Category Archives: research

a common chord

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

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“…the fleshy part of the finger alone”

Today I was working on tunes collected by Edward Bunting from the 18th century Irish harper, Arthur Ó Néill, for my concert in St Andrews on 3rd August.

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.

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the first clarsach

On page 87 of their book Telenn: la harpe Bretonne, (Éditions Le Télégramme 2004), Alan Stivell and Jean-Noël Verdier write 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).

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Restoration of the Brian Boru harp

On Thursday I was at the National Museum of Scotland store in Granton, a suburb north of Edinburgh. I went there with Karen Loomis, to look at the plaster-cast of the Trinity College harp which is kept in the store. We had a very productive hour, inspecting, measuring and photographing the cast, and discussing aspects of the cast and how it related to the real thing in the Long Room at Trinity College, and to later illustrations and depictions of the harp.

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Trinity College harp neck decoration

I am halfway through preparing a sheet, laying out the decorative scheme of the neck of the Trinity College harp.

I thought of doing this two years ago, when I did my scheme for the pillar, but I never got round to it until now.

I will eventually put both the halves together in one sheet, and publish it on Early Gaelic Harp Info, but for now you can get a sneak preview of the left side.

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Facts, speculation, and making things up

The study of the historical Gaelic harp traditions of Ireland and Scotland is unusual in its scope, materials and foundations. Of course it shares many aspects with other disciplines. As a combination of historical research and performance art, it does not fit easily into mainstream historical or artistic disciplines. In this, it shares a lot with other historically-informed performance (HIP) practice disciplines, such as harpsichord, lute, or baroque violin. However, historical Gaelic harp is different from other HIP areas because of its nature as an oral tradition. Other areas of HIP deal with dead or extinct literate traditions; one can get hold of an 18th century harpsichord instruction manual, and sit at an original or reproduction instrument, and do what the book tells you to. This is not possible for an extinct oral tradition.

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