Category Archives: recordings

The Lark in the Morning

Last week and this week and next week the theme for my Saturday afternoon harp class in Dundee is Christmas music. Early this morning I suddenly decided that the wren song tradition would be a fun thing to do today – I have worked on Bunting’s 1809 setting of the Wren song before with a student, so I knew it was a great tune to give the class. But I also wanted to work on the traditions behind the wren hunt and so I had a quick look round to remind myself.

Fintan Vallely’s Companion to Irish Traditional Music has a nice little article on the wren, with a lovely photo of wren boys in Dingle – I would guess the photo was pre-WW2, one of the boys has a fife and two have bodhrans (which gave me a chance to talk about that!). The article also included one verse of the wren song, which fits Bunting’s tune pretty well.

I checked in Donal O’Sullivan’s notes on the Bunting tunes, and he does go into a lot of detail on the wren hunt but I did not spend too much time following up his references this morning.

Looking online I got a couple of excellent references. I got the pointer of the cutty wren song in Herd’s Scots Songs of 1776 – google books provided me with facsimile pages and all of a sudden I remembered that I knew this song from 20 years back, so I walked round the house trying to remember how it went. Every so often a whole new section of the question and answer would pop back into my head. In the class I managed to sing it and some of them even joined in with the answer sections – great fun, and not often that I sing an old song dragged up out of the back of my mind like that.

But the most fun was seeing a reference to Liam Clancy’s 1953 recording of the wren song on the LP, The Lark in the Morning. I have a copy of this LP which I had for some reason never got round to playing much so I had the fun of finding the record, setting up the equipment and listening to his lively version of the wren. This is another song I know from way back (I have it on an old cassette tape of traditional British and Irish midwinter songs), and I was amused to hear him mentioning the town where he lived and also his mother by name in the song.

Of course this evening as the gear was out and the record propped up against the bookcase I sat down on the floor and listened to both sides. What a beautiful and moving set of performances. At times I laughed out loud, and at other times there was a tear in my eye.

Eskimo violin recording

I got hold of a recording of Tautirut (“eskimo violin”) playing. Not the recording from the 1950s I was after, but a 50 second track recorded in the early 1970s in Ungava Bay in the far north of Quebec. The player is an Inuit musician, Sarah Airo, and she also plays a bit on Jew’s harp, a fragment of a tune that reminds me very much of a Norwegian hardanger fiddle tune I have heard.

But it was the bowed strings I was really wanting to hear. Sarah’s instrument has a startlingly hoarse low-pitched sound. It sounds to me like she has three strings tuned c#, a, c#’. She is play a very formulaic melody, mostly alternating rythmically between c#’
and f#’. She is using some fast finger ornaments and some fast bowing ornaments to lift the repetitive two-note melodic figure. In the second section she also seems to be playing a passing note (c natural or I suppose b#’ it should be. I fancy she might be fingering this note on the second string but it is hard to say.

Sarah does not really bow the strings together as a continuous drone, but she is definitely using the lower strings as strong steady drone notes. I have a feeling that some of the Karelian jouhikko players use this alternation between the fragments of melody and the drone, as an alternative to the more common technique of playing the melody continuously with the drone(s) also sounding continuously. Sarah’s drones are interesting being a sixth apart; my ear is hearing the high melodic f# as a kind of modal centre, giving the melody a minor sonority.

The recording is track 21b on the 1986 LP, Inuit Games and Songs, UNESCO Collection / GREM LP G1036

Now I am even more interested to get the 1950s recording for comparison!

Mabel Dolmetsch recordings

I have digitised the first of the three sides I have of these old Dolmetsch transcription discs. I chose the “test” side to do first as I assumed it would be the least interesting.

Actually it turned out to be really fascinating. There are 5 tracks. The first starts with the voice of Arnold Dolmetsch himself, announcing his performance of Lord Salisbury’s Pavan on the Clavichord. At the end he laughs and says “hopeless!”

Then we have three tracks of Mabel playing the early Irish harp. Two of them are fragments of An Seann Triucha (the Old Trugh) – from Bunting’s Ancient Music of Ireland, 1809, p.6.

I do not recognise the third track. I wonder if it is some Welsh music from Robert ap Huw.

You can listen to these tracks here:
http://www.earlygaelicharp.info/Dolmetsch/

The oldest recordings of early Irish harp music?

I have acquired two discs which I think might be the oldest recordings of early Irish harp music, recorded in April 1937. I have not yet played them to hear what is on them – I am still trying to source a suitable stylus for my turntable.

They are one-off lacquer gramophone records, also known as transcription discs – the 1930s equivalent of a cassette tape, for direct recording as a one-off copy. These are not reproductions or duplicate pressings so are almost certainly the only copies that exist of these takes.

Here’s the handwritten label of one of the discs, a double-sided 10-inch disc:

 Victorious Tree
Lullaby
Take 3.   N.D.G
(The other side of this disc says “Tests – A.D. on outer ring – II.IV.37”)

And here is the second record, a 12 inch single-sided disc:

D II Take I
Irish Harp Music.
Mrs. Dolmetsch.
The Victorious Tree.
Lullaby.
 These records came from a collection of Dolmetsch discs, tapes and papers. Some of the other discs indicated that they were recorded by L. Ward.
Arnold Dolmetsch made a number of harps, both small gut strung instruments as well as the early Irish harps modelled on the Queen Mary harp and Trinity College harp, and fitted with metal wire strings. Mabel used them mainly for exploring the medieval Welsh repertory preserved in the Robert ap Huw manuscript, and in 1937 they released a set of gramophone records with an accompanying book of sheet music “translated” from the manuscript. Mabel played this Welsh music on the wire-strung Irish harp, and her performances and Arnold’s editions proved very influential; Alan Stivell included performances of these versions on his LP “Renaissance of the Celtic Harp”.
However I did not know until now that Mabel had also experimented with Irish repertory. “An Bile Buadhach” (The Victorious Great Tree) comes from Edward Bunting’s 1809 collection; it was collected by Bunting from an unnamed informant “at Lord Clanbrassil’s” house, Tollymore Park, co. Down, “in 1793”.
When I get the correct stylus for my turntable I will play these discs once, digitise them and present them here for you! I am not going to put them on the gramophone machine – I understand that these transcription discs are extremely fragile and wear out very quickly from only a few plays.
Here’s what Mabel had to say about her own playing of the early Irish harp music:
…the small, metal-strung variety [of harp], favoured in Ireland, and the Highlands of Scotland, under the name of Clarsach. I never ceased to thank him [Arnold Dolmetsch] for producing these most fascinating of instruments, whose suavely tuneful music rejoices the heart and charms the senses. One day when I was recreating myself with one of these little instruments, a neighbour who had asked if she might use our telephone, came running into the music room, exclaiming: ‘Oh, what are those lovely sounds? That is the kind of music I want to hear when I am dying!’

 From Mabel Dolmetsch, Personal Recollections of Arnold Dolmetsch, RKP, 1957, p148

Tarbh

My new CD released today features five solo harp tracks of late 17th or early 18th century music attributed to a great local hero of the West of Scotland – Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig. These grand formal tunes come from the pibroch tradition of the pipes, and also from early fiddle and vocal sources, and I have turned them into dreamy, beautiful clarsach meditations. Each tune has a very different atmosphere, and the CD booklet includes five full-page illustrations made by Ealasaid Gilfillan especially for this project. These unique and intense montage images really give you a sense of the meaning of each tune.

For more info, please visit www.earlygaelicharp.info/tarbh

As a companion to the CD I have also made a set of web pages all about Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig – Ronald MacDonald of Morar, said to have lived 1662-1741. The pages include all the references I used as sources for the CD and also include links to a number of fascinating songs and stories on archive audio recordings at Tobar an Dualchais – the online portal for the tape recordings preserved in the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.
www.earlygaelicharp.info/ranald