ruder performers only

Reviewing my version of Carolan’s Concerto which I played at Wednesday’s concert, it struck me that this old setting of mine (which I learned many years ago) was pretty clunky and crude. I was reminded of John Lynch’s 1662 assessment of fingernail playing:

…quæ nunc vel in desuetudinem abiit, vel a rudioribus lyristis frequentatur, contendentibus, editiorem sonitum e chordis ideo elicere, ut eo domus tota personet.

That custom is now, if not obsolete, at least adopted by ruder performers only, in their anxiety to elicit thereby louder notes from the strings, and make the whole house ring with their melody.

Playing with long fingernails really does push you into an older style. The sonority of the nail-struck brass strings invites simpler harmonisation, in parallel octaves, with 5ths as a lush decadence. Whether or not the use of nails also invites more use of coupled-hands-style playing, with the right hand taking more of the stressed melody notes, I don’t know; it can certainly feel awkward playing fast and harmonising in parallel octaves with the hands separate.

Playing the Downhill harp, and trying to discover Denis O’Hampsey’s style and idiom, through studying the manuscript field notations of tunes like Lady of the Desert, Callena Vacca, and Eibhlin a Run, is a fascinating process of discovering what was I am now sure an incredibly old-fashioned style at the time. I am thinking that it is more than a coincidence that the two 18th century Irish harpers who we know used long nails, Denis O’Hampsey and Echlin O’Kane, both have a strong connection to Cornelius Lyons (c. 1670 – c. 1740), harper to the Earl of Antrim. Echlin O’Kane was a student of Lyons, while Denis O’Hampsey is our main source for a number of Lyons’s compositions (including the three mentioned above).

I don’t know who Lyons’s teacher was, but I would think that this school of playing would have been amongst those that Lynch was referring to as “ruder performers”, around 8 years before Lyons was born. It is interesting that Lyons’s music is so progressive and Italianate and baroque (and that he may have been able to read and write music), yet his playing style remained so “rude”. I think we can see a hint of that “rudeness” in his non-harmonic basses, with octave magadising and other non-baroque features.

I think there is a lot of promise in the idea in trying to set up genealogies of influence and tuition, to see if we can identify the different schools of early Irish harp playing in the 17th and 18th centuries. Then perhaps we could have a clearer understanding of how the attested performance styles of certain individuals (O’Hampsey, Ó Néill, Mooney, Quin) relate to each other or differ. I would suppose that the Lyons – O’Kane – O’Hampsey school would be most different from the others because of its retention of fingernail playing.

So, back to Arthur Ó Néill, and Carolan’s Concerto. Bunting notes in his annotated copy of his 1796 print that this setting came from Ó Néill, and so I am looking again at the piano score. Shockingly, now that I am playing with fingertips and thinking of the Banks of Claudy and Patrick Byrne’s chords, I am thinking that a lot of the piano harmony is very plausible on early Irish harp and may well have come direct from Ó Néill.

Bunting 1796
Bunting 1796

5 thoughts on “ruder performers only”

  1. The use of fingernails is a fascinating subject. Being a lever harp player who transferred to wire harp only recently, I personally found that when I tried growing out my fingernails to play on wire strings it actually slowed me down, since it takes a little more time for the nail to catch the string than it does when just playing with pads. It may just be a matter of what you’re used to- I imagine someone who is used to playing with nails might have the opposite experience. I wouldn’t know, since my fingernails are far too flimsy to keep long for the time needed to get used to it.

    1. Yes the two techniques are in some ways totally different, though in other ways they are the same. I would say the hand position and finger movement is the same either way, but as you say the speed of speaking, and the tactile feeling and “touch” is very different.

      It took me almost a week just to get used to the difference, and to be able to get a good sound out of the harp.

      I wonder if your harp might a bit heavily strung – at the moment I am thinking that fingertip playing is best on lighter stringing than is usual for nails. But I need to try more different harps before being sure about this.

      1. Thanks for the reply Simon. I am not sure how the string tension on my student Downhill would compare to other Gaelic harps, such as the Otway you were using while playing with short nails. If you are right about fingernails being used more commonly on higher tension strings I would imagine that Hempson would have strung his harp with higher tension than other harps of his day. As for me, I am not quite skilled enough at the clarsach to play particular fast pieces anyhow so it’s hard for me to judge, but I don’t the nails slowed me down enough to hamper my playing- I certainly noticed the change although someone listening may not have. The main problem I have had with short nails is that I find that I can’t play with much volume since it would require pulling harder on the strings, which tends to put them out of tune.
        I would be curious to hear more at some point about the trouble you were having during that first week of switching to short fingernails. And if you perform any experiments with different string tensions while your nails are growing out, be sure to make a blog post about it to fill us in!

  2. Oh, one thing I forgot to mention in my musings on short fingernails was the tune “Lady Blaney,” on page 45 of Bunting’s third volume, which I wanted to draw your attention to. There’s a note at the beginning that says “original harp bass-” I’m not sure how much of the arrangement he is referring to but it very much fits with what your saying about harmonizing on thirds instead of octaves and fifths. He notes earlier in the book that it was taken from the playing of Charles Fanning. I don’t know whether you’ve looked at it yet but I thought it would be of interest to you.

    1. Thank you Lonnie. I had not looked at Lady Blaney before. Of course we should chase it in Colette Moloney’s index, and try to find earlier manuscript versions. But from a quick glance at the 1840 print, I would say that those parallel thirds in the bass look very plausible for Fanning’s fingertip style.

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