Irish harpist busking in London, c.1900

Ealasaid was looking through George Sims’s amazing books Living London, published around 1900-1903, searching for images to use in her artwork, when she found this lovely photograph in a section about street musicians. This gentleman is playing what looks like an Egan portable harp, or perhaps one of the late 19th century imitations made by Holderness, Morley or other London harpmakers.

He also appears to have a concertina under his arm and there is what I imagine is a collecting box strapped to the pillar of his harp.

The Egan Royal portable harps usually have a strap button at top and bottom of the soundbox, but I don’t recall ever seeing a picture of someone with the harp strapped to themselves before.

Henry George Farmer, in his paper ‘Some Notes on the Irish Harp’, in Music & Letters vol XXIV, April 1943, describes how he remembered seeing an Irish harper busking on the Old Kent Road in about 1900. Farmer said he did not have time to check out who the harper was or how his instrument was set up, leading to much speculation about whether this was the last of the blind students from the Dublin Harp Society, playing one of the big Society wire-strung early Irish harps. However this image suggests that Farmer might have seen this man or someone like him, playing a gut-strung neo-Irish harp.

Playing ceòl mór from Donald MacDonald’s 1820 printed book

I am intrigued by Donald MacDonald’s arrangements of ceòl mór or pibroch, because on his title page he indicates that he is not setting out the tunes in “pipers tablature”, that cryptic system that looks confusingly similar to staff notation; instead, he describes his work:

A / collection / of the / Ancient Martial /  Music of Caledonia / called / Piobaireachd / as performed on the / Great Highland Bagpipe / Now also adapted to the / Piano Forte, violin and violoncello…

By setting the music on two staves, treble and bass, he intends that the purchasers of his book, price one guinea (£1 1s, or a few hundred pounds in today’s money) to play this music not on the pipes (what wealthy, musically literate book-buyer in 1820 owned or played pipes?) but on the piano; if they had musical guests at their Edinburgh townhouse they may well also try it as violin and cello duets.

Donald writes a single bass line very simply in the bass clef, which looks to me quite old-fashioned for 1820; I think by that date many music arrangers were writing chordal and thicker textures in the bass.  On the other hand the modal, drone-based nature of the music may have discouraged anything more complex.

He writes the melody in a more nuanced way, setting the tune in large notes with their stems all pointing down, and using little notes with the stems up to indicate the characteristic bagpipe grace-notes. I imagine he expected piano and fiddle players to ignore these in performance, but to appreciate them as exotic talking-points read in connection with the “instructions” at the beginning of the book.

How did he decide which notes to make big, and which small? This is the vexed question of all early pibroch scholarship, since there seems to have been a strong movement through the 19th and 20th century to shift the musical emphasis in a big way, with melody notes becoming swallowed up into bundles of gracenotes, and rogue grace notes being held so long that they speak as stressed melody notes.

My opinion is that he wrote the big notes so that when played normally on the fiddle or piano, the melody sounded as he imagined in his head that it should, based on his knowledge of the expected traditional expression of this tune on the pipes (and perhaps also on the fiddle, seeing as the fiddle pibroch tradition may have still been reasonably strong at this time)

More on Ronald MacDonald of Morar’s Lament

Today I tried playing the Lament for Ranald MacDonald of Morar on the harp, and I discovered two very interesting things about this tune.

First, it really does not sit well on the harp.

Secondly, it is a minor-mode tune. The notation gives it in a, as is usual for Highland bagpipe music, as the pipes usually play an a major scale: a b c# d e f# g a, plus low G, with drones sounding all the while on A.

This tune is mostly pentatonic, moving over g a b – d e – g a, with passing notes on f# and on c natural. The c natural is not at all what one would expect to hear in a pipe tune, yet not only does c# sound very wrong but the notation clearly gives only one sharp in the key signature.

Listening to the only pipe recording I have to hand (and ignoring the substantial changes to pulse and accent) I note that the issue doesn’t arise on the pipes, because the sequence that Donald MacDonald writes very clearly as d (G) c (G) b, i.e. a descending series of 3 notes d c b, separated by low G gracenotes, becomes in modern performance d G(c#)G b, i.e. a sequence of two notes d  b separated by a burble on low G. So the tune remains pentatonic on the pipes.

I checked in Joseph MacDonald‘s book, where he has a section on the “keys” in which ceòl mór is set on the pipes, he doesn not really deal with this type of scale; he only talks about laments omitting c# and concentrating on the low end of the scale. Other than that he is mainly interested in music set in modal equivalents of g major, a major and d major.

Books at the Wighton Centre

Yesterday I was at the Wighton Centre in Dundee, helping organise the 10th anniversary events. I was in charge of displaying some of the books from the main Wighton Collection as well as new acquisitions from the Jimmy Shand Collection and the Alice Palmer Collection.

After the concert and the presentation some of my students joined in the informal music making.

A Highland Port by Rory Dall

Today is Burns Night, so what better tune to look at than “Rory Dall’s Port”, as used by Burns for the original setting of his lovely poem “Ae Fond Kiss”.

The only source for this tune I have ever found is two publications by James Oswald. I do not know the exact date of either of these books; they are both from around 1750.

This is the famous “Caledonian Pocket Companion” (book 8, p24):

And here it is with a baroque bass for harpsichord or cello, in “A Collection of 43 Scots tunes with variations”:

This tune is often claimed for either Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin or Rory Dall Morrison. On the other hand, various authors including John Purser and David Johnson have suggested that it looks more like Oswald’s own work.

I have played this tune for a while – I included a complete version with Oswald’s variations on Clàrsach na Bànrighe, and I have played it to accompany Sheena Wellington singing “Ae Fond Kiss”, but have always thought it was not particularly convincing as a piece of ancient harp idiom. My suspicion was strengthened when I read recently about Oswald’s common use of pseudonyms when publishing tunes (a common enough thing in mid 18th century Scottish literary circles I understand). Perhaps we should simply add “Rory Dall” to the list of Oswald’s pseudonyms alongside “Rizzio” and “Dottel Figlio”.

Craftsmen & crafts

In Dundee on Saturday I picked up an interesting and pretty book at a charity street bookstall. It is Fifteen Craftsmen on their Crafts edited by John Farleigh, published by the Sylvan Press in 1945.

I was interested in the general ambience of the book as well as some of the more specific comments in it. It reminds me of other craftsmanship books from the earlier part of the 20th century, and I wonder if this is like the tail end of the original Arts & Crafts movement. There is a kind of straightness and openness about the attitudes that I do not see very often today.

Farleigh in his introduction talks about tradition, technique and personality being a “creative yet conservative force”. I was interested to see Carl Dolmetsch’s essay on “Music and Craftsmanship” was the least conservative – when discussing modern manufacture of historical instruments, he delights in “improvements” and repeatedly describes Arnold Dolmetsch’s designs and mechanisms as better than those of the historical masters.

There is even a brief mention of A.D.’s work on the medieval Welsh music: “The harps were simple, … but the crwth … required much research and all the skill of the violin maker”. It is interesting to see this dismissal of the craftsmanship and design in the old harps. Perhaps it is significant that the harps made by Dolmetsch in the 1930s are not rated nowadays either as musical instruments or as art objects, in contrast with his beautiful and high quality harpsichords.

James Taylor of Elgin’s Strathspeys & Reels

I found in an old Edinburgh bookshop, an early 19th century bound album of printed and manuscript music. It is a companion volume to one I already own, being in the same distinctive quarter leather binding and with the same name inscribed inside the front cover: Miss Mc. Arthur

This second volume has very little Scottish music in it, unlike the first volume. But one thing caught my eye; this nice collection of Scottish tunes published by James Taylor, Teacher of Music, Elgin.

The title page:

The dedication, to Lady Dunbar of Northfield:

Page 1: Lady Dunbar of Northfield’s Favourite; Lady Cumming of Altyre’s Strathspey; James B Dunbar’s Strathspey. All composed by Sir Archibald Dunbar, Bart, of Northfield.

Page 2: Mrs Hay of Westertown’s Strathspey; Lady Dick Lauder’s Strathspey; Miss Cumming Bruce, a Strathspey, all composed by the same.

Page 3: Miss Grant of Grant’s Strathspey; Mrs Warden of Parkhill, a strathspey; Miss Dunbar’s Strathspey, all composed as above.

Page 4: Miss Margaret Dunbar’s Strathspey; Mrs Cumming Bruce’s Strathspey; Lady Dunbar of Boath’s Strathspey, composed as above.

Page 5: Lieut. Dunbar (22nd Regt) Reel; Northfield House, Duffus, a Strathspey; Lady Penuel Grant’s Strathspey, all composed by James Taylor

Page 6: Miss E Grant, Lossymouth’s Reel; Mrs Brodie of Brodie’s Strathspey; Mr Brodie of Brodie’s Reel, all by JT.

Page 7: Mrs Gordon of Abergeldie’s Strathspey; Mrs Dr Gordon, Elgin, a Reel; Mrs Skinner of Drumin’s Strathspey; all by JT.

Page 8: Miss Catherine Stewart of Desky’s Reel; Miss Brander of Springfield, a Strathspey; A Lament for Mrs Tulloch, Kirkmichael; all by JT

Page 9: Miss Coull of Ashgrove, a Strathspey, by JT; Mrs Foljambe, Elgin, a Strathspey, by JT; Sir Archd. Dunbar Bart. of Northfield’s Strathspey, by a Lady.

Page 10: Miss Catherine Forsyth’s Reel, by a Lady; Mr Marshall’s Strathspey Edinburgh, by R McDonald; Mr Marshall’s Reel Edinr. by R McD

Page 11: Mrs McLeod of Delvey’s Strathspey, by R McD; Miss McLeod of Delvey’s Strathspey, by R McD; The Elgin Academy, a Strathspey, by an Old Pupil

Page 12: Leiut. Dunbar 22nd Regiments Waltz, by a Lady; A Set of Scots Quadrilles

Page 13:

page 14:

Page 15: The Surly Gallope, by a Young Lady; Mrs G Forbes, Ashgrove, a Strathspey, by a Lady

Page 16: The Earl of Fife’s Birth Day, a Strathspey by JT; The Pearl, a Strathspey by JT.

If you click on a page image you will be able to view it much larger. Let me know if you play or perform any of these tunes.

Aldhelm and Sherbourne

I have just received a new book, Aldhelm and Sherbourne – essays to celebrate the founding of the bishopric edited by Katherine Barker and Nicholas Brooks, published by Oxbow Books last year. I ordered this book of conference papers because it includes an audio CD of a performance of one of Aldhelm’s Latin lyrics, the Carmen rythmicum, as performed by a “Finnish rune-singer” accompanied with kantele.

Aldhem was a late 7th -early 8th century Anglo Saxon Christian priest in the south-west of England, and the book is an erudite and scholarly series of papers discussing various aspects of his life and work, and especially his connection to the ecclesiastical centre at Sherbourne which he founded in 705.

The preface and introduction are quite personal and intimate, and you get the impression that the organisers and scholars in this field are all close friends. The papers vary a lot, from historical and geographical surveys of the region, to detailed linguistic analyses. Barbara Yorke’s survey of Aldhelm’s Irish and British connections is especially interesting as a broad overview of cultural connections at this time. David Howlett’s numerological layout of the Latin life of Aldhelm is baffling in its application of number and letter counting and lack of explanation or discussion, and Katherine Barker’s discussion of Aldhelm as composer and author of the Carmen rythmicum is rather too ready to identify Latin musical terms with modern instrument categories (e.g. I would be suspicious of translating Aldhelm’s psalterium with “psaltery” without comment), but is a very thought provoking discussion of musical learning and practice in early medieval times.

The audio CD, with a single 35 minute track, is not a live recording of the conference performance, but a later studio version. The two performers are described as Masters students at Sibelius Institute and I found the performance style to be quite modern, much cleaner and more ‘professional’ sounding than the archive recordings of traditional Finnish singers I have heard. The text is in lines of 8 syllables, and the singers use the same even-spaced 8 syllable metre that is used for Kalevala singing, where each syllable is of equal length except for extended final syllables. To my mind this is less successful for the Latin verse, since my understanding of Latin meter is that it is strongly based on the alternation of feet containing long and short syllables. I also hear no trace of the Carmen‘s distinctive three syllable line ending, with the third from last stressed, and the second from last short (described here). The kantele is sometimes strummed, sometimes plucked, and complements the voices well, though some sections seemed a little too contrapunctal for my taste.

But, it is still a very interesting project, and the inclusion of the CD makes it almost unique and highly recommended. Also, the way that the book provides not only a complete Latin text of the song but also a number of different translations by different scholars really allows for a rich appreciation of this material.

Medieval musicians

“Medieval musicians were virtuosos of the diatonic, sensitized to the subtle differences of weight and role of the various scale degrees and the intervals between them…”

I was very interested to read Lefferts’ comment here. He is discussing plainchant, and the way in which the melodies of chants – single unaccompanied voices – curl around certain notes, certain repeated formulae, and how they start and end on certain pitches. It reminded me of a thing I have considered for a long time – the idea of the different notes of an ordinary scale having a hierarchy, so that a single note has a certain taste or flavour. Each note of a scale – each degree, as Leffert puts it, has a certain relationship with its surrounding notes – the intervals between them.

Early Music VSI

This small slim paperback of 130 pages is part of Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introduction” series. I have been collecting these for many years, and I have found them to be highly variable. Some are just a little dull; some are rather biased, postmodern, or narrow; but some are just brilliant. This newly published work by Thomas Forest Kelly, published this month, is one of the brilliant ones. I would highly recommend it and to that end I have already listed it for sale in my Emporium:

It is a superb pocket size introduction to the idea of “early music”. The first chapter considers the basic ideas, investigating peoples constant urge to look to the past for their art. Three subsequent chapters comprise the heart of the book, dealing respectively with the history of mainstream Western music in the medieval, Renaissance and baroque periods. These three chapters so easily and concisely explain the styles and types of music in each different historical time, that they are highly recommended as the best overview and introduction to this difficult subject. This is followed by one chapter discussing performance practice and ideas of authenticity, and a final chapter (which reads more like an appendix) listing notable individuals and organisations involved with early music during the 20th century in Europe and America.

I have long been searching for an accessible overview history of western music, and this one finally fits the bill. Coincidentally, Cambridge University Press have recently published a “Companion to Medieval Music” which is not very short, and naturally not concerned with Renaissance or baroque music.

Both of these titles will be included in July’s Emporium update – but you get a sneak preview here first!