Left and Right

People have talked for a long time about left and right orientation. Sometimes the question is, why did the old harpers play with their left hand in the treble and their right hand in the bass? And sometimes the question is, what should we do now?

Sometimes, these two issues are conflated, because there is a persistent confusion in people’s minds, about what was and what should be. Andrew Lawrence-King, Katerina Antonenko and Natalia O’Shea, in their article ‘The Historical Irish harp: myths demystified’ in Studia Celto-Slavica 7, 2015, go down this route, trying to justify Lawrence-King’s right-orientation by a number of  implausible suggestions, including that modern practicioners only do it for symbolic reasons; that the historical practice was due to increased incidence of left-handedness, and even that the evidence for historical practice is ambiguous or mis-read. (p.263-4). I actually find this colonial mindset fascinating, that for people like this, the Gaelic left orientation has to be explained; they would never think of trying to explain away the Anglo-Continental right orientation, by suggesting that it was for left-handed people to put their strong left hand in the bass, or that the evidence for right orientation being the norm was ambiguous or debatable.

Others have tried to downplay the ubiquity of the left orientation in the old Gaelic harp traditions. Ronald Stevenson, writing in the Grove dictionary of musical instruments, deliberately obscures the multiple meanings of the word clarsach, and the historical and revival traditions,  when he says “Unlike the Irish cláirseach, which was supported on the player’s left shoulder, the Scottish clàrsach is supported on the right shoulder.”

In actual fact, the historical evidence is overwhelming, that in the old Gaelic harp traditions of Ireland and Scotland, the harp was played with the left hand in the treble, right hand in the bass, and that this was so as to put the dominant right hand in the more resonant bass range. This left orientation continued right down to the end of the Gaelic harp traditions in the late 19th century.

Ann Heymann, in her book Secrets of the Gaelic harp (1988), p.15) does advance a symbolic explanation for the historical left orientation, but she also disassociates modern practice from historical evidence, by saying “in a modern context there is no practical reason for a beginning student to learn the ‘Celtic’ orientation”. This despite her using the old left orientation in her own playing.

Amid claim and counter-claim, the old Welsh harp traditions can give us a much needed perspective. Huw Roberts and Llio Rhydderch, in their book Telynorion Llannerch-y-Medd (2000), p.26, describe the introduction of the triple harp to Welsh music: “These harps were designed to rest on the left shoulder which was the Welsh custom – on the Continent the harp was played on the right shoulder, which, of course, is the classical way and so it continues to the present day.”

Margaret Ann Jones (1899-1976)

“The Welsh custom” and “the classical way” describes worlds of cultural practice that are rooted in communities and shared traditions, not in arbitrary personal choices or technical constraints. The triple harp was obviously a baroque introduction, and in the 19th century itself largely gave way to the pedal harp, but players learning in the Welsh tradition continued to play their pedal harps using the old left orientation, as shown in the photo here, of Margaret Ann Jones (1899-1976). The harpers of Llannerch-y-Medd seem to have stayed with the old tradition, Huw continuing to use the left orientation. Llio and Huw are rightly proud of their “lineage”, which traces back from student to teacher, in their case directly back to the 17th century in one lineage, and implicitly back to the 14th century via the other.

Other Welsh harpers from the 19th century onwards changed to the right orientation, which leads to the question: why would a beginner harper choose one way or the other? My suggestion is that orientation is a strong indication of the musical lineage of a performer. Harpists who learned primarily from someone firmly embedded in the traditional lineage would likely use a left orientation. Someone who learned from a harpist whose lineage or whose influences were from the Anglo-Continental tradition would be more likely to choose a right orientation.

The Gaelic harp traditions seem to have broken in the 19th century, so anyone today wanting to revive the Gaelic harp traditions has to bootstrap themselves from nothing. I think that the left orientation in this case becomes a symptom of respecting the old tradition on its own terms; of starting from the primary evidence of the first tunes collected by Edward Bunting from Patrick Quin and Denis O’Hampsey, using a replica harp, using the playing techniques in Bunting’s 1840 Ancient Music of Ireland.

Anyone claiming to do this and using a right orientation might ask themselves, where did that idea come from? If the answer is, from the Anglo-European classical harp tradition, then they could also ask, what other subliminal influences are coming out of that world?

6 thoughts on “Left and Right”

  1. I think the answer is much simpler and in the design of western harps. The strings are on the player’s left side, therefore harps were probably designed to be played on the left shoulder so the treble hand can have easy access to the treble strings, vs reaching under the harmonic curve with the right hand to play them.
    I thnk the question is why did European players switch sides – if that’s what they did – and is there convincing evidence of sides in older harp traditions like Egyptian, Greek, etc.?
    I think it’s a good idea to use English Prime, avoid the idea of “should”, and consider the psychology and history of absolute statments.

    1. Not sure about that argument from design, Peter; the Welsh triple harps were made as mirror image of their Italian and French models, by being strung on the right for left-shoulder players. Ann suggested the left stringing is for right hand tuning.

      I don’t say what people “should” do, but a lot of people think there are moral obligations here. Hence, “You’re doing it all wrong”.

      I hadn’t come across Eʹ before. I’m thinking it is a bit much!

      1. E’ “is” a bit much or it “seems to be” or “might be” a bit much? There are plans to incorporate self doubt into AI to make it more human. Without it discussion can be shut down by something or someone that seems to have absolute authority but really doesn’t .
        I guess shoulder orientation is just one of those mysteries for now.

        1. We can’t know if “all” the harpers in Wales, Ireland and Scotland used left shoulder orientation, but it was standard, just like it is standard to bow the violin with the right hand.

          As for harp design, there is harp iconography that shows harps strung on the right side, but with left shoulder playing. I theorize that this was to use the right hand to pinch the string (at the neck or bray) but perhaps to permit easy adjustment of twisted horsehair. What piano style would have developed if the treble and bass notes were reversed? Your questioning why harps were played the other way around on the continent is of course interesting. I don’t have an answer, but wonder if perhaps keyboard and keyboard notation encouraged a right-shouldered orientation.

  2. The most practical reason for using right shoulder orientation in modern times is so that you can keep an eye on your semitones mechanisms, and if they are hand operated as in most lever harps it allows you to easily manipulate them. I imagine that pedal harpists, even though they operate their semitone mechanisms with their feet, like to keep an eye on them just to remember which ones are active and which ones aren’t. However that doesn’t seem to apply to the Welsh pedal harpists of the 19th and 20th century, so maybe that idea isn’t universal.
    Other than that I see no reason why anyone should stick to one orientation or the other, despite Peter’s thought that we should use right shoulder orientation today. People who play Gaelic harp have told me that the left hand is naturally inclined to be more dexterous and agile than the right, which suits the nature of ancient Celtic music more. I primarily play lever harp, and when I’m playing wire strung harp I still play right shoulder simply because it’s what I’ve always done and old habits die hard, but I readily admit that I’m doing it backwards.
    Another factor to consider is that as harps age, the high string tend to fan out toward the left, which can make it fairly difficult to play those strings with your right hand. For that reason alone playing on the left shoulder is easier, especially considering that by the 18th century at least harpers were often playing harps that were around a century old. The lever harp I’m playing on most right now is a 45 year old Aoyama 120 lever harp, and although I don’t know much about it’s history I can be sure that it hasn’t been maintained or kept in ideal conditions for most of it’s life, so the high strings have fanned off to the left considerably, which makes them difficult to play with my right hand sometimes.

  3. I said “no practical reason” was because though the short treble string lengths fanning to the player’s left makes it difficult to play a right handed treble regularly high, but the term “mallart phonch” indicates that at times the player played with the bass hand above the treble. Cláirseachs could have been made in “mirror image”, that is, with tuning pins entering from the player’s left and you’d have the same geometry.

    Of course, Simon knows all this, but I didn’t want to force people—but I would advise them if they were interested in an historical and/or esoteric approach.

    The reason why I think it goes to tuning is that metal strings, indeed shorter length/thicker metal strings require that the taper pin be quite firm to resist the high tension. Also, the shorter lengths and elasticity that is far less than that of gut or other string materials, requires greater tuning accuracy. In combination, the right hand has the strength for precision (provided that the left hand reinforces the tuning “push” of the right hand.

    What is most important is that the hands have different qualities; consider the left hand’s thinner nails (for the treble strings). That the orientation affects the style is illustrated in Bunting’s statement that the “major parts of the tune were given by the right hand playing the Bass which in general being more strong than the left to strike the strings which from it being on the lowest and most sonorous strings was more likely to be taken notice of than the Treble which played the Symphonal parts…
    Bunting ms. 6

    Ann Heymann

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