Tag Archives: Queen Mary harp

Playing position of medieval Gaelic harp

When I was in the National Museum of Scotland earlier this month, I was looking at the Queen Mary harp, and I noticed the wear on the lower back left corner of the soundbox. The corner of the box is quite worn away, and there is a wooden patch nailed on to the back of the box at this point, an old repair.

The wear on this corner was mentioned and drawn by R.B. Armstrong in his book The Irish and the Highland harps (David Douglas, 1904), though he talks mostly about sliding the harp along the floor when it was put down, Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird in their book Tree of Strings (Kinmor 1999), p.57 repeat Armstrong’s observations. Karen Loomis in her MMus dissertation (University of Edinburgh, 2010), p.49, includes a photo and a mention of this wear, but she is mostly concerned with the cracks from the repair patch nails.

I realised that the shape of this worn area is not just caused by general sliding of the harp, but instead it forms a flat surface which seems to me to be where the harp was stood on this corner when it was being played. You can see in my photo how the flat worn patch lines up with the projecting block of the bottom of the soundbox:

A long time ago I realised that if you sit on the floor to play a replica of the Queen Mary harp, then the harp naturally tips to rest on its projecting block and also this corner of the soundbox.

The angle of the flat panel therefore gives us a quite precise evidence for the angle that the harp was held at.

I propped my replica up on a hard surface, and adjusted the angle until my photo of my replica matched my photo of the original in the Museum:

And then, without moving the harp at all, I photographed the orientation of the harp, from floor level, at right angles to the plane of the strings, and also in line with it:

I think this gives a fair estimation of how the Queen Mary harp was positioned when it was being played.

Obviously there is some margin for error; the bottom of the projecting block would wear away and the corner of the box would wear away, so the angle in the front view would change over time. Also the flat worn surface is not entirely flat, but curves up towards the replacement piece. My positioning of the harp matches the most upright position. I would estimate that there could be 5 degrees either way since I was just doing this all by eye. The curving probably represents the harp being slid down to rest on its back as Armstrong suggests.

You’ll see that the strings are pretty much upright in the side-view photo.

The harp rests back quite a way behind its balance point. My replica won’t balance on that line between the box corner and the projecting block – if you tip it far forward enough to balance, it falls over sideways.

I looked again at Paul Mullarkey’s photos of the Trinity College harp. The soundbox is much more eaten away than the Queen Mary’s, especially at the bottom. However, the back bottom right corner of both the soundbox and the back panel are preserved, whereas the back bottom left corner is completely gone and is replaced now with extensive resin filler.

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!

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.

Medieval art & the Queen Mary harp

I have been thinking for some years about the decoration on the Queen Mary harp, ever since medieval academics at the 2008 Leeds International Medieval Congress suggested that while the pillar is clearly 15th century West Highland, the box and neck look earlier.

Today I was down at the cathedral here in St Andrews and I took some photos of 12th century designs on the Cathedral stonework, to compare with the designs on the harp.

Left & right: replica Queen Mary harp soundbox designs; Centre: Outside of chancel end wall at St Andrews cathedral. (I understand this is a consecration cross. There is another, damaged, on the end wall of the south transept).

Above: arcade inside the South transept at St Andrews cathedral. Below: replica Queen Mary harp neck design.

Harp music in the National Museum of Scotland

I am playing two special events in the gallery beside the Queen Mary harp in the National Museum of Scotland, Chambers St. Edinburgh, as part of the 26 Treasures series. The Queen Mary harp is treasure no. 8, and Sara Sheridan is the writer who has been assigned this treasure.

On Saturday 3rd December 2011, I am playing at the launch event, in the gallery beside the Queen Mary harp, four 20 minute performances at 12.30, 1.30, 2.30 & 3.30pm.

And on Wednesday 14th December 2011, at 10.30am, I am working with Sara Sheridan to present a childrens’ storytelling event about the Queen Mary harp.