Grace notes and ornaments

One question that regularly comes up is how one deals with grace notes and ornaments. In the Gaelic harp tradition we have the system of left hand gestures published by Edward Bunting in 1840 (online edition), and in the Welsh harp tradition we have the ‘alphabet to learn the pricking’ on p.35 of the Robert ap Huw manuscript (online facsimile). These describe series of notes that are played as a single fluid connected motion, and which are often treated as ‘grace notes’ preceeding a ‘principal note’.

Two questions immediately arise; how quickly to play them, and whether the accent and stress should lie at the start of the sequence, with the principal note displaced, or whether the ‘grace notes’ should be played before the beat.

Arnold Dolmetsch, in his book The Interpretation of Music of the 17th and 18th centuries, gives copious quotations and discussion from historical treatises, on different kinds of ornamentation. Here is an extract from page 96:
And this from p.98-99:

In his book piobaireachd, Seamus MacNeill explains the piping grace notes:

The time taken in playing gracenotes is not counted when reckoning note values in a bar. They are supposed to take time from the note immediately following.

To my mind and ear, these clusters of notes have a consonantal, rhetorical function, creating a crunch of dissonance on the beat or pulse which resolves a moment later into the sustaining melody note. Playing these auxiliary notes before the beat completely removes this dissonant, consonantal sound, and replaces it with an effectively un-ornamented music filled with dance-like upbeats.

James Macpherson’s “Ossian” set to music

This is one of 9 extracts from James MacPherson’s romantic fantasy confection, set to music and published in the late 18th century in London by James Oswald. The texts are generally agreed to be completely new creations, loosely based on material taken from the old Gaelic Fenian lays. I was wondering if the tunes have any connection with the old lay tunes but I don’t think so. It is not yet clear to me where these tunes do come from though, and what their nearest musical comparisons are.


T:Number 1
N:The following Airs have been handed down since the Time of OSSIAN. The Musick taken from Mr. Mc.Pherson’s singing by Mr. Oswald.
Z:transcribed by Simon Chadwick from James Oswald, The Pocket Companion for the Guittar (Wighton 32001)
c A|G2 z A c d|(d2e2) (ag)|e2 d c d e| g4 (c’b)|
w:It is Night, I am a-lo-ne fo-r-lorn on the hill of storms, – the
a4g2|e3d (cd)|e2a2zg|c’4b2|(ag) e2 (d>c)|
w:wind is heard in the – moun-tain, The Torr-ent shre-ks down – the
c4g2|(g2a2)b2|c’3b a g|(g2a2) g2|e2d2e2|
w:Rock, no Hut – re-cieves me from the rain, – for-lorn on the
{ga}b4 ag|g4 ga|_b4d’ c’|a4 c’/2a/2g|e4z2|
w:Hill of – Winds; rise – Moon, from be-hind thy – – clouds
d2c2d2|(e2c’a) (ge)|(e2d) c c d|({d}e2)z2g a|
w:stars of the Night – – ap- – pear – Lend me some light, to the
_b3 b a g|g2a2c’ a|c’a c’a (ge)|(e2d2)c2|
w:place where my love rests – from the toil – of – the – chace, – his
c4z2|d2c2(de)|({e}g4) ab|c’b c’b ag| e2 a2zg|
w:Bow near him un- – strung – his dogs – pan- – ting a-round him, but
g2g g a b|c’4a g|e2e d c e|d4c2|
w:here I must sit a-lone by the Rock of the mos-sy Stream, the
c2 c c (d>e)|g4 a2|(_b2a2)g>a|c’4 a>g|e3d (e/2d/2c)|[c4G4E4]:|
w:stream & the – wind roar nor can – I – hear – the Voice of – my – Love.

Do things to this ABC notation using the Convert-O-Matic

Early Gaelic Harp Emporium – June update

New this month, the Emporium is pleased to be carrying an unusual title, a book that was published in 1992 — I have got hold of some of the last copies left. Linda Gowan’s technical study Am Bròn Binn documents the survival of a medieval ballad into the 20th century living tradition.

There are a number of Gaelic ballads which survived late enough to be recorded by collectors. Few have been published or studied though, which makes this book all the more valuable. Click here to see some videos of recent performances of the ballad ‘Am bròn binn’ by the tradition bearers.

If you are interested to find out more about this kind of music, I would recommend Breandán Ó Madagáin’s book Caointe agus Seanceolta Eile which includes an audio CD of him singing the various kinds of old Irish music.

These traditions were of course common to Ireland and Scotland, but they seem to have mostly died out earlier in Ireland.

Other items new for June are two rare and hard to find items. I have perhaps the last new, shrink-wrapped copies ever of Bill Taylor’s long-out-of-print CD Two Worlds of Welsh harp Music. Very limited numbers.

Also I have Seamus MacNeill’s useful book Piobaireachd, a great overview of the Scottish Highland piping traditions.