Old Irish harp transcriptions project

I first got hold of a facsimile of Bunting ms29 (Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29) when it was first published online at QUB Library web site, back in 2006, and I have been working from the facsimile ever since.

This manuscript, dating from the late 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century, is the most important single source for old Irish harp repertory. In it, the young collector Edward Bunting wrote his live field transcriptions of the performances of the last of the old Irish harpers. These scratchy incomplete jottings are our most direct connection to the now lost tradition of playing the old Irish harp with brass wire strings. There are many other sources of old Irish and Scottish Gaelic harp repertory, but most are second-hand, re-set for piano, fiddle, or other instruments. The great value of ms29 is the transcriptions live from performance.

Manuscript 29 is not easy to use, because it is written so fast and sketchily. I also started wondering about the lack of metadata in the manuscript – most of the tunes are not tagged with the names of informants, places, or dates, and this information has to be inferred from other sources. Many tunes are written without their title, or with the titles of different tunes written around them. And there are a lot of tunes – I counted 212 different tunes in the manuscript in total, of which about 190 appear to be represented by field transcriptions.

Back in September I started making a transcript of the textual content of Bunting ms29 (Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29). This was prompted by a discussion with Siobhán Armstrong, who had started to inspect the binding of the manuscript and had noted where the different gatherings joined together. I started wondering how this structure of gatherings fitted with the content, whether groups of tunes fitted into discrete gatherings, and so I started to compile an index of what was on which page. The project grew and I ended up trying to copy all of the text on every page, and to identify the tune represented in every bit of music notation.

Identifying the tunes has been the hardest part, and is still not complete. My transcript still has many “unidentified tune” tags in it. Hopefully over time we will find identifications for more of these tunes.

You can download my ms29 text transcript and tune identification PDF from my Bunting pages. As I add more information or correct errors, I will update the PDF.

Making this document is in some ways an end in itself, as it forms a very useful guide to reading and working with the manuscript; it also forms a much more complete index than has been available so far. I have relied heavily on the published work of Donal O’Sullivan and Colette Moloney (both cited fully on the PDF). It is the nature of scholarship to build on and improve the work of previous generations, and I am very grateful for the important work that O’Sullivan and Moloney have done; I would not have got this far without their work.

I think that the value of ms29 was always the transcriptions: the first, quick, instinctive response of the listener to the performance. I have said before that I consider these transcriptions the 18th century equivalent of 20th century field audio-recordings. They are our window into a lost performance tradition.

My ms29 document aims to identify these transcriptions, and to distinguish transcriptions from secondary copies. The manuscript contains a number of tunes copied from printed books, and probably also from older manuscripts. These copied notations naturally don’t give us the direct connection to oral performance traditions that the transcriptions do.

I have become fascinated by the idea of working from transcriptions. To get a replica of an old Irish harp, to string it with brass wire, and tune it following the 18th century tuning schedules, to hold it in the posture and orientation shown in the 18th and early 19th century portraits of old Irish harpers – these methods take us close to the world of the old Irish harpers. And then to play the notes written in the transcription – no more, no less, gives us a sniff of their performance on that day in the 1790s.

My project now, I think, is to identify as many transcriptions as I can, and then to start describing, categorising, and analysing them. There are transcriptions of old Irish harp performances in other manuscripts in the Bunting Collection, especially in QUB MS4/33(1). I wonder if there are any transcriptions like this anywhere else? Was Edward Bunting the only person to do this?

I am thinking that as well as identifying the “normalised” tune titles for them, I can try and find other information about these tunes. Elsewhere in Bunting’s piano manuscripts he tells us who and when he collected tunes from. Can we match versions of tunes in piano arrangements, with the same version in a transcription? Can we group the transcriptions according to this kind of metadata, to understand who the transcriptions were collected from, where and when?

By combining this aggregated metadata with an analysis of the manuscript structure I think we may be able to build up a fine-grained picture of the collecting process and the performing style of different informants.

And we can also use this new insight into the nature and importance of the transcriptions to create new performances on old Irish harp, hoping to get ever closer to a plausible way of returning the old Irish harp to the tradition.

The video below shows me playing Casadh an tSúgáin (DOSB 19), from the transcription and copy on ms29 pages 4/4/13/1v – 5/5/14/2r, on the copy of the NMI Carolan harp.

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.

Examples of Irish Melody

In my book Progressive Lessons, I included a full size full colour facsimile of Edward Bunting’s loose sheet titled “Examples of Irish Melody”. These settings of the three beginners’ tunes are interestingly different from the ones we have from Denis O’Hampsey and Patrick Quin, and I have been using them more and more in my teaching.

It is very interesting to work through these settings with complete beginners in my classes, as well as discussing the implications with my established students. It really feels like a proper system for playing the Irish harp in the old Gaelic tradition is starting to emerge.

Continue reading Examples of Irish Melody

The Banks of Claudy

Edward Bunting‘s first field notebook, which he used to take down live transcriptions from the old harpers in 1792 and later, is kept at Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29.

Usually known as ms29, it is a small oblong notebook stuffed full of sketchy drafts and scribbled transcriptions from the playing of the last tradition bearers.

On page 1 of the book is a two-staff arrangement of “The Banks of Claudy”.

Continue reading The Banks of Claudy

McFall harp

Earlier this year the Historical Harp Society of Ireland acquired an interesting harp, made by James McFall in Belfast.

I don’t know the exact date of manufacture, but it must be between about 1900 and 1950. We know that McFall adverised the availability of harps withe wire strings as well as the more usual gut-strung revival instruments.

Continue reading McFall harp

Tutor book 2nd edition

I have completed the revision of my harp tutor book. “Progressive Lessons for Early Gaelic harp“.

The 1st edition was published in 2009 and I was starting to be unhappy with some of the text and instructions, and also with the music notation. When I first wrote the book, I was really unsure about including notation of the tunes. I seriously considered just omitting all the notation, and I did just that when I re-wrote the book in simplified form as “Clarsach lessons for young harpers“.

I feared that people would put the book up on their music stands and start sight-reading from the notation – and I have seen that happening.

So for the 2nd edition I am making a brave experiment – I wrote to Queens University Belfast to request permission to reproduce facsimiles of Bunting’s manuscripts, and so the music notation of the first edition has now been replaced in the 2nd edition with manuscript facsimiles. This has forced me to explain the music more clearly in the text, but the idea is that the text explanation plus the recorded examples on the CD will make everything clear.

So “Progressive Lessons” has become more serious and hardcore – but I feel OK with that because “Young Harpers” is available as a more easy and accessible introduction to the material.

I haven’t announced the 2nd edition yet – I’ll update the web pages for the 1st April update. But any orders placed from now on will get the 2nd edition.