Medieval harp music at St Andrews Cathedral

Simon Chadwick is about to start his much-loved annual summer series of medieval harp concerts in St Andrews Cathedral. The first event in the series is a programme of medieval church music from the 12th century.

The concert is on Tuesday 5th June, at 12.45pm, in the Priors House, a medieval vaulted chamber in the cathedral grounds in St Andrews.

This concert features a programme of sacred music from the medieval heyday of the cathedral, including tunes lifted from St Andrews Cathedral’s own medieval manuscript of sacred chants. There will also be music for St Columba, from Inchcolm abbey in the Firth of Forth.

As well as playing the Scottish monastic plainchant on his beautiful decorated replica of the medieval Scottish Queen Mary harp, Simon will demonstrate other unusual musical instruments that were played in medieval Scotland during the half-hour concert.

Simon is based in St Andrews, and is a specialist in historical Scottish and Irish music. His harp was commissioned from a sculptor in Ireland, and is an exact copy of the medieval harp which is preserved in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and which was said to have once belonged to Mary Queen of Scots. Simon teaches and performs at events across Scotland, and helps run an annual summer school in Ireland for the historic Irish and Scottish harp music.

The St Andrews Cathedral concert series will continue on the first Tuesday of each month through to September, with a different theme each month. Click here for full details.

July’s programme will use medieval and traditional tunes and song to tell the fascinating story of Margaret of Scotland, her wedding to the King of Norway in 1281, and the dramatic historical events over the following decade culminating in the succession crisis and Robert the Bruce; while August’s recital will present the “Old Gaelic Laments” featured on Simon’s newly released CD.

Bronze age horn

The prehistoric theme continues and so too does the instrument making theme. After discussing didgeridoo playing at the Dundee harp class the Saturday before last, I read up again on the prehistoric Irish horns and trumpets. While a bronze casting is a bit beyond me at present, either technically to make one or financially to purchase, I thought I could manage to make one out of horn. The result is rather fine-looking. I followed the visual cues of the bronze side-blown horns and made the “knop” at the small end. There is subtle incised decoration on the knop; I had considered lines and zigzags round the mouth but I am not sure yet.

Now I only have to learn the circular breathing style of playing, necessary to get the most out of it…

These horns seem characteristic of the bronze age in Ireland. I think it is just plausible to think of a late bronze age horn and an early iron age lyre going together.

Lyre bridge from Uamh an Ard Achaidh

AOC Archaeology have released a laser scan rendering of the lyre bridge from Uamh an Ard Achadh (High Pasture Cave) on Skye. I had already been very interested in this fragment of a musical instrument from the iron age (the original interim report suggests a date of 450 to 550 BC).

Using the rendering, and scaling from the photo in the interim report, I have made a copy or reconstruction of the bridge. As you can see from the photos, the excavated bridge is burnt and broken, with perhaps 1/4 missing from one end. It seems clear to me that the four triangular spikes along the top edge are complete – the gap between the second and third is centered over the carved arch on the underside of the bridge. I confirmed this by cutting out profile views and trying different alignments. This suggests to me that the bridge was for an instrument with three or five strings.

For my bridge I used a piece of sycamore or maple which I had to hand. I made it entirely with hand tools (knives), and finished it by scraping and then sealed the surface with beeswax. Because it is hand carved from a slightly curious piece of wood with some tight flame in the grain, and also because I was only working from the laser scan screenshots not from proper dimensioned plans, it is not an exact replica, but I tried to get it fairly close.

As you can see it works just perfectly. The lyre has six strings, so I just ran the last two together and this does not seem to be a problem. The strings are further apart at the bridge than on other lyres I have seen. The backwards slant of the bridge is curious – unless I am misunderstanding the laser scan, I wonder if it is designed for a much sharper break angle than I am using?

I’ll be playing this lyre at my cathedral concert in the ruins of St Andrews cathedral on Tuesday 5th June at 12.45pm. The music will however be medieval, not iron age!

Trumpet mouthpiece

I have ordered a copy of a 17th century English mouthpiece from Egger in Switzerland. Here it is installed on the trumpet:

It is a very high quality piece of brassware and makes a big difference to the instrument. I don’t feel there is a mismatch installing this on a rather wobbly instrument – the mouthpiece is very much the most important part of the trumpet, so much better to have a top quality mouthpiece on a cheap trumpet, than get an expensive trumpet and use a modern or otherwise dodgy mouthpiece. I suppose it is similar to my fiddle, an anonymous mass produced instrument, fitted with the best handmade natural gut strings.