Tuning the harp

Edward Bunting wrote down the sequence for tuning the harp, into one of his collecting pamphlets. I have previously used the neatest clearest copy from Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29 page 156/153/162/f76r, and I published a copy in my Progressive Lessons source book along with a video demonstration of the neat copy. However, in the context of this Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project, I thought it might be useful to look closely at the initial “dots” version on page 150/147/156/f73r.

I think we can be fairly sure that the MS4.29 page 150 dots version is the live transcription, which Bunting then developed to make his neat versions on pages 155 and 156. There is also tuning information on page 157 which seems to expand on some of the page 150 transcription.

There is a published tuning sequence in the 1840 introduction, page 21. The published sequence is different from the ms4.29 tuning sequences and I have not found a manuscript original for it.

The page 150 tuning sequence live transcription is fairly simple and straightforward to understand; but by inspecting the way Bunting has transcribed it onto his notebook page, we might learn something about the way his transcription process works.

Description of the transcription

He starts on system 1 of page 150 by writing the dots. He doesn’t give us a clef, but we should understand the first two notes to represent the sister strings, na comhluighe, tuned to g below middle c′. Bunting seems to have written them as if they were treble clef g′, an octave higher. He then writes the cycle of 5ths, g′-d″, d″ down an octave, d′-a′, a′-e″, e″ down an octave, e′-b′. Then he returns to g′ and shows the 4th up, g′-c″. Then he shows an octave down, g′-g. Then he stops and scribbles this entire line out.

Bunting starts again on the second system of page 150. He starts by writing a bass clef. Clefs are very unusual in his transcriptions; I assume he is using one here because he had already confused himself by starting an octave too high. I find this interesting, that he could mis-notate an octave out. This has implications for other transcriptions.

Bunting writes the same sequence starting from the bass clef g. He starts with the g repeated; then he writes the cycle of 5ths, g-d′, d′ down an octave, d-a, a-e′, e′ down an octave, e-b. Then he writes g on its own, and then the 4th, g-c′. So far this is the same as the deleted first line, but an octave lower.

The next item on this second stave is new information. He writes the 5th, b-f♯′. He writes the sharp sign, ♯, above this interval. The next item is the 4th, c′-f♮′. He writes the flat sign, , above this interval. The natural sign ♮ has been added in pencil beside this interval as well.

These two items give us alternative ways of tuning the f′ string, to either f♯′ or f♮′. I find it interesting that he uses the flat sign, not the natural sign, to indicate the tuning giving f♮′. Is this Bunting’s piano mind telling him that we have the “sharp” seventh and the “flat” equivalent, or is this based on information from the harper informant? In the neat copy of this tuning sequence on pages 155-6, he labels the tuning with f♯ “sharp key or the natural key”, and he calls the tuning with f♮ “the flat key”, so I think these might be terms used by the harpers.

After that he writes octaves, g-g′, a-a′, and then he jumps up to the first system as if it were the treble clef staff, to continue b-b′, c′-c″, d′-d″, e′-e″ and f′-f″, and then f♮′-f♮″. He seems to be assuming there is a sharp in the key signature, and is showing us the two alternative octaves, sharp and then natural.

The third system on page 150 has a bass clef, and shows a series of descending octave intervals, f′-f, e′-e, d′-d, c′-c, b-B, a-A, and g-G.

The next item clearly is intended to explain the retuning of low bass E to F when the rest of the harp is re-tuned from f♯ to f♮ tunings. This swap is clearly explained on 1840 introduction, page 21; there is a gap at low bass F when the harp is tuned with f♯, but when the F strings are retuned to f♮ then the low bass E string is raised to be F♮ so the gap is now at E. What interests me here is the way that Bunting has written this procedure in the live transcription dots on MS4.29 page 150, presumably as the harper informant demonstrated the procedure to him. I think we can see that Bunting has written, after the octave g-G, the next octave e-E, but then he wants to show the alternative and so he inserts f, marked by a ♯ written above, and joined by a slur to the f♮ at the top of the f♮-F♮ octave. However this f♮-F♮ octave is misnoted; the bottom of it has two noteheads for E and F, and also a ♯ sign which seems to be an error. As if to correct this rubbish, Bunting writes “8” above this mis-notated octave. I presume this reminds him that it is indeed an octave, and we can see here his use of “8” written by a note to show octave doubling.

Then he continues with descending octaves, writing d-D, c-C, A-A͵ and G-G͵. The A-A͵ octave and the G-G͵ octave are actually written as unisons, but the second note of each pair is given an “8” sign to indicate that it should be understood to sound an octave lower than its staff position. So this shows us a different meaning of “8” – not octave doubling but octave transposition?

Bunting has written the word “organ” above the lowest Gs. This word also appears above the extra-low bass notes in the neat copy on page 156, and also on a gamut written on page 81/77/086/f38r. I assume the word “organ” is being used as a term for these extra-low bass strings, but I don’t really understand it.

Finally, at the end of system 3, Bunting writes the 5th f′-c♯″. Of course the f′ is also sharp, but no sharp sign is written in.

System 4 has a neat copy of system 2 as far as the octave g-g′.

System 5 has a bass clef, but no notation. But Bunting gives us traditionary information about tunes: “Fairy Queen in G♯: Alleccan cean Dubh O [?] / Miss D: Miss B: Nancy C: Grace Nugent / in high Bass”. I think we can understand the “in G♯” as being a kind of shorthand for “in G, with f♯ tuned on the harp” – but is this what the harper told him, that this tune was “in G♯”? Or is that Bunting’s own shorthand?

Relationships between transcription and neat copies

You can look at my MS29 index PDF to see how these tuning sequences sit in the manuscript notebook.

We can see that the first neat copy, lower down on page 150, copies the structure and layout of the transcription. However, when he moves on to the second neat copy, on page 155, Bunting expands out the transcription to make two separate sequences. The first stave shows the tuning with f♯ in the key signature. It is titled “♯ or natural key of the harp”, and also has the two gs that start the sequence labelled “sisters”. This label is not present in the transcription. The second stave shows the sequence with f♮ accidentals marked in, titled “Flat Key or high Bass”. We see that the title “Fairy Queen” is copied over from the transcription, though it is attached to the f♯ tuning rather than being described as in the transcription. No other titles are carried over to p.155.

The third neat copy, on page 156, expands the information even more. Instead of the cursory “8ths down” of page 155, we are given an entire stave showing the sequence of descending bass octaves, including the tuning of the gap for the f tuning. Then there is another entire stave for the f♮-tuning bass sequence, which shows the re-tuning of the E bass string, in a similar way to how it is showing the transcription. Both of these bass sequences label the lowest strings “organ” but they don’t include the “8” octave symbol for the lowest notes. On p.156 we have lost the information about “Fairy Queen” but we have the other tune tags from the transcription: “Grace Nugent Miss D: Miss B. Nancy Cooper in this key”.

page 157 gives description about other tuning information. This page is very hard to read because it has been heavily edited. The first stave seems to be based on the transcription page 150 fifth f(♯)′-c♯″. Bunting writes “Some times C sharp occurs in some tunes but very rarely met with”. Is this Bunting’s wording or did the harper tell him this?

The second stave shows a 4th c′-f♮′ with the caption “frequently this f♯ made naturall in Alligan dubh O &ce all the other notes tuned as in the first scale”. We have information about “Alleccan Dubh O” on the page 150 transcription but the note is cut off in the reproduction I have.

The third stave on page 157 is the most enigmatic. It shows a neat copy of the sequence of 4ths, with f♯ in the key signature but every f marked natural. There is no notation for the bass gap; the text says “tuning differs only with this [key] happens in tunes that don’t require the E (in the Bass) to be raised half a note [higher] (as in high bass)”. Is this related to the dual E-F in the bass in the transcription staff 3? Bunting seems to be describing an exception to the rule about raising the low bass E up to F♮, in tunes where the F♮ is not needed. I have noticed the modern-day revivalists playing reproduction harps with the gapped bass as described in these charts, almost never retune the bass E even though they will happily switch between f♯ and f♮ tunings for different tunes. I think there are very few tunes that need that low bass F♮. Maybe Bunting spotted a mismatch between the “ideal theory” that the harper informant showed him, and the general practice? Or perhaps the harper explained the ideal theory and then told Bunting it was often not done exactly like that?

Attributing this information to a harper

We can consider the location of this tuning information in the manuscript. My Tune List Spreadsheet can be useful here.

The inclusion of the scale of “Hempson’s harp” on page 153, and the double-page spread of Scott’s Lamentation on pages 1589 might make us consider Denis O’Hampsey as the source; however we have good information that his harp did not have as many bass strings as the harp used for the tuning demonstration, and so I think we can dismiss him as the source. I also wonder if he may have been the source for the different tuning sequence in the 1840 book, but that is mere speculation.

Looking at the MS29 index PDF we can also see that Scott’s Lamentation seems to start on a new gathering. We can also note that there is a pagination error in the big pencil page numbers, with two different pages numbered 156.

I think that there is no necessary connection between the tuning information, and the other tunes inserted around it. It looks to me like we have at least two separate sessions of writing in these pages; either the tuning info was inserted in spaces around the tunes, or the tunes were inserted around spaces in the tuning info. I can’t tell which at this stage.

We can see the bass range of the harp used to show Bunting the tuning sequence. From the sisters g, it runs down: g – f♯ (or f♮) – e – d – c – B – A – G – E (or F♮) – D – C – A͵ – G͵, giving 12 strings below the sisters. We can check my collation of harp tunings in my article, ‘Provenance and recording of an eighteenth-century harp’ The Galpin Society Journal LXXIII, March 2020, p.85-110 & 199-201. My chart on page 105 (figure 11) of that article shows Denis O’Hampsey’s “Downhill” harp with 10 below the sisters; Daniel Black’s harp with 11 below; the gamut on QUB SC MS4.29 p.81 has 12 below; Rose Mooney’s harp has 13 below; and Fanning’s harp has 14 strings below the sisters.

This enables us to rule out O’Hampsey, Black, Mooney and Fanning as possible sources for this tuning sequence.

The gamut on p.81 has the same number of bass strings, but it shows them tuned differently. From the sisters g, they run down: g – f♯ – e – d – c – B – A – G – E – D – B͵ – A͵ – G͵ with the low bass gap between B͵ and D instead of between A, and C. This tuning may be connected to the variation of Slieve Gallen, which is tagged as being collected from Hugh Higgins. If we think that lowest gap is moveable in the same way that the E – G gap is, then we might thing it was possible that Higgins might have given Bunting the tuning information.

Can we use the associated tune titles to deduce a possible source? We have seven titles; Plangty Kingsland, Fairy Queen, Allican Dubh O, Miss D, Miss B, Nancy C, and Grace Nugent, all written in the transcription on page 150.

“Plangsty Kingsland” must be DOSC 43, John Drudy or Fáilte go Kingsland. I have not found a transcription, but Bunting tells us in Ms33(2) p. 46 that he got this tune from Arthur O’Neill. I discuss this tune a little in my post on a different tune, Planxty Drury.

The “Fairy Queen” (DOSC 195) is discussed in my recent post, and there is a fragment of transcription a few pages earlier on page 146. Bunting tells us elsewhere that he got this tune from Arthur O’Neill.

“Allican Dubh O” must be Uilleacán Dubh O. There is a transcription on QUB MS4.29 page 44; the transcription is tagged “Dennis a Hempson in 179[6]+1796” and the tune is tagged “Hempson” in two other places as well. I have not studied this tune because I have been avoiding the O’Hampsey transcriptions.

“Miss D” may be Miss Dillon (DOSC 35), which I studied and made a demonstration and post about. This tune has two different tags in two different piano arrangements, saying it was from Charles Fanning, and saying it was from Arthur O’Neil.

I don’t know what tune “Miss B” might be. Possibly Planxty Miss Burke (DOSC 72), which is attributed variously to Arthur O’Neill and to Rose Mooney, though I have not found a transcription.

“Nancy C” must be Nancy Cooper (DOSC 16). There is no transcription; in QUB SC Ms33.2 p52, Bunting says it was collected from Patrick Quin.

“Grace Nugent” must be DOSC 110. There is no transcription, but Bunting says he got it from Arthur O’Neill.

Five of these seven titles are somewhere tagged as being from Arthur O’Neill, so I wonder if he was the source for the tuning information? That would also fit with him being an important source for traditions and stories for Bunting.

Arthur O’Neill with his harp

What can we learn from this transcription?

The first and most important thing we can learn from this transcription, is the traditional method(s) for tuning the Irish harp, starting at na comhluighe or the sisters g, and using cycles of 5ths and 4ths to set the tuning, and using octaves to transfer it up and down the harp. We also learn about the traditional retunings with F sharp and F natural, and sometimes C sharp, and the rules for retuning the “short” bass gap.

This information needs to be collated against other tuning information, but I am not going to do that here. Sylvia Crawford is working on this and should produce practical tuning instructions and demonstrations in due course.

What I am more concerned about here is the way this throws light on Bunting’s transcription method. We can note how he starts an octave out, and deletes himself and starts again. We see these false starts and deletions in some other transcriptions.

We also see him being a bit slack about indicating clefs and accidentals and key signatures. In this case the context makes it obvious; but in tune transcriptions it can be less clear. Presumably he only wrote down enough to jog his memory, ready for more detailed reconstruction later on.

We also see him expanding his transcription out into the neat copies. This is especially interesting because this is also a thing that happens with the tune transcriptions. We can see Bunting experimenting with the sequence of neat copies, trying out different things. In this case the transcription combines the instructions for tuning with f♯, and the instructions for f♮. They don’t make sense as a single sequence of operations (because you can’t tune the f♯ octave after you have tuned the c′ – f♮′ 4th), and so we have to assume that Bunting has gone back in his transcription to insert the extra information about f♮ tuning, into a sequence that tunes the harp with f♯. Or, that the harper demonstrated both intertwined, but Bunting skipped repetitive steps which would be nonetheless necessary to show both possibilities.

It is clear that the neat copies include some information that was not clearly notated in the transcription. It’s no surprise that Bunting as the collector remembered things that he had not initially written down. Our issue is how to recognise these later recollections, and how to distinguish them from later inventions or “improvements”.

4 thoughts on “Tuning the harp”

  1. Hello,

    As I speculated (and am often wrong), I was correct about the natural scale being the dominant system in Europe before being overwhelmed by the diatonic scale. Please look at the Rutland Psalter, p. 98r (reverso) and you can see a king tuning his frame harp to a natural trumpet. In other foliae in that psalter, there are gothic harps (18+ strings) which cannot be tuned to a natural instrument, but only to itself using Pythagorean tuning principles. So, the natural scale was the scale used during the beginning of the 13th century, but it slowly changed to the diatonic system by the end of it in England.

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