the Celtic Harp
|The following article has been adapted
from the introductory section of my book, "Celtic Harp Music of Carolan and Others
for Solo Guitar."-G.W.
|The harp was widely played in Ireland,
Scotland, Wales and the Celtic parts of the Continent from at least the ninth century (it
is depicted in an Irish stone carving from that period) until the seventeenth century. It
was the principal instrument of the Celtic aristocracy and was also loved by the common
people as well. The twelfth century monk-historian Geraldus Cambrensis remarked on the
great skill of the Irish harpers, and their music was admired throughout Europe. This was
attested to by another twelfth century writer, John of Salisbury, who wrote that "had
it not been for the Irish harp, there would have been no music at all on the
The harpers of Scotland evidently equaled their Irish counterparts in prowess Cambrensis wrote that some even considered the Scots better players. Irish and Scottish harpers commonly visited each others countries to study, learn and exchange tunes. Four of the tunes in this book, for example, were composed by Irish harpers living in Scotland and some harp tunes have both Irish and Scottish names.
The harp was sturdily built of willow or other hardwoods and often elaborately decorated. The earlier ones had about a dozen or less strings, and the later ones about 35 to 43. In Ireland, harps had metal strings; Scottish ones were strung with gut. The sound chamber of the instrument was made by hollowing out a single piece of wood, and often served as a suitcase for a harpers clothes when he was travelling (it was played by men only until the fifteenth century). Some professional harpers were regularly employed at the castles of Celtic chieftains, and others made their livings as itinerants by entertaining in the homes of the wealthy in exchange for their hospitality. Harpers were hired for weddings, funerals, Masses and other occasions.
The harpers repertory consisted of songs and instrumental pieces. The lyrics to the Irish and Scottish songs were, as far as I know, in Gaelic (although this might not have been the case for Lowland harp tunes) and were often composed for the harpers patrons.
The tragic extinction of the harping tradition at the beginning of the nineteenth century had a number of causes: the Angloization of the Irish and Scottish cultures, the increased popularity of step-dancing and the fiddle, and the inability of the harp to play the accidentals required for classical music, which started coming in to vogue in Dublin and Edinburgh during the Baroque era. Only in Wales was the tradition unbroken.
Because harp music had always been handed down orally, very little of it has been preserved. The most important attempt was made in 1792, when a gathering of harpers was convened in Belfast to compete for cash prizes. Only ten harpers, ranging in age from fifteen to over one hundred, could be found. A nineteen year old church organist named Edward Bunting was hired to notate the music, but with few exceptions only the melodies, and not the bass lines were taken down. This proved to be an historic oversight; now we know little about how the harp was actually played. However, judging from the few hundred melodies we do have, it is clear that harping was a high art. Some of the tunes are slow airs of great beauty while others are spirited dance tunes or robust marches. The lyrics of the songs, where known, have not been given here, but many of the tunes have interesting tales attached to them which are recounted in my accompanying notes.
In the late nineteenth century, interest in the Celtic harp was rekindled, but the tradition had been broken in all the Celtic countries except Wales. My grandmother played the harp in Northern Ireland, but when my grandfather took his family and emigrated to America, the harp had to be left behind.
In the last few decades the harp has grown in popularity. Harpers Derek Bell, Anne Heyman, Alison Kinnaird, Patrick Bell, Kim Robertson, and others have made wonderful records of Celtic music (see my Celtic Harp Discography), and harp is often heard on "New Age" recordings. Harps are being built by skilled makers and new players are performing and recording.
At one point during the Belfast gathering the harper Arthur ONeill spoke of the impending demise of harping in Ireland to the young Edward Bunting. With a tear in his eye he exclaimed, "The dear sweet tunes! The dear sweet tunes!" If ONeill were alive today, he would surely be smiling instead.
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