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:
Today I presented my concert in St Andrews, “the Memoirs of Arthur Ó Neill”.
I read excerpts from his autobiography, and played the tunes referred to in the anecdotes.
Here is my video of the complete, half-hour performance:
Edward Bunting‘s first field notebook, which he used to take down live transcriptions from the old harpers in 1792 and later, is kept at Queens University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4/29.
Usually known as ms29, it is a small oblong notebook stuffed full of sketchy drafts and scribbled transcriptions from the playing of the last tradition bearers.
On page 1 of the book is a two-staff arrangement of “The Banks of Claudy”.
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.
I first got hold of one of the HHSI Student Otway harps back in 2007, as part of the very first batch of two, made by David Kortier for the Historical Harp Society of Ireland. I believe there may only have been three made in total – one is in the north of Ireland, one was sold to a private buyer, and I currently have at my house one that was made in 2009.
As I have been practicing the Fairy Queen for tomorrow’s concert, and I have the Downhill harp here this week, I thought I would do a quick Youtube of it as a record of where I am at the moment.
Last night we went to Dundee, as I was performing my concert on board the Unicorn. We travelled in early just so we could have an hour or so wandering around the centre of town to see if anything was happening.
In city square there were perhaps a thousand people with flags and music, very peaceful and friendly, lots of family groups. They organised a procession around the block, so we followed on at the end.
We left the gathering and headed down to the docks. The Unicorn is a really beautiful ship, genuinely old and not over-manicured like many historical things. On board, the captains cabin had been cleared and was set with chairs; the wine was laid out on a table ouside the cabin entrance, on the main deck. The ceilings on board are very low!
As it got dimmer, people started arriving. There was not a huge turnout, but the low ceilings and the homely atmosphere of the ship seemed to draw people out; everyone was talking to each other in unexpected intimacy.
For the first half of the concert, I played a selection of 18th century music, from the pibroch Maol Donn to the breezy baroque Blossom of the Raspberry. My fiddle tune went OK and was well received – especially with the story about it.
In the interval everyone went into the main deck for wine and conversation. This went on for quite a long time!
Then for the second half I played the Lament for the Union set. People were interested and sympathetic to the sentiments – it felt like a historic moment, thinking about the beginning of the Union in 1707, on the eve of the historic referendum to undo it. Especially with the evening glow from the docks through the windows…
Walking back up through the town late at night to the bus station to catch our ride home, we saw a battle of the billboards. Looks like Yes is winning this one!
Today I performed my Lament for the Union concert in St Andrews. I played the programme of music from my CD-single of the same name, and I used my Downhill harp for the event. The big growly voice of this harp worked very well for this pungent 18th century music, and suited well the airy acoustic of All Saints Church hall.
As well as the candles lit, we also had a big vase full of red and purple roses. At the end audience members each took a rose away “to remember the Union”.
Two years ago to the week, I had my HHSI Student Downhill harp here in preparation for using it for a concert – my Carolan, Connellan and Lyons programme which I played outside in the Botanic Garden. While the harp was here I carved the lettering on the forepillar, and gilded the carved letters.
This week the harp is again at my house, as I am going to use it for my Lament for the Union concert next week. And so how could I resist continuing my very protracted programme of decorating the instrument?
As well as some subtle painted highlights, today I carved the lettering for the poem on the soundbox. I traced my photograph of Cormick O’Kelly’s original 18th century poem, but I changed the lettering to be relevant to me and to this particular instrument. I like the idea of changing the poem – like how a modern harpsichord maker puts a replica Ruckers or Blanchard rose in the soundboard of their replica harpsichord, but replaces the old master’s initials with their own.
I was originally planning to gild this lettering but now that it is finished, because the letters are significantly smaller than the gilded forepillar ones, and because there are so many more of them, I decided I liked them natural wood. The poem is quite hard to read with all the ligatures and the crowded capital letters with few word spaces. I think it gives a subtle lift to the whole instrument.
I love it when ancient things have inscriptions on them, it is a kind of literature, and it is also a kind of direct communiaction between the thing and ourselves, more direct than we usually get with archaeological objects where the comminication has to be inferred or reconstructed. I am very pleased to have captured a little of that atmosphere and ambience on my harp now, even though it is not actually an ancient harp or even an ancient text – nonetheless it is like the harp is speaking directly to us.
I was also struck by the final 2 words of the poem: “call me”, like the monster in The Forest.