Reviewing my version of Carolan’s Concerto which I played at Wednesday’s concert, it struck me that this old setting of mine (which I learned many years ago) was pretty clunky and crude. I was reminded of John Lynch’s 1662 assessment of fingernail playing:
…quæ nunc vel in desuetudinem abiit, vel a rudioribus lyristis frequentatur, contendentibus, editiorem sonitum e chordis ideo elicere, ut eo domus tota personet.
That custom is now, if not obsolete, at least adopted by ruder performers only, in their anxiety to elicit thereby louder notes from the strings, and make the whole house ring with their melody.
Playing with long fingernails really does push you into an older style. The sonority of the nail-struck brass strings invites simpler harmonisation, in parallel octaves, with 5ths as a lush decadence. Whether or not the use of nails also invites more use of coupled-hands-style playing, with the right hand taking more of the stressed melody notes, I don’t know; it can certainly feel awkward playing fast and harmonising in parallel octaves with the hands separate.
Playing the Downhill harp, and trying to discover Denis O’Hampsey’s style and idiom, through studying the manuscript field notations of tunes like Lady of the Desert, Callena Vacca, and Eibhlin a Run, is a fascinating process of discovering what was I am now sure an incredibly old-fashioned style at the time. I am thinking that it is more than a coincidence that the two 18th century Irish harpers who we know used long nails, Denis O’Hampsey and Echlin O’Kane, both have a strong connection to Cornelius Lyons (c. 1670 – c. 1740), harper to the Earl of Antrim. Echlin O’Kane was a student of Lyons, while Denis O’Hampsey is our main source for a number of Lyons’s compositions (including the three mentioned above).
I don’t know who Lyons’s teacher was, but I would think that this school of playing would have been amongst those that Lynch was referring to as “ruder performers”, around 8 years before Lyons was born. It is interesting that Lyons’s music is so progressive and Italianate and baroque (and that he may have been able to read and write music), yet his playing style remained so “rude”. I think we can see a hint of that “rudeness” in his non-harmonic basses, with octave magadising and other non-baroque features.
I think there is a lot of promise in the idea in trying to set up genealogies of influence and tuition, to see if we can identify the different schools of early Irish harp playing in the 17th and 18th centuries. Then perhaps we could have a clearer understanding of how the attested performance styles of certain individuals (O’Hampsey, Ó Néill, Mooney, Quin) relate to each other or differ. I would suppose that the Lyons – O’Kane – O’Hampsey school would be most different from the others because of its retention of fingernail playing.
So, back to Arthur Ó Néill, and Carolan’s Concerto. Bunting notes in his annotated copy of his 1796 print that this setting came from Ó Néill, and so I am looking again at the piano score. Shockingly, now that I am playing with fingertips and thinking of the Banks of Claudy and Patrick Byrne’s chords, I am thinking that a lot of the piano harmony is very plausible on early Irish harp and may well have come direct from Ó Néill.