the first clarsach

On page 87 of their book Telenn: la harpe Bretonne, (Éditions Le Télégramme 2004), Alan Stivell and Jean-Noël Verdier write about Heloise Russell-Fergusson:

depuis l’été 1932, elle possédait la première copie de clarsach fabriquée par le musicologue suisse Arnold Dolmetsch, installé à Haslemere en Grande-Bretagne: modèle en cerisier monté de 27 cordes en métal. La harpiste, l’instrument et les mélodies vont charmer le public (dont Gildas Jaffrennou), au point de faire une tournée en novembre de cette même année en Bretagne. L’année suivante, elle sera encore présente au Gorsedd de Quimperlé : à cette occasion, Gildas Jaffrennou prendra les mesures de cette clarsach et en réalisera une copie dans son atelier de Carhaix : selon les dires de l’intéressé lui-même, ce premier instrument n’était pas assez satisfaisant, cette première harpe aurait fini au feu ! (Rencontres avec Gildas Jaffrennou en juillet 1993 et 1997).

From the summer of 1932, she had the first clarsach replica manufactured by the Swiss musicologist Arnold Dolmetsch, based in Haslemere in Britain: made of cherry, with 27 metal strings. The harpist, the instrument and the melodies would charm the public (including Gildas Jaffrennou), when she toured Brittany in November of that year. The following year, she would be present at the Gorsedd of Quimperlé: on that occasion, Gildas Jaffrennou took measurements of that clarsach, and he made a copy in his workshop at Carhaix. In his words, this first instrument was not quite satisfactory – the first harp ended up being fed to the fire! (from conversations with Gildas Jaffrennou in July 1993 and 1997).

The photo at the top shows Heloise at Roscoff in 1934, with “Harplet”, her Clarke Irish harp. I have still yet to find a photo of her with the Dolmetsch clarsach.

Mine also has 27 strings, and looks like it is made of cherry. I started to wonder if I had misread “10” for “1”, and I looked all over it for any trace of an inscription, but no such luck…

Arnold Dolmetsch clarsach no.10
Arnold Dolmetsch clarsach no.10

3 thoughts on “the first clarsach”

  1. There is a photograph of her Dolmetsch harp in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow within ‘The Russell-Fergusson Collection of Harps’. Dolmetsch wrote to her on 5th July 1932 with an intriguing proposition. Clearly, she already had a harp that he had made for her and had inscribed with the words ‘the first harp’. But he was now suggesting making a secret exchange for one of the new ones that he had made. He wrote, ‘

    ‘I made one Clarsach among the others of a very fine piece of old wild cherry wood. It looks most beautiful, is lighter in weight than the others and has a deeper more velvety tone. I very much desire that you should have this one.
    I would exchange it for the one you have, of which I should remove the inscription. I should write a similar one on the cherry clarsach and we should be within the truth, for all these Clarsachs were made at the same time and I have not delivered any, although I have sold three. So you would still be the First! Moreover, the cherry one has not been shown to anybody and I shall keep it secret until I hear from you. Its colour is deeper and more golden. Is there a chance of your coming here soon?’

    I don’t know whether she accepted his offer. The notes beside the one photographed in the Mitchell state that it has the inscription, but is it really ‘the first’? Or is it their secret ‘first’?

  2. Well the wood grain in the Mitchel photo doesn’t look like cherry to me. But the inscription quoted says “July” with no year given. I wonder if the photo (taken by Morleys in London) shows the “first” first, while the inscription is the one added to the replacement?

    I like to think that she didn’t accept the secret swap and that I might have “the cherry one”…

    If only we could find her harp!

  3. Dear Simon Chadwick,
    I’m just discovering your articles concerning the history of the Dolmetsch harps and Heloise Russell-Fergusson; and good news about the book of this marvallous harpist : book i ‘ll buy on your site, as i already did in the past about books and recordings of Heloise and Mabel Dolmetsch.
    Concerning the book Telenn, la harpe bretonne, we are two authors : Alan Stivell and i; and your quotation about Heloise Russell-Fergusson, page 87, is mine, as all historic parts in the book (in blue in the book).
    I found all the informations at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, of course, in different newspapers, the answer and informations from Helene Witcher to my letter, and discussing with Gildas Jaffrennou i met in july 1993 and 1997.
    The harp of Heloise at Roscoff in 1934, you right, was her Clarke Irish Harp : you will find a better view of her Harp, in the english version of the Pathé film made at this occasion.
    Always looking for historic news on “celtic” harps, the pleasure to read you.
    Sincerely Yours,
    Jean-Noël Verdier

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