“At the end of the eighteenth century, Edward Bunting published a major work of Irish music called A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (1797). He followed this publication with two more collections in 1809 and 1840. Many of the tunes in these books came from the harpers he heard performing at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792. In the first part of his 1840 collection, Bunting described the “natural key” of the harp used by the Irish harpers as leith glass or leithghlas. The Irish harpers tuned their instrument in this key, which we would recognize as G major because it had an F sharp.
Frances Thiele’s Leith Glass explores the musical possibilities and sounds achievable with a single tuning on the lever harp. The collection includes nine traditional tunes from Ireland, Scotland and England that together give a sense of the many musical colors that can be produced from the leith glass tuning if we think modally like the harpers of old. Suitable for intermediate lever harp players, the arrangements are all playable on a 34-string lever harp with sharping levers on F and C (C# is only required for one of the pieces with accidentals – “My Lagan Love”). The lowest note used is C, two octaves below middle C.“
A couple of years ago I was doing some research at the Loreto College archives in Ballarat when I came across a very interesting book of harp music. Looking a bit like a homemade pamphlet, the tune book was titled An Cruitire (The Harper). All the text for the publication was in Gaelic but the cover, helpfully, had a wonderful drawing of a ‘traditional’ Irish harper on the front. The drawing depicted a male harper sitting on a medieval style stool with a small harp on his lap. The front pillar of the harp was rounded and the small section of the sound box that could be seen was covered in Celtic knotwork. The harper wore a tunic with a belt and had cross bandaged leggings. A circlet encompassed his head and the whole outfit was completed with a long cape that descended from his shoulder to the ground, gathering around his feet. I wondered where this stereotypical image came from, why it was used, who produced the book and what was it doing in the Loreto archive?
I had part of the answer in the reason why I was at the archive in the first place. The Irish Loreto nuns who established the school taught harp to their students in Ballarat. This tune book was most likely a source of repertoire for the students. The Loreto school was founded in the 1870s and instrumental lessons on harp were offered from this time. Initially only pedal harp was taught but later in the century lever harps started to appear in photographs of the music students indicating a shift in the instruments used and the repertoire played.
This change in instrumentation reflected the development of harp playing in Ireland. Traditional playing on wire harp had gradually declined from the eighteenth century onward, despite several attempts to resurrect the tradition with the Belfast Harp Festival and the establishment of the Irish harp societies in Dublin, Belfast and Drogheda. The invention of the single-action pedal harp and then, in the early nineteenth century, the double-action pedal harp and the huge popularity of this instrument meant that hardly anyone played the Irish harp anymore. For most of this period popular Irish tunes were played on pedal harp encouraging a repertoire of classical theme and variations style interpretations of Irish music produced by harp players like Dussek, Chatterton and Bochsa.
By the 1890s there was a resurgence of interest in Irish traditional culture spurred on by a political movement for Irish independence. The Gaelic League published An Cruitire, a collection of Irish tunes arranged for harp by Owen Lloyd (Eogan Laoide), in 1903. Lloyd was a renowned Irish pedal harp performer but in the late nineteenth century he too had become interested in the resurgence of Irish traditions. He joined the Gaelic League, established in 1893 with the goal to revive Irish culture and language, and began giving concerts on the older style wire harp. Lloyd performed at many events for the League on his wire harp made by Francis Hewson, Dublin, and although the revival of traditional music was not a particular focus of the League’s activities, they nevertheless decided to publish his collection.
The presence of An Cruitire in the archive at Loreto College indicates that the Irish nuns supported the return of interest in Irish culture. The Ballarat school was directed by the headquarters of the order in Rathfarnham where Mother Attracta Coffey (MAC) set the tone and course of harp instruction. MAC was an accomplished harpist and piano player and she produced several books of traditional tunes for Irish harp in addition to an Irish harp tutor book that were the core of harp teaching at many Loreto schools. She also seems to have instigated the purchase of several harps made by James McFall in Dublin for the school in Ballarat, which were used to teach this repertoire. Mary Louise O’Donnell has written a wonderful article about Owen Lloyd and the Gaelic League you can download and read here that gives some more background to Owen Lloyd’s activities with the League and the nationalistic movements of the early twentieth century. So much of the current repertoire we play on harp comes from this period and it is important to understand how the musical tradition of the ancient harpers was reinterpreted at this time to fit preconceived notions of ‘Irishness’. The image on the front cover of An Cruitire is representative of this stereotypical version of the past.
I have arranged one of the pieces from the book that you can download for free using the link below. I want to thank Mary so much for her work on Owen Lloyd. As the book is written in Gaelic, I spent many hours trying to translate the names of the pieces into English so I knew what they were. While some were easy others were a mystery, including the name of this piece. To my delight I found that Mary had given nearly all the names of the pieces in the version of An Cruitire that I found in the Loreto Archives in a footnote to her article. I can now confirm that the piece I have arranged with some small changes of my own is called ‘Carolan’s Planxty’! I hope you enjoy playing this lovely little piece from an historically very interesting collection of Irish harp music.
Over the holidays I finally put together my latest book of harp music. Titled Leith Glass, after what the 18th century Irish harpers called the ‘natural’ key of the harp, it includes nine arrangements of traditional tunes from England, Scotland and Ireland. All the arrangements are for solo lever harp.
The book includes background information about the origin of each piece and is suitable for intermediate harp players. Hopefully I can make it available soon!
I always find it interesting that many harpists think they are playing ‘medieval’ and Renaissance music but rarely are. Most of the lever harp repertoire relies on more modern interpretations of older tunes. Of course there is nothing wrong with this. Music is an evolving culture that reflects broader social contexts and tastes. Some of the best folk music is enjoyable because it takes a new approach to a familiar tune. But then again I am an historian and I can’t help myself. I want to know what Renaissance music actually sounded like – well as much as we can know – not just contemporary interpretations of Renaissance music. I have to go back to look at some of the earliest versions of things I can find – not just to understand and revive interpretations lost – but also to inspire my own composing and arranging with new ideas.
Years ago on one of my regular library visits I ventured into the University of Melbourne Music Library and found the Fuller Maitland and Barclay Squire edition of The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. This two volume work originally published in 1899 includes 297 pieces, mainly English, composed in between 1560 and 1620. The pieces are from a manuscript collection that is now part of the University of Cambridge Fitzwilliam Museum in the UK. Scholars believe the pieces were transcribed and compiled somewhere around the period 1610-1625. Most of the works are arranged for the virginals (an early keyboard instrument), although they could be played on other keyboard instruments of the time like the harpsichord or spinet. Exactly who transcribed the pieces is a matter of academic conjecture but, as the Museum states, ‘This collection of compositions for keyboard instruments is widely regarded as the most important surviving manuscript of 16th and 17th century English music.’
The original manuscript is very hard to understand though because modern notation was still in development. Deciphering the manuscript text is best left to the experts! The Fuller Maitland and Barclay Squire edition, however, makes these works much more accessible. Obviously none of the pieces were written for harp. They are often highly chromatic and need considerable adaption so we can play them on our instrument. Most modern arrangers of this music for harp tend to take a lot of the accidentals out of the pieces so they can be more easily played on levered instruments but I think this takes away too much of their Renaissance style and character. Instead I have arranged several pieces from the collection for lever harp and tried to keep their distinctive sixteenth century quality. OK, so yes, I am giving another modern interpretation of an older tune but hopefully, by going back to some of the earliest versions of the pieces, I haven’t lost too much of their original sound in doing so.
Today I would like to share with you one of these pieces – Giles Farnaby’s ‘A Toye’. This piece includes quite a lot of lever changes so it is really for the intermediate lever harp player. Farnaby (c.1560-1640) was a well-known English composer of the early modern period and a contemporary of other composers like Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd and John Bull. In this version of ‘A Toye’ I have notated the music without ornamentation. In the sixteenth century it was common for instrumentalists to add their own ornaments, particularly in repeated sections. Fuller Maitland and Barclay Squire include the markings for this ornamentation in their edition, although the exact ornament required at these points is open to much academic discussion. I will leave it to you to do your own research and add them in if you wish or just to play the piece as is, which is quite beautiful in its own right. Just click on the following link for the pdf. Feel free to play and share my arrangement with others. All I ask for is acknowledgement.
Sometimes a tune comes down through the folk harp repertoire in a simplified form. This is not to say that the tune doesn’t sound great but it does mean that an older form of the tune has sometimes been ‘lost’. Well when I say ‘sometimes’, I actually mean ‘often’ – as my research is steadily revealing! I really enjoy tracking harp tunes back to the earliest source I can find. As a music historian, I find it is the cultural context of the tunes that is just as interesting and revealing to me as playing the piece itself. The historical context also helps me to find my own interpretation of the pieces I play, which in turn informs my arrangements. In this blog I would like to share with you an arrangement I have done of The Chanter’s Tune.
I tracked this tune back to the third volume of Edward Bunting’s publication The Ancient Music of Ireland, arranged for pianoforte published in Dublin in 1840. Bunting claimed he collected the tune from E. Shannon in 1839 but the author and date of composition was unknown. This was one of the first tunes I learnt on folk harp and in Australia at least it is very popular. Today we usually play it in D Dorian mode, so the harp is in the key of C major but the tonic is D (the second scale degree). The tune is good for beginners because a D drone – either as a single note or a fifth – can be played in the bass through the whole piece underneath the melody. This gives the tune a strong regular beat in the bass on the first beat of the bar. As the piece is most often notated in simple quadruple time or 4/4, it often feels a bit like a march. Even when the piece is notated in cut common time, the repeated note on beats one and two at the beginning of the piece set a strong sense of two with the first half of each bar emphasized more than the second. The overall effect is one of weight and a regular rhythmic duple structure.
Returning to the version published by Bunting, however, there is a feeling of lightness with the staccato articulation and a feeling of three in the timing. The emphasis in the rhythmic structure is different and quite delightful. To me it echoes the preference in the early nineteenth century for the Classical music style and the continued influence of elements from the Baroque that was also seen in publications of folk music. Bunting notated his Chanter’s Tune in 2/4 time, which has the effect of halving the main note values to quavers instead of crotchets. This shortening of the note lengths keeps everything lighter and implies a faster tempo than the piece is often played when it is in simple quadruple time. A careful review of Bunting’s version also reveals that the first three notes in the bar are given a staccato articulation which keeps the first part of the bar, or one and a half beats, light and consistent in timbre. The second half of the bar (only a half beat) has a normal articulation making it feel smoother and warmer. This also gives weight to the last quaver in the bar making it feel like an upbeat into the next bar. This completely inverts the way The Chanter’s Tune is played today. Bunting notes that it should be played “A Little Slow and Distinctly” but gives a quaver equals 116 tempo marking, which is still quite fast normally but metronome markings could be variable in 1840!
Finally I want to make one more observation. While normally we would play the tune in Dorian mode, the Bunting version has more of a Mixolydian sensibility. The key signature has a B flat and the tonic is F but there is an E flat accidental in the melody line. Bunting didn’t like modes much and tried to put the tunes he collection into a major or minor key. I think it is more appropriate, however, that we think of Bunting’s version as being in F Mixolydian (F being the fifth scale degree of the foundation major key of B flat). Musicians think about Dorian mode as a minor mode because of its close association with a natural minor scale and Mixolydian as a major mode because of its close association with the major scale. As a result Bunting’s version is slightly more upbeat but it loses some of the ‘ancient’ feel of the Dorian mode. Well I think that is enough from me. I haven’t altered the tune very much from Bunting to keep it as true to his version as possible but I have made it a bit more playable and accessible for the upper beginner level harpist of today. Just click on the following link for the pdf. Feel free to play and share my arrangement with others. All I ask for is acknowledgement. See if you can hear the difference and let me know what you think!
Well I have finally finished my first book of original pieces for lever harp! Yay! The collection is called ‘Green Wood’ and is suitable for early to advanced beginners, although the last piece in the collection is really getting up to intermediate level. I have recorded myself playing the pieces in the book and put the audio up on Soundcloud so you can hear the pieces and decide if you want to learn them. You can also hear how I play them if you aren’t sure about something in the notation. If you search under my name in Soundcloud or under ‘Frangipani Harp’ you will find the pieces. The whole collection is available as a pdf download or I can send you a hard copy. Please contact me for details. I have also put information about the book on this site under ‘Compositions’ and watch out for my next collection coming soon for intermediate level players called ‘Sentience’.
One of the things I have always loved about being a musician is researching the history and context of the pieces I play. Understanding the context in which a piece was created is enormously beneficial to developing my own approach to interpretation and performance. I am endlessly fascinated by the way in which musicians re-interpret older pieces and debate issues of ‘authenticity’. No where is this more evident than in folk music.
Years ago another musician berated me for playing Irish folk tunes in too much of a classical style. Apparently I was unaware of the subtleties of rhythmic interpretation that I would only understand, I was told, unless I hung out in an Irish pub listening to Irish musicians play their own music. Since this time I have spent a lot of time playing in Celtic sessions, quite a few of which have been in pubs by the way, and generally researching and trying to have a better understanding of Irish and Scottish music in particular. I have also listened to many folk performers from the British Isles. I have to say that I find the issue of ‘authenticity’ a bit of challenge, but I will save that particular discussion for another day. However, my research and the wonderful musicians I have come across have been inspirational for my own harp playing. One harp player that I have really enjoyed listening to recently is Mary Macmaster from Scotland. Mary has come over to Australia at least twice and toured with the percussionist Donald Hay. When Mary was here last we got into a discussion about Scottish folk tunes and their origins in aurally transmitted culture. She told me about an amazing archival website set up by the Scottish Government to preserve this culture called, in English, the Kist O Riches or, in Gaelic, Tobar an Dualchais:
On this website you can look up Scottish folk tunes and hear them being sung on recordings that date from as far back as the 1930s. Some songs have many different versions represented on the site, some are in Gaelic and some in English, some recordings are only of the spoken word or a solo voice, others have many instrumental voices. The site is well worth a visit if you love folk music as much as I do but beware you may get caught up listening and exploring for hours!