is the second record, a 12 inch single-sided disc:
D II Take I
Irish Harp Music.
The Victorious Tree.
These records came from a collection of Dolmetsch discs, tapes and papers. Some of the other discs indicated that they were recorded by L. Ward.
Arnold Dolmetsch made a number of harps, both small gut strung instruments as well as the early Irish harps modelled on the Queen Mary harp
and Trinity College harp
, and fitted with metal wire strings. Mabel used them mainly for exploring the medieval Welsh repertory preserved in the Robert ap Huw manuscript, and in 1937 they released a set of gramophone records with an accompanying book of sheet music “translated” from the manuscript. Mabel played this Welsh music on the wire-strung Irish harp, and her performances and Arnold’s editions proved very influential; Alan Stivell included performances of these versions on his LP “Renaissance of the Celtic Harp”.
However I did not know until now that Mabel had also experimented with Irish repertory. “An Bile Buadhach” (The Victorious Great Tree) comes from Edward Bunting’s 1809 collection; it was collected by Bunting from an unnamed informant “at Lord Clanbrassil’s” house, Tollymore Park, co. Down, “in 1793”.
When I get the correct stylus for my turntable I will play these discs once, digitise them and present them here for you! I am not going to put them on the gramophone machine – I understand that these transcription discs are extremely fragile and wear out very quickly from only a few plays.
Here’s what Mabel had to say about her own playing of the early Irish harp music:
…the small, metal-strung variety [of harp], favoured in Ireland, and the Highlands of Scotland, under the name of Clarsach. I never ceased to thank him [Arnold Dolmetsch] for producing these most fascinating of instruments, whose suavely tuneful music rejoices the heart and charms the senses. One day when I was recreating myself with one of these little instruments, a neighbour who had asked if she might use our telephone, came running into the music room, exclaiming: ‘Oh, what are those lovely sounds? That is the kind of music I want to hear when I am dying!’
From Mabel Dolmetsch, Personal Recollections of Arnold Dolmetsch, RKP, 1957, p148