Monday, April 6, 2015

Noteworthy Instruments: the Celtic harp

The Trinity harp, at Trinity college, Dublin

This week, I went to see Patrick Ball, one of my favorite storytellers, perform. He’s an American who tells stories about Ireland and plays the Celtic harp. Among the stories about Ireland and the little folk, he told about how he came to the Celtic harp, the playing of which has undergone a renaissance in the past 40 years. After the peak of the Celtic harp’s popularity in the middle ages, Ball explained, it fell out of favor in Ireland and hadn’t been heard in 200 years. Ball’s involvement actually started with an American engineer who was laid off by Boeing and ending up taking minute measurements of ancient harps in Dublin, such as the Trinity harp (which appears on Ireland’s currency and Guinness beer). Ball then ran into the American, Jay Witcher selling harp reconstructions at a renaissance fair (fitting) and Ball was enchanted with the sound of the instrument.

Something that Ball didn’t mention was that harps did not die out in Ireland; in the 1800s, however, the old, metal-string style of Celtic harp was supplanted by a smaller, gut-stringed classical-influenced style harp. Despite the change of models, the harp continued to be a symbol of Ireland, as it had been the symbol of Irish royalty in the middle ages; the new harp replaced the old one in the tradition, some people thinking that the new harp was the old one. Perhaps one reason for the switch is that the Irish had lost their royalty, so the Irish upper class were emulating other European royalty, who in the 1800s turned to art music of the German style. Perhaps for the same reason, the old Irish style of harp playing was lost around the same time period, too (though 200 years was a bit of a stretch).

So how can they reconstruct a tradition that no one has seen or heard in over a century? Well, there were two good clues: first, some surviving models, and 2nd, a man named Edward Bunting.

There are several surviving Celtic harps from the 15th century, the most famous being the Trinity harp (ironically, evidence suggests that the Trinity harp was made actually in Scotland.). It’s actually kind of amazing that any harps survive, because the tension needed for the strings means that harps basically rip themselves apart over time. While recreations of these old harps had been attempted earlier in the 20th century, Witcher’s was the most scientific to that date and probably came closer to the original sound than other recreations.

As for us reconstructing how the harpers played music hundreds of year ago, in 1792 harpers in Ireland realized that their tradition was fading out, and held a festival in Belfast where ten of the remaining old-tradition harpists came and played. Edward Bunting, an organist, was employed to transcribe what until then had been mostly an oral tradition (many harpers were even blind). Bunting continued collecting after that, and he later published his collection of transcriptions and lengthy commentary as The Ancient Music Ireland. While Bunting may have altered a few of his transcriptions to fit his own musical training, he did manage to preserve something that was just about to become lost to history.

So, if you do manage to hear a Celtic harp sometime, remember it’s probably thanks to Witcher, an American engineer, and Bunting, a church organist.

Vocab: transcribe

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