People have talked for a long time about left and right orientation. Sometimes the question is, why did the old harpers play with their left hand in the treble and their right hand in the bass? And sometimes the question is, what should we do now?
It is a common trope in the world of historical Gaelic harp studies that the tradition was “broken” in the 19th century, that the revivers of the harp of Ireland and Scotland had no contact with the last of the old tradition-bearers. But yesterday, Sylvia asked me if I was sure that this was true, and so I started to wonder.
Looking through the books from the Jimmy Shand Collection in Dundee library for a tune to play on Saturday week at the free community concert in Dundee, I noticed “Carlione a Favourite Irish Tune” in Neil Gow’s third collection (1792). It is Dr John Stafford, or Carolan’s Receipt (no. 161 in Donal O’Sullivan’s index).
Whether or not I’lI get it up and running to play in two weeks time, it got me thinking about tunes titled with strange variants of Carolan’s name.
I’m working on the 3rd edition of my book Progressive Lessons. I decided to be more focussed and concentrate only on the three beginners’ tunes from the testimony of Patrick Quin and Denis O’Hampsey. Looking again at the manuscript sources, I am seeing a lot of things that I had not paid attention to before, and which are worryingly different from the way I have been playing and teaching these tunes up to now.
A few different things I have been reading recently have come together in some vague and half-baked ideas on performance issues.
Speaking on 10th July, 1849, the Irish harper Patrick Byrne explained to the antiquarian John Bell, the system for tuning the early Irish harp. After starting at na comhluighe, and using a cycle of 5ths to set the middle octave of the harp, he says
Then you sound the G on the violin & B & D, and the octave above which is G which makes a common chord
I’ve been playing almost every day now for a week and a half, using the tips of my fingers, with my nails trimmed short. Here are a few preliminary observations.
As I played through some of his settings of Carolan and other baroque Irish harp music, using a copy of an 18th century Irish harp, I started thinking about the whole issue of playing the harp with long fingernails.
On page 87 of his book Telenn: la harpe Bretonne, (Éditions Le Télégramme 2004), Alan Stivell writes about Heloise Russell-Fergusson:
depuis l’été 1932, elle possédait la première copie de clarsach fabriquée par le musicologue suisse Arnold Dolmetsch, installé à Haslemere en Grande-Bretagne: modèle en cerisier monté de 27 cordes en métal. La harpiste, l’instrument et les mélodies vont charmer le public (dont Gildas Jaffrennou), au point de faire une tournée en novembre de cette même année en Bretagne. L’année suivante, elle sera encore présente au Gorsedd de Quimperlé : à cette occasion, Gildas Jaffrennou prendra les mesures de cette clarsach et en réalisera une copie dans son atelier de Carhaix : selon les dires de l’intéressé lui-même, ce premier instrument n’était pas assez satisfaisant, cette première harpe aurait fini au feu ! (Rencontres avec Gildas Jaffrennou en juillet 1993 et 1997).