Tag Archives: organology

strange brass rod

In the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, there is a little wooden box containing three brass or bronze tapered pins. The left and right hand ones are tuning-pins for early Irish harps, but the middle one is a mystery to me. It is labelled and described as a harp tuning pin but this is clearly rubbish – its tapered shaft is hexagonal and its wide end is in the form of a female bust with stubby crossed arms and bare breasts.

I really can’t think what this thing is!

I have looked at it on and off for about 10 years; I kept asking Hèléne La Rue if we could get it out and look at it but we never got round to it. But here’s my recent photo.

Some thoughts on replicas of old instruments

To me the extant surviving instruments are like treasure-houses of detailed specific data about not only the historical instrument design and construction, but also about all other aspects of the historical music-making (because of the presumption that the original instruments were commissioned by discerning musicians).

So I would regard every last detail about the old instruments as having something important to tell us. And as a player investigating the old music traditions, I want a replica harp that is as close as humanly possible to the old museum examples.

Of the two oldest Gaelic harps, the Queen Mary and the Trinity College harp, I would say they are remarkably similar in design and construction, and that similarity points to a shared conservative instrument-making tradition and a shared conservative music-making tradition, covering Ireland and Scotland. Similarities between them I take to be confirmation of that shared tradition; differences between them become specific individual features of that particular instrument. (you can do the same exercise with the later harps but there are more differences then. The Trinity & Queen Mary are by far the most similar pair I would think).

The Queen Mary harp is far easier to consider since a lot more info has been published on it, mainly the study in 1904 by R.B. Armstrong and more recently Karen Loomis’s ongoing study of it which is published in interim in the Galpin Society Journal 2012.  The Trinity College harp is far less well studied or published; the information in Armstrong’s 1904 book is a lot more sketchy and has as I understand it at least one misleading error; and there has not been any further more recent published work than that.

When I commissioned my own harp (which is a copy of the Queen Mary harp) I insisted that my maker simply copy every aspect he could see with as much fidelity as possible, from selection of timber through to decoration and even the idiosyncracies of individual fittings and adjustments. The idea being to end up with a new instrument that was as close as possible to handling the real thing in as many respects as possible. Since then, Karen Loomis’s work producing 3D X-ray models of the instruments and materials analysis, has revealed important structural and decorative information that would have led to some different decisions being made with my copy, but that is part of the learning process, and Karen’s study has directly addressed certain questions which were raised by my commission.

When I worked with David Kortier on the HHSI Student Trinity Harps, this was a somewhat different project. The initial aim here was simply to obtain a set of affordable harps for use in summer school classes. We were not satisfied with any commercially available models so we approached Kortier to discuss options and he ended up making a custom student model for the Historical Harp Society of Ireland. The main design criteria for this student harp were that it be affordable and quick to make, but that it present a student in class with the string count, string spacing, ‘feel’, and overall ergonomics of the original harp. So you see there was no attempt made to reproduce the subtleties of construction or decoration; but from the beginning the exact geometry and ergonomics of the strings were the most important thing. This was so that a class student given one of these harps would instantly be learning the finger movements and playing techniques exactly as on a proper replica (i.e. exactly as on the real thing!), even if the nuances of sound and response were not as accurate as could be obtained by a proper replica.

We based the first HHSI Student Harp on the Trinity College harp because it is the Irish national symbol and this seemed appropriate. Kortier had visited Trinity College and inspected and measured the original some time before, so he was able to use a lot more than just the published data; even so there were a number of details that had to be guessed or interpolated simply because the data about the original is not available. I mean the data is there, it exists, but it is locked away inside the fabric of the instrument itself and would need a long term detailed programme of scientific analysis like is happening in Edinburgh, to discover it.

So in summary, reconstructing an instrument from the surviving old instruments really needs a partnership between high-tech scientific analysis of the original, and a highly skilled sensitive craftsman-artist. In practice, you have to compromise and make do with what you can get – most of the compromise to date being on the analysis side I have to say. I hope that the recently published ongoing work in Edinburgh will soon feed into the work of the artist-craftsmen and we start to see really high quality accurate replicas that take on board and accurately reproduce these important new discoveries about the detailed features of the old harps.

Every level of data is vital – from the large scale measurements of height, width, string count and string lengths etc, down to tiny details of alignment and adjustment and profiling, all combine to give a very particular playing experience of the musician with important implications for what is and is not idiomatic for that particular instrument – and as our mission is to rediscover the lost old historical idiom, it seems to me that the idiom of each specific historical instrument (or rather, the imperfectly recreated idiom of each attempted reconstruction) is a vital tool for this. And that means that each reconstruction has to be as close as humanly possible to the specific museum original to have any value in that process.

New harp makers

I’m always interested to encourage instrument makers who are looking to start building good copies of the medieval Gaelic harps, and recently I have heard from two established instrument makers who are branching out into early Gaelic harp territory. Both have chosen the Queen Mary harp as their model – a good choice given the amount of information published about it, especially since Karen Loomis has started publishing her researches now (see Galpin Society Journal, 2012)

Michael King is an instrument maker in England, specialising in lyres, kanteles and related instruments (I have one of his lyres). For him the Gaelic harp is a step up in size and complexity but the completed instrument looks very handsome I think:

More info from his website.

Pedro Ferreira is a Portugese instrument maker who produces exquisite clavichords and other baroque instruments. His Gaelic harp is also based on the Queen Mary harp; this is a slightlier simpler prototype I think. I am very excited to see a luthier with this amount of experience on sophisticated historical instruments turn their attention to our harps.

You can get more from his website or from his Facebook page.

As yet I have not seen either of these instruments in person, and I have not had a chance to play them or listen to them. Both of these harps have followed my ‘student’ stringing regime with brass in the treble and mid-range and sterling silver in the bass. I am sure both of them would benefit greatly from having gold strings in the bass instead of silver!

Range and gamut of small harps

Discussing what is a suitable extra-small harp for a child (extra-small for both ergonomics of a child’s size, and also to make it cheaper to purchase), the question of the range of the instrument came up.

I think that the medieval gamut, from bass G up to treble e, is an important factor in thinking about the old music. It makes little sense to me to cut off the bass of the gamut only to add in extra treble strings above this, yet this is what many modern harp makers do.

The gamut (including the doubled sister strings) takes 21 strings (centre chart). If you need less than this, then cutting off the bottom as well as the top makes sense. To play Burns March, one of the key beginner tunes, in the usual position, requires from bass c up to treble a, 14 strings including the sisters. Add two more in the treble to get 16 covering 2 octaves (left hand chart).

I would set up a replica of one of the extant medieval Irish and Scottish harps as shown in the right hand chart. The extant continental medieval harps tend to have 26 strings, i.e. 3 less in the treble.

There’s more technical discussion about historical range and gamut on my other site

Irish lyre

I have recently finished setting up an Irish lyre for a customer. This is my own speculative setup. The design is based on a generic Northern European early medieval lyre like the surviving historical instruments from Sutton Hoo in England or Trossingen in Germany, but I have strung and set it up using stringing principles from the historical and mythical Gaelic sources from Scotland and Ireland. The aim is to produce the type of instrument that you can see on the Clonmacnoise high cross, or the type of thing that might be described as cruit or tiompán in early medieval Irish texts.

Following medieval Irish and Scottish Gaelic practice, the strings are made from metal – in this case silver, latten (copper alloy) and soft iron. The instrument is tuned to a hexachord (g-a-b-c-d-e) and has a bright, open voice. The body of this instrument is an inexpensive import, but it is nonetheless a competent piece of work with a hollowed-out maple soundbox and a solid maple soundboard.

For this particular instrument, my customer asked for a reconstruction copy of the Skye lyre bridge fragment, discovered a few years ago in Uamh an Ard Achaidh (High Pasture Cave) on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. This broken lyre bridge dates from the iron age – one thousand years earlier than the surviving English and Continental lyres, but clearly showing the continuity of the lyre tradition in Northern Europe. I carved this bridge entirely by hand from some lovely local figured maple.

If you are interested in commissioning an early Irish lyre, whether an affordable imported student model like this or a full-specification professional model by a British instrument maker, or if you are interested in having a copy of the Uamh an Ard Achaidh lyre bridge, please get in touch with me and we can discuss the options!


I have long admired the inscription on the front of the Downhill harp: CODEVLIN. I assume C. O’Devlin was the person who originally commissioned the instrument from the maker, Cormac O’Kelly, in 1702.

I think it is a great idea for a harper to have their name or coat of arms displayed proudly on the outside of the forepillar of their harp. Other examples I can think of are the coats of arms and initials of Sir John Fitzedmond Fitzgerald on the Cloyne harp, of Robert FitzGerald on the Kildare harp, and the arms of William Archdeacon on the harp in his portrait. There is also Richard Stavan, I think, named on Charles Byrne’s harp in his portrait. Other old instruments announce their owner’s name alongside their maker’s, such as Rev. Charles Bunworth on the Bunworth harp, and of course the graduates of the 19th century harp society schools had their name written on their presentation instruments, either on a brass plate or in gilt lettering like on Paul Smith’s, now in Collins Barracks.

But the Downhill harp is perhaps the boldest, with the name inscribed in big display capitals, slightly wobbly but in very classical style, right on the front where it is most visible.

I have also long been thinking about how plain my Student Downhill harp looks, when I use it occasionally for concerts or events. David Kortier has a very clean aesthetic, and his choice of timbers for their visual and acoustic beauty is excellent, but I have more of an antique taste and love decorated and carved things. I have in the past considered painting the whole thing blue or some other such plan, but I can’t bring myself to cover the subtle curl in the timber, which I am sure Kortier selected for me especially.

So I decided instead that a homage to C O’Devlin was the best way forward. I looked at the elegant ligatures on Cormac O’Kelly’s lettering on the side of the Downhill harp, and I secretly regretted that my name does not have an N in it to reverse. I laid out what I thought was a pleasing design. After a careful trial piece in an offcut of the same wood that my harp was made from (thoughtfully provided by Kortier when the harp was new), I carved the lettering into the forepillar. After sealing the cut edges with shellac varnish, size was carefully applied, followed by loose gold leaf. This is the first time I have ever tried gilding, or carved lettering, and I am very pleased with the result.

First public outing tomorrow at my garden concert. I am nervously watching the weather forecast…

Gothic harp vs Gaelic harp

At the salon des luthiers in Dinan, I met up with an interesting harpmaker, specialising in medieval European harps, Yves d’Arcizas. His craftsmanship and artistry is very high quality, with a selection of wood and a handling of the tools and finish that look similar to Davy Patton‘s. He had on his modest display a copy of the Wartburg harp – one of the best and earliest of the surviving Continental instruments.

I was fascinated to try playing this instrument, and also to compare it with my replica of the roughly contemporary Queen Mary harp. Though the gothic harp and the Gaelic harp are rather different beasts, there were a lot of subtle and conceptual similarities between these two instruments.

Bronze age horn

The prehistoric theme continues and so too does the instrument making theme. After discussing didgeridoo playing at the Dundee harp class the Saturday before last, I read up again on the prehistoric Irish horns and trumpets. While a bronze casting is a bit beyond me at present, either technically to make one or financially to purchase, I thought I could manage to make one out of horn. The result is rather fine-looking. I followed the visual cues of the bronze side-blown horns and made the “knop” at the small end. There is subtle incised decoration on the knop; I had considered lines and zigzags round the mouth but I am not sure yet.

Now I only have to learn the circular breathing style of playing, necessary to get the most out of it…

These horns seem characteristic of the bronze age in Ireland. I think it is just plausible to think of a late bronze age horn and an early iron age lyre going together.