Planxty Drury

I made a demonstration recording of Planxty Drury (DOSB 10) (DOSC 42) based on the live field transcription written down by Edward Bunting in the 1790s, from the performance of an old Irish harper.

The live field transcription is preserved in Bunting’s manuscripts at Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections. There is a dots and bars transcription at QUB SC MS4/29 page 8/8/17/3v, with a neat full copy of the tune on the facing page, QUB SC MS4/29 page 9/9/18/4r.

The neat copy is titled at the top “Plangsty Drury” but there is other text “[..]arm London / Bonny Shannon Water / Warter [Co????] R[ear]y / Werter or sorrows of we[…] / Sally in our Ally / [?????]”

The dots transcription is in three sections; the first and third are barred. The copy seems to follow the first and third section of the dots. This transcription is a very useful illustration of Bunting’s working method. While it is tempting to ignore the dots and work from the neat copy, I think this is a mistake. I think Bunting was editing as he went, trying to understand and interpret what he heard though his classical piano filters, and so I think the dots are the most important level of content for us, assuming that the dots represent his un-filtered automatic response to the playing of the old Irish harp tradition-bearer. I think that we cannot help but use the copy to inform our reading of the dots, but I also think it is very important to constantly refer to the dots as the primary source for the old Irish harp performance practice.

The transcription shows no key or time signature. The implied metre is 6-time. We can see this more clearly if we look at Bunting’s printed piano arrangement of the tune, in his published book, A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music (London: Preston & Son, 1797). Our tune is published there as no.10, “Plangstigh Druraidh – Planxty Drury. Carolan”.

The transcription appears to be not at pitch, but transposed one note up. You can see in my Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project tune list spreadsheet, that the first 30 pages or so of QUB SC MS4/29 contain transcriptions written one note up. I don’t yet understand why some transcriptions are 1 up and others at pitch. It may be related to Bunting’s working methods, or it may be connected to different pitch standards in use by different harpers. The transcription, and the facing page copy, are both notated in D major, but this would require c♯ to be tuned on the harp. I think it is much more plausible to consider this as a C major tune with the harp tuned all naturals.

The transcription gives us only the tune, with no bass notes marked at all. The copy similarly does not indicate bass at all. Bunting’s published piano arrangement in E♭ major has a newly composed piano bass.

The transcription includes ornament marks. Bunting notes “tr” twice in the first section of the tune, and repeats these two marks in the same place in the neat copy. There is a third “tr” mark in the second section of the dots. I assume that these marks indicate where the harper played some kind of ornament or grace-note.

In the annotated copy of the 1797 print in the British Library, Add ms 41508, which appears to have been Edward Bunting’s personal copy, he has written “Harp Byrne” against this tune. The implication is that he collected the tune from the harper and singer, Charles Byrne. However these annotations were likely written in the early 1840s, nearly fifty years after the transcription was made, and so I do not know how reliable this information is. The spreadsheet shows that ms4/29 pages 7-11 are all tunes tagged “Byrne” in later piano arrangements, though the tunes on page 7 have other, conflicting attributions in other piano arrangements.

My use of the two reference numbers, DOSB 10 and DOSC 42, tells us where to look for information in Donal O’Sullivan’s editions and indexes. The tune is no.10 in Donal O’Sullivan, ‘The Bunting Collection of Irish Folk Music and Songs’, Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society, 1927-39, appearing in part 1 p.36. Donal O’Sullivan prints a typeset edition of the tune from the ms4/29 neat copy, without mentioning the dots transcription. He underlays the words of a Carolan song, “Fáilte romhat go Kingsland, a bhinn-bhean na méar lag” (“Welcome to Kingsland, sweet small-fingered lady …”). However he explains later (p.38) that the words do not come from Byrne in the 1790s, but were collected by Patrick Lynch on his tour of Mayo in 1802. He also explains that there is a different tune called “Planxty Kingsland” or “Fáilte go Kingsland” or “John Drudy”, which the words could be sung to. He says, “in view of the title, perhaps this is the correct air for the words”. Given that the words fit the “Planxty Kingsland” tune, and the titles match, I do not see any rationale for thinking that they should be set to our “Planxty Drury” tune.

Donal O’Sullivan repeats this mis-identification of the tune and its subject in his Carolan, the life times and music of an Irish harper (Routlege & Kegan Paul, 1958) where the tune is numbered 42. In vol.2 p.27 he cites his own Bunting edition, and again matches this tune to the Kingsland words. He also silently changes the title, from “Planxty Drury”, to “John Drury, First Air”. This invented modern title is what the tune has passed back into circulation under. John Drury is the subject of the song lyrics, and again he remarks that the song lyrics could be sung to the “Planxty Kingsland” tune, which he prints as no. 43 with the invented modern title “John Drury, Second Air”.

This seems to be unfortunately typical of Donal O’Sullivan, to mis-match words and air. He wrote so confidently, and his books have had such an influence, that his emended or mistaken titles and word-matches have become accepted as gospel even when they are obviously mistaken, as here. My Carolan Tune Collation spreadsheet helps to untangle the different titles and variants.

When playing this tune on the reconstruction copy of the NMI Carolan harp, I was thinking of two things. First, the way that Bunting transcribed the dots fromt he playing of the harper informant, with no trace of bass notes, chords or harmony. Many people have suggested that Bunting just ignored or failed to notate the harpers’ basses; but I was also thinking of the tradition reported from Keane Fitzgerald, that “Carolan’s tunes had no bass to them originally”. So I am trying to play just the tune of Planxty Drury, letting the voice of the harp speak the tune clearly and resonantly, with as little bass interference as possible.

Trying to describe the process

On Saturday I presented a talk in Belfast, at the Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich as part of the HHSI Discovery Day events within the Remembering Bunting Festival.

The Discovery Day is a composite event I have been doing for the past year or two, in collaboration with Siobhán Armstrong, Sylvia Crawford, and a sean-nos singer (either Róisín Elsafty or Eibhlís Ní Ríordáin). The format is to have a concert of harp and voice, given by Siobhán and the singer; a talk, given by me, and an introductory class for complete beginners given by Sylvia Crawford. Each lasts for a bit less than an hour and they usually run pretty much back-to-back, to give a kind of complete overview of the old Irish harp traditions.

Every time I do a Discovery Day talk I end up taking a different angle or approach, partly based on where in the country we are doing the event, and partly based on my current research interests and directions. For this event, I wanted to pick up on the work of Edward Bunting in particular, since it was his festival, and other presenters during the festival weekend were talking about the manuscripts in Queen’s University, or Bunting’s corpus of published music.

My talk also picked up on my recent focus of understanding the transcription process as the primary evidence for old Irish harp performance practice; and I wanted to correlate this in to the method of working with replica harps and portraits of harpers.

I was not as confident and articulate as I would like to have been for this talk, but since I had made the effort to film it I thought it might be useful as a record of where I am at the moment.

Róisín Elsafty and Siobhán Armstrong during the concert
Sylvia Crawford during the beginners class

A little history

I have been asked to do a historical overview talk at almost every Scoil na gCláirseach for years and years. Every time I do it, I try to make it new and fresh, to basically come up with a new overview. I think that way, I challenge myself to think about what story I want to tell, what are the important strands that we want to focus on.

Here’s my August 2019 talk, videoed by the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

I only had half an hour allocated, which made me focus even more. In this talk I didn’t speak about the modern revivals; sometimes I would make these an important part of the story. But somehow the medieval museum ambience made this aspect seem less important. And for the week-long participants at the summer school, the revival was what we talked about each day.

I’m always interested in the questions and comments….

Playing the harp for Nathaniel Gow

“Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band Concert” last night at the Edinburgh Assembly rooms was far, far more exciting, beautiful and moving than I had expected. The venue was just stunning, the band was amazing, the dancers were elegant and alluring, the programming was just perfect and the audience was almost full and really engaged with the entire project.

Continue reading Playing the harp for Nathaniel Gow