This article first appeared in the November 1996
issue of Acoustic Musician magazine. The guitar piece, Elizabeth
McDermott Roe is from my book, Celtic Harp
Music of Caorlan and Others for Solo Guitar, available here.
Click here for two of my Carolan arrangements.
For check out my Celtic guitar CD and listen to MP3s from it,
Perhaps no figure in the history of Irish music is
more beloved than the harper-composer Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738). A plaque in St.
Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin honors him as "the last of the Irish bards," the
man who brought to a close the centuries-old tradition of the wandering poet minstrel. The
beautiful tunes he wrote can be found in the repertories of virtually every major Celtic
band, and a section of "O'Niell's Music of Ireland," the Bible of Irish music,
is devoted to his compositions. Carolan's pieces sound wonderful on guitar, and in this
issue it is my pleasure to offer you an arrangement of one from my new book, Celtic
Harp Music of Carolan and Others for Solo Guitar.
Carolan was born near Nobber in County Meath. His father John, most
likely a small farmer, moved the family to the Roscommon-Leitrim district when Turlough
was fourteen and eventually came to work at an iron foundary at Aldersford owned by the
McDermott Roe family. Turlough's intelligence impressed Mrs. McDermott Roe, who generously
had him educated alongside of her own children until he was eighteen.
Then disaster struck and Turlough was blinded by
smallpox. In those days music was often the only possible livelihood for the blind, so it
was decided to make a harper out of him. After three years of lessons, he was given a
horse, a guide, and some money, and sent out on the road as an itinerant harper.
Which really wasn't so bad - the harper, like the
poet, had always been honored in Ireland and was welcome in the mansions of wealthy
landowners. There he would be lavishly feted, and, in exchange, compose a song in praise
of the host. After a few days, he would move on to the estate of another rich man. Carolan
was thus able to live handsomely, mingle with society's upper crust, and compose many
The music that Carolan produced was different
from that of his predecessors, though. In the great houses of the Irish gentry he heard
Italian Baroque music, which was starting to become popular with the aristocracy as the
country became Angloized. Carolan admired the new music and sought to emulate it in many
of his tunes. But he could never become a classical composer for two reasons - he was
blind and therefore unable to study harmony, counterpoint, and musical form, and, the
Irish harp, being diatonic (imagine a piano with white keys only and you've got a harp)
was incapable of playing classical music with its' accidentals and key changes. Still, the
tunes he composed are a delightful mix of folk and classical elements. Most traditional
Irish tunes usually have two repeating sections of equal length. In Carolan's music,
though, the second sections are often longer than the first and are extended by unusual
melodic twists and turns, which was one of the ways he attempted to give his compositions
a Baroque sound.
By the time Carolan died at 68, he was a famous
and respected man. But by the early nineteenth century, the harp itself was extinct in
Ireland. His tunes were popular with harpers, and were later kept alive by fiddlers,
pipers, and whistle players. Still, they may have been lost had it not been for the
efforts that were begun at the end of the eighteenth century to collect Irish music.
Because the bardic tradition was an oral one,
music had never been written down. Harpers prided themselves on their memory, but this had
an unfortunate result - only 30 or so tunes known to have been composed by Irish harpers
before Carolan have survived. Considering that 2,000 lute pieces and 600 virginal pieces
from the Elizabethan period have been preserved, the loss of several centuries' worth of
harp music was clearly a cultural tragedy. Fortunately, Carolan's case was different - 214
of his tunes have survived.
In 1792, it was realized that harping was dying
out. In Belfast, a committee was formed to gather Irish harpers together and write down
the tunes. Edward Bunting, a nineteen year church organist, was hired as the
transcriptionist, but he only notated the melodies and not the basses. Because of this,
our knowledge of how the harp was played is very limited. Still, 40 of Carolan's tunes
were recorded, along with scores of others. Following Bunting's lead, other collectors
gathered songs and dance tunes, and by the early years of this century, thousands of tunes
had been notated.
In 1958 Donal O'Sullivan's biography Carolan -
The Life, Times, and Music of an Irish Harper was published. In this work, the standard
reference on Carolan, O'Sullivan collected and edited all of his tunes, bringing them
together for the first time.
This led to a revival of Carolan's music in the
early 70s, when the Chieftains began recording his tunes. A few years later their harper,
Derek Bell, went on to make the landmark solo record Carolan's Reciept, and more
records of Carolan's tunes and earlies harpers followed. Soon fingerstyle guitarists began
to discover this rich tradition.
I first heard Carolan's music fingerpicked by Eric Schoenberg in the
late 70s and was immediately taken by it. After collecting several Celtic harp CDs, I
began to arrange Carolan for solo guitar in 1979. As I worked on this, I also studied
harmony and counterpoint out of textbooks that I would buy in used bookstores. I wanted to
write a book in which the arrangements would have bass lines and inner voices that were
correct according to the rules of voice leading and still retain a folky flavor.
Elizabeth MacDermott Roe, a very tender tune named for the daughter of the the
family that showed Carolan so much kindeness when he was young, is presented here.\
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Solo guitar arrangement of Elizabeth
by Glenn Weiser
Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar Books
by Glenn Weiser
Reviews of "Celtic Harp Music of Carolan and
Others for Solo Guitar," by Glenn Weiser
Index of O' Carolan
Tunes Arranged for Guitar By Glenn Weiser
Irish Baroque-Turlough O' Carolan for Fingerstyle Guitar by Glenn