Using medieval harps to reconnect to 19th century tradition

As the old tradition came to an end in the first years of the 19th century, the old harpers who were the tradition bearers seem to have played harps that were made in the first half of the 18th century. Denis O’Hampsey died in 1807; his harp was made in 1702. Patrick Quin was still alive in 1811; his harp is dated 1707 though some people argue that it is much older. The last dated instrument in the old tradition I know of is the Bunworth harp, made in 1734. There are later references to harps being made; Arthur O’Neill talks about going to the harpmaker Conor O’Kelly to oversee the completion of an instrument, which would have been after about 1750. And William Carr, who was by far the youngest of that last generation of tradition bearers, mentions having a rather poor quality harp made for him by a carpenter, apparently in the late 1790s.

All of the harps we know about that were played in the continuing tradition at the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century were large, mostly high-headed instruments. We don’t actually know what kind of harps were used by the first generation of revival students taught by Arthur O’Neill in the early 19th century; but the second generation of charity school students from 1819 on played on the big wire-strung ‘hybrid’ Irish harps made for the Belfast Harp Society by John Egan. Some of these students continued playing their big ‘hybrid’ harps down to the 1880s.

Yet the wire-strung harps made for revival purposes from the 1890s onwards don’t look back to Egan’s hybrid wire-strung harps, and they don’t even look back to the 18th century harps played by the last of the tradition-bearers. Instead, the models were the medieval Trinity College harp and the Queen Mary harp.

I really noticed this in May when I was gathering images for my Discovery Day talk. The centrepiece of the talk was our current method for re-connecting to the end of the tradition, by getting a replica of Quin’s or O’Hampsey’s harp, studying posture and hand position from Quin’s or O’Hampsey’s portrait, and working through the field transcriptions of Quin’s and O’Hampsey’s playing.

But the images of revivalists from the 1890s to the 1970s all showed small medieval harps.

Slides from the May 2019 Discovery Day talk in Galway. 27: small wire-strung harp by James McFall, Belfast. 28: Medieval-style wire-strung harp by Glen, Edinburgh, 1890s. 29: replica Trinity College harp by Henebry, Ireland, early 1900s. 30: Medieval-style wire-strung harp by Arnold Dolmetsch, England, 1930s. 31: copy of the Trinity College harp, Rev. Chris Warren, Ireland, early 1970s.

Equally interesting is the way these harps were used. The slide of the Glen harp is revealing, showing Kate MacDonald playing with the harp on her right shoulder, and held very high, in a classical style and technique.

The Dolmetsch harp is shown with a photo of Edith Taylor; though we know she played left-hand-treble in the old style, what I have found about her music suggests she was playing classical-style arrangements of the “songs of the Hebrides”. Mabel Dolmetsch used one of these medieval style Irish harps to play tunes from Bunting’s piano arrangements in the 1930s.

Chris Warren’s picture is especially interesting. He was explicitly working to re-connect to the end of the tradition in the 1790s and early 1800s; but he worked on the “harp music in the Bunting collection” using his copy of the medieval Trinity College harp.

It was only with Ann Heymann in the later 1970s that we saw someone getting a copy of first Quin’s harp, and then O’Hampsey’s harp, and studying Bunting’s manuscripts with the transcriptions of the old harpers’ playing.

What is going on here? I think this is connected to the harp as symbol, vs. the harp as working instrument. The Trinity College harp as the national symbol, gave it a much stronger resonance, than the 18th century harps as the working instruments of the last tradition-bearers 200 years ago.

We need to do more research on this, to find out if anyone else was taking the big 18th century style harps seriously before Ann; and to correlate better the playing style, idiom, repertory and instrument choices of different revivalists over the past century or more.

Early Irish harp at Áras an Uachtaráin

On Friday I was at Áras an Uachtaráin with Siobhán Armstrong and Eibhlís Ní Ríordáin, for Culture Night. We gave a 20 minute presentation to the President’s guests; I spoke for a few minutes and then Siobhán and Eibhlís played and sang.

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Trinity College harp stringing and tuning

I designed the stringing and tuning regime for the HHSI Student Trinity harps back in 2005, based on how I had previously set up my old copy of the Queen Mary harp. My aim then was to present what we knew of the 18th century Irish harp tradition – to have na comhluighe at g below middle c’, and to have a complete octave below na comhluige down to cronan G.

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Restoration of the Brian Boru harp

On Thursday I was at the National Museum of Scotland store in Granton, a suburb north of Edinburgh. I went there with Karen Loomis, to look at the plaster-cast of the Trinity College harp which is kept in the store. We had a very productive hour, inspecting, measuring and photographing the cast, and discussing aspects of the cast and how it related to the real thing in the Long Room at Trinity College, and to later illustrations and depictions of the harp.

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Gross travesties of Pictish art

After I finished the Trinity College harp neck decoration sheet, I thought again about the issues surrounding this type of art, considering the sketchy and approximate versions of this scheme that we have seen up to now even on the best copies of the harp.

Continue reading Gross travesties of Pictish art

Trinity College harp neck decoration

I am halfway through preparing a sheet, laying out the decorative scheme of the neck of the Trinity College harp.

I thought of doing this two years ago, when I did my scheme for the pillar, but I never got round to it until now.

I will eventually put both the halves together in one sheet, and publish it on Early Gaelic Harp Info, but for now you can get a sneak preview of the left side.

Continue reading Trinity College harp neck decoration

More interlace

Following on from the interlace on the caskets I posted yesterday, here is a whalebone gaming piece found in a cave on the isle of Rum. The Museum suggests it is 15th or early 16th century.

Again the style of the interlace carving is reminiscent of the pillar carving on the Trinity and Queen Mary harps – the interlace in low relief over and under against a recessed ground, tightly knotted, with parallel incised stripes emphasising the turn of the ribbons. Compare especially this panel on the Trinity harp forepillar:

The gaming pieces is a bit wobbly in its execution, but then so too is the interlace on the Trinity harp. However the thing about the gaming piece  that really got me is the weird asymmetry. I have rotated my photo to show it with the axis of symmetry vertical, however it does not have a horizontal symmetry. The pattern of the top half is quite elegant and interesting, but if mirrored in the bottom half it would not give a single endless line. Perhaps the artist saw this and made one fewer edge loops, so crossing over two of the ribbons. However this also has the effect of creating two closed circles in the lower half. We see similar closed circles on the Trinity pillar. Look at how the end circles on the trinity pillar do not close but loop back on each other. This is similar to how the two circles in the upper half of the gaming piece are not closed.
I have to say that no matter how I turn and manipulate the gaming piece in my mind, it is not as elegant a composition as the panel on the Trinity harp pillar!

Playing position of medieval Gaelic harp

When I was in the National Museum of Scotland earlier this month, I was looking at the Queen Mary harp, and I noticed the wear on the lower back left corner of the soundbox. The corner of the box is quite worn away, and there is a wooden patch nailed on to the back of the box at this point, an old repair.

The wear on this corner was mentioned and drawn by R.B. Armstrong in his book The Irish and the Highland harps (David Douglas, 1904), though he talks mostly about sliding the harp along the floor when it was put down, Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird in their book Tree of Strings (Kinmor 1999), p.57 repeat Armstrong’s observations. Karen Loomis in her MMus dissertation (University of Edinburgh, 2010), p.49, includes a photo and a mention of this wear, but she is mostly concerned with the cracks from the repair patch nails.

I realised that the shape of this worn area is not just caused by general sliding of the harp, but instead it forms a flat surface which seems to me to be where the harp was stood on this corner when it was being played. You can see in my photo how the flat worn patch lines up with the projecting block of the bottom of the soundbox:

A long time ago I realised that if you sit on the floor to play a replica of the Queen Mary harp, then the harp naturally tips to rest on its projecting block and also this corner of the soundbox.

The angle of the flat panel therefore gives us a quite precise evidence for the angle that the harp was held at.

I propped my replica up on a hard surface, and adjusted the angle until my photo of my replica matched my photo of the original in the Museum:

And then, without moving the harp at all, I photographed the orientation of the harp, from floor level, at right angles to the plane of the strings, and also in line with it:

I think this gives a fair estimation of how the Queen Mary harp was positioned when it was being played.

Obviously there is some margin for error; the bottom of the projecting block would wear away and the corner of the box would wear away, so the angle in the front view would change over time. Also the flat worn surface is not entirely flat, but curves up towards the replacement piece. My positioning of the harp matches the most upright position. I would estimate that there could be 5 degrees either way since I was just doing this all by eye. The curving probably represents the harp being slid down to rest on its back as Armstrong suggests.

You’ll see that the strings are pretty much upright in the side-view photo.

The harp rests back quite a way behind its balance point. My replica won’t balance on that line between the box corner and the projecting block – if you tip it far forward enough to balance, it falls over sideways.

I looked again at Paul Mullarkey’s photos of the Trinity College harp. The soundbox is much more eaten away than the Queen Mary’s, especially at the bottom. However, the back bottom right corner of both the soundbox and the back panel are preserved, whereas the back bottom left corner is completely gone and is replaced now with extensive resin filler.