Grádh gan fhios

Edward Bunting made a live transcription of the tune of Grádh gan fhios, from the playing of an old Irish harper in the 1790s. You can see the transcription online at Queen’s University Belfast, MS4.29 page 221/219/228/f109r.

There are a number of things about this notation that are interesting. There is doodling and writing at the top of the page, which I am reading as “Han[???] / 890 / M / Madge Masters sssss / Hugar Anthony Bunting” for the doodling section, and then “Grah gus <n> Snis or Love in secret / n / Grah gus Snis snis grah gus / Ganh” for a kind of title.

The title is written over the first full printed staff line, and so the notation starts on the second full stave line on the page. I think this must mean that this title was written before the music notation. I have no idea how the doodling relates.

You can download my PDF typeset version of the transcription notation, which I used to generate this machine audio.

This transcription seems very clear. It obviously started out as the line of dots, written at speed as the harper informant played. Bunting has then added note stems, beams, and barlines.

There are a few places where Bunting has changed dots, deleted or crossed them out, and inserted replacement notes. In his 3rd bar, he has apparently changed his mind about how to show the octave jump from low E to high E; there is a spare couple of E dots which have been ignored or crossed out. We can see a couple of these “orphan” dots in the unbarred section in the second system as well.

The last note of the second system is written as middle C, but this seems unlikely, and perhaps D is intended. Those last four notes are much heavier and bolder, typical of Bunting’s later neat copying or overwriting, and they may be obliterating similar or different transcription dots. This is also the one place where Bunting has written “tr” to indicate a trill. Is this heavy section, and the similar heavy over-written final bar of the first half of the tune, Bunting composing at the piano?

There are three places in the first system where Bunting has written “+” above a note. All are above the first note of a bar, and it is possible that Bunting wrote the + symbols as part of him working out the structure of the tune, using them to guide his later barring. I used to understand “+” to mean a cut, trill, or ornament, but I think that is a bit narrow-minded and naive now. It could also show stress or emphasis, or perhaps indicate a bass note, octave, or bass substitution. We don’t really know; all we can confidently say is that Bunting wanted to mark that particular note in some way.

Other versions

We can check my tune list spreadsheet to see that Edward Bunting made a classical piano arrangement which he titled “Gradh gan fios – Love in Secret”. He printed this piano arrangement on page 4 of his proof sheets which he deposited at Stationer’s Hall, London, in May 1796. These sheets are now British Library g.138.(2). See Peter Downey, Edward Bunting and the Ancient Irish Music…, Lisburn 2017 for full details.

When Bunting finally published his General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland in October 1797, this same piano arrangement was tune no.14 on page 8.

General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, 1797, p.8.

You can listen to this classical piano arrangement being performed on a square piano of Bunting’s time, by Timothy Roberts, as track 25 on Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies (Hyperion CD CDA66774, released 1995)

You can see that Bunting has added a slightly elaborated repeat of the second section of the tune. Was this repeat his piano idea, or was he remembering the performance of the harper four years before?

He has also adjusted some of the phrases to make them sound more classical and harmonic. We don’t need to pay any attention to these changes, though, because this is all part of Bunting’s usual process of de-traditionalising a tune he had collected, to transform it into classical piano music for his urban literate audience.

However we can get one useful tit-bit of information from this printed book. Some time much later, perhaps in the 1830s but most likely in the early 1840s just before he died, Bunting seems to have gone through a copy of this 1797 book (and also a copy of his 1809 book), writing in extra information about each tune. There are two copies of the annotated 1797 book; Karen Loomis discovered one in the British Library (add ms 41508), and there is another (perhaps a hand copy by someone else) in Queen’s University Library (Special Collections MS4.41). I haven’t seen the QUB copy, but in the BL copy Bunting has written above our tune “Harp Oneill” and “Connallon”.

The implication here is that he is telling us that he collected the tune from harper Arthur O’Neill, and that it had been composed by one of the Connellan brothers in the late 17th or early 18th century. The Connellan attribution is also in the 1840 introduction p.70, but in the 1797 introduction p.iv Bunting says it is an “ancient air” which is “so old that no trace could be discovered” of its age.

Attribution to a harper informant

Bunting must have made this transcription before May 1796 when the piano arrangement was printed in the proof sheets. We can check Bunting’s collecting tours to see that the most likely time for this transcription to have been made was in the summer of 1792.

This is clearly a harp transcription, since as well as the B mark (presumably indicating a bass note or passage), there are other octave leaps that may be stylistic harp expression.

Our tune title also appears in a tune list that Bunting wrote on QUB SC MS4.29 page 79. The list is headed “From Hugh Higgins” and has four titles: “John Jones Carolan ill / Grah ga miste very old / Cathleen ne Oullahan / Slumber Maggenis Carolan”.

So perhaps we could consider the possibility that our transcription on page 221 is from a performance by Hugh Higgins in the summer of 1792. What about the later “Arthur O’Neill” tag? perhaps this transcription was from Arthur O’Neill in summer 1792; or perhaps Arthur O’Neill played a version of this tune to Bunting at a much later date, and also told him then about the Connellan attribution?


Bunting writes the title in three different ways. The transcription on page 221 has “Grah gus Snis” though he seems to be experimenting with different ways presumably to transcribe in literal English phonetics what the harper informant said as the title. Similarly, in his page 79 tune list he writes “Grah ga miste” By 1796 he has got an Irish language person to normalise his spellings, and he gives “Gradh gan fios” which is (with the addition of the fada and seimhu) the way it would be spelt today: Grádh gan fhios.

Bunting’s translation both in the transcription and the piano arrangement is “love in secret” and this may have come from the harper informant. “gan fhios” means “not knowing” so I suppose that is a fair translation.

Performance issues

I’m not including a video demonstration in this blog post, because from this point on I think it is more useful to split my writing-up of the manuscript pages, and my performance reconstructions, into two separate projects. But I will say that I think this transcription of Grádh gan fhios is very clear and offers a lot of beautiful possibilities for making stylish idiomatic reconstructions which adhere closely to the transcription evidence whilst also respecting traditional Irish music norms.

The tune is in a G major pentatonic mode, but it has very strong passing F sharps. I especially hear a distinctive motif of a gradually falling pattern, which reminds me of Lady Maisterton and other old harp tunes.

There are lots of questions about how to set this tune on the range of the harp, and how to divide the notes between the two hands. I think this transcription is fairly clear and complete; we don’t need to add any notes or harmony. But we do have to decide about switching the octave register of some notes, most obviously the one marked “B” but also others which move similarly but which Bunting has not marked.

The “B” marking is at an F♯ octave leap, which is an “out of mode” note for the G major mode of the tune. Dropping this F♯ into the bass raises questions about the bass tuning of the harp which this transcription represents – we know about harps with gapped low basses, skipping the bottom F, but there were presumably also harps with full diatonic basses down 2 octaves below na comhluighe: Dr James MacDonnell tells us (QUB SC MS 4/35/16a) that Fanning’s harp had 14 below the sisters. In my post on Slieve Gallen, I discuss a chart showing a gapped bass tuning, which I wondered may have come from Higgins. But, given that there is no real evidence that the chart there on QUB SC MS4.29 p.81 actually shows Higgins’s harp; and also given that we are not 100% sure that Higgins was the source for this page 221 transcription of Grádh gan fhios, we can’t use any of this as sure evidence for this particular transcription.

Many thanks to Queen’s University Belfast Special Collections for the digitised pages from MS4 (the Bunting Collection), and for letting me use them here.

Some of the equipment used to create this blog post was funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

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