For my 10-minute set in next Friday’s 1817 bicentenary concert, I have been thinking about what tunes to play, and how to approach them.
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 was reading the descriptions of people’s appearance in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (The destruction of Daderga’s hostel), an early medieval Irish story from the Ulster Cycle, when I was interested to note these quite vivid descriptions of people at the court of the Irish High King, Conaire Mór mac Eterscél, who is said to have reigned in the first century BC or AD.
I was browsing idly through a first edition of Grattan Flood’s The Story of the Harp in the Wighton Centre in Dundee the other week, when I came across the description of the Trinity College or Brian Boru harp on pages 41-42. An 18th century letter is quoted, giving some description of the harp:
It says “When given to Counsellor MacNamara, it had silver strings…”
The letter is said to have been written by Ralph Ouseley, who owned the harp in the early 1780s. Macnamara acquired the harp in about 1756. If this is true then it is an exciting and important piece of information both about the Trinity College harp itself, and also about the use of precious metal strings on the old Gaelic harps.
Now Grattan Flood is a notoriously unreliable author, and many of his statements can be proved false by laboriously tracking down the source documents to see what he says. Often he gives no citation or only a vage reference to “an old manuscript”. This section is given a citation though: “Bibl. Egerton, Brit. Mus., No. 74, p.351”
I contacted the British Library, and put in a request for a copy of this manuscript page. After some confusion and digging on the part of the librarians, (and a rather eye-watering fee on my credit card for their troubles) I was sent a high-res page scan of British Library, ms Egerton 74 f184. This page contains a transcription made by J. Hardiman in 1820, of the Ouseley letter, and Grattan Flood is vindicated – it really does say that the harp had silver strings on it. I was delighted that my expensive gamble in ordering the manuscript page had paid off – worth its weight in silver you could say!
So I wonder, what is the story here? Was the harp strung entirely with silver? Or did it only have a certain section of the strings left? I have seen a photo of an 18th century Irish harp (one of the Malahide / Kearney ones) which had all of its steel trebles on but none of its brass basses; brass being more valuable to remove and recycle I suppose. When were these silver strings installed on the Trinity College harp? There is no suggestion that the harp was played in the early 18th century; Arthur O’Neill in about 1760 implies that the instrument was not played for 200 years before then. Were these silver strings the remains of a 16th century setup?
The genuineness and authority of this statement from an 18th century owner of the harp makes me want to start experimenting again. How does it work to fit silver strings to the entire range? Can it be taken up to the high treble? What alloys work best for this? Ann Heymann tells me she has had a low-headed medieval Irish harp strung entirely in silver, but more experiments are needed!
[Fraoch] went southwards to his mother’s sister, that is to Boand, in the plain of Bregia; and she gave him fifty black-blue cloaks, whose colour was like the backs of cockchafers, each cloak had four blue ears [or lappets]; and a brooch of red gold to each cloak. She gave him besides fifty splendid white shirts with fastenings of gold; and fifty shields of silver with borders of gold. She gave him a great hard spear, flaming like the candle of a royal house, to place in the hand of each man of his party, and fifty rings of burnished gold upon each spear, all of them set off with carbuncles, and their handles studded with precious stones. They would light up the plain the same as the glittering light of the sun. And she gave him fifty gold-hilted swords, and fifty soft-gray steeds, on which his men sat; all with bridle-bits of gold, with a crescent of gold and bells of silver on the neck of each steed of them. And they had fifty crimson saddles, with pendants of silver thread, and with buckles of gold and silver, and with wonderful fastenings upon them (the steeds); and their riders had fifty horse-switches of Findruine, with a crook of gold upon the head of each horse-switch, in their hands; and they had besides, seven grayhounds in chains of silver, and a ball of gold upon (the chain) between each pair of them. They wore shoes of red bronze (Cred-Uma); and there was no colour which approached them that they did not reflect it. They had seven trumpeters among them, with trumpets of gold and silver, wearing many coloured raiments. Their hair was light golden; and they had splendid white shirts upon them. There were three buffoons preceding the party with silver-gilt coronets upon their heads, and each carried a shield with emblematic carvings upon it; and crested heads, and ribs of red bronze in the centres of these shields; and there were three harpers (cruitire), each with the appearance of a king, both as to his dress, and his arms, and his steed….
[While they were at Cruachan, Ailill asked Fraoch if the harpers would play after dinner.] This was the condition of these [harps]. There were harp-bags (crotbuilcc) of the skins of otters about them, ornamented with coral, (Partaing) with an ornamentation of gold and of silver over that, lined inside with snow-white roebuck skins; and these again overlaid with black-gray strips [of skin]; and linen cloths, as white as the swan’s coat, wrapped around the strings. Harps (Crota) of gold, and silver, and Findruine, with figures of serpents, and birds, and grayhounds upon them. These figures were made of gold and of silver. Accordingly as the strings vibrated [these figures] ran around the men. They [the harpers] played for them then, until twelve men of Ailill’s and Medb’s household died of crying and emotion.
(taken from Eugene O’Curry’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, vol. 3, pps. 219-222)
At the harp class in Dundee yesterday we looked at the old song, the Flowers of the Forest.
The main focus of the class was playing the oldest setting, from the Skene mandore manuscript.
But we also looked at some later versions including the one in the Scots Musical Museum, and we sang through the version written by Jean Elliot, using Ritson’s 1794 print:
You can get Ritson’s book here on Google Books.
Here’s a mp3 of me singing it through:
Here’s a PDF of the Skene manuscript version with transcription:
Here’s a Youtube of it on the harp:
Today at the Harp Class in Dundee, as it is St Patrick’s day, we looked at a medieval hymn to St Patrick from Trinity College Dublin ms.80.
Ecce fulget clarissima
Behold, flashes brightly
in qua carne deposita
whereby the body he has abandoned,
felix transcendit sidera.
happily he passes through the stars.
In my Dundee class, we have been working on the Magnificat antiphon, Salve Splendor, from the 14th century Inchcolm Antiphoner, a manuscript of chant from the island of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth.
Here are some recordings I have put together illustrating different approaches to this lovely little song.
First off, singing it straight off the manuscript page. Click here for the facsimile at Edinburgh University Library
And here are the words:
Salve splendor et pa-
Hail, glorious one and protector
-trone, iubar que iusticie. Orthodoxe doctor bone pastor et vas gratie. O Columba Columbine,
light of justice,correct teacher & good, shepherd and vessel of grace. O Columba, dove-like,
felicis memorie tue fac nos sine fine, coheredes glorie.
happy memories of you, give us without end, co-heir of glory.
And here is the recording:
Next, playing the song version though on the harp:
And finally, jazzing it up with some twiddles and drones: