I went to Glasgow to hear Helene Witcher talking about her book at the Aye Write literary festival. The book is a biography of Helene’s aunt, the Scottish harpist Heloise Russell-Fergusson.
I have been discussing stringing possibilities of a harp made by a French harp maker, supposedly as a copy of one of the old Gaelic harps. Analysing its string lengths I noted that its scaling was suspiciously slow.
(Scaling is the technical word used to describe the ratio of string lengths across the range of a harp or other stringed instrument; a slow scaling means the strings increase in length more gradually as you move from treble to bass.)
Then I remembered that I had come across this slow, even scaling before, on harps modelled after the “Bardic harp” of Gildas Jaffrennou.
I had an idea that the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) and Early Music movement is kind of like breeding endangered species in captivity, or even using genetic engineering to recreate extinct species of animals. In this sense, listening to a historically informed performance using scholarly reconstruction of historical repertory, style and playing techniques on replica instruments, is a bit like going to a zoo, to see the exotic animals on display.
I first became aware of Edith Taylor many years ago, from reading Frances Collinson’s book The traditional and national music of Scotland. After describing briefly the wire-strung clarsachs made by Arnold Dolmetsch, he writes:
Miss Edith Taylor, the first Honorary Secretary of Comunn na Clàrsaich, has one of these on which she once played for the writer at a B.B.C. ‘Country Magazine’ programme from Lochaline, Morvern.
On Thursday morning I have to give a lecture on the harp traditions in Scotland, as part of the MU2002 Scottish Music undergraduate course.
It is pretty difficult to summarise all aspects of the harp in Scottish music in just 50 minutes!