The Welsh Triple Harp is a national symbol, an icon of patriotic pride in the principality’s rich cultural heritage, associated with legends of the ancient druids and bards, and (from 1742 to the present day) with traditional Welsh music. But how Welsh are its origins?
In London, there seems to have been a burst of harp-related activity in the 1730s. Handel’s 1724 opera Giulio Cesare was revived in 1730 and 1732 with a new version of the harp Sinfonia, featuring higher, faster passage-work. The scene is highly dramatic:
S’apre il Parnasso, e vedesi in trono la Virtù, assistita dalle nove Muse
Cesare: Giulio, che miri? e quando
con abisso di luce
scesero i Numi in terra?
Parnassus opens to reveal Virtue enthroned, attended by the nine Muses.
Caesar: Julius, what do you see? And when
with a downpour of light
did the Gods descend to earth?
Handel’s masque Haman and Mordecai, first performed in 1718 and 1720 (probably at the Duke of Chandos’ house, Cannons), was revived in London in 1731 and reworked in the oratorio Esther in 1732; it too has a fast, high harp solo. The Israelites are first encouraged to “Tune your harps to cheerful strains”, and then to
Praise the Lord with cheerful noise,
Wake my glory, wake my lyre!
Praise the Lord each mortal voice,
Praise the Lord, ye heavenly choir!
Zion now her head shall raise:
Tune your harps to songs of praise.
According to Jeremy Barlow here, the 1732 performance was played by a Welsh harpist.
In 1732 and 1733, William Hogarth was painting the series A Rake’s Progress, which was engraved and widely published in print form a couple of years later, in 1735. The second scene shows the protagonist, Tom Rakewell together with masters of all the fashionable 18th-century arts: a dancing-master, a fencing-master, a quarter-staff instructor, a gardener, a soldier, a huntsman, a jockey and Handel himself at the harpsichord. But in the next image, the location has shifted downmarket to a notorious brothel, the Rose Tavern in Covent Garden. In the shadowy background, a harper is playing; his instrument boasts a spectacular carving, supposedly of King David playing the harp, at the top of the pillar.
[By the way, this is the earliest image of a ‘Welsh Triple Harp’ that I know of. Can anyone suggest an earlier one?]
The earliest surviving instrument of this type is at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. A label inside was ‘recently discovered’ in 1968. From this, we know the harp to be the work of “David Evans Instrument Maker, In Rose Court, near Rose Street, Covent Garden, London 1736”. According to the V&A catalogue entry (1998) for “this unusually splendid triple harp”:
The finial is now missing. The neck is richly carved and gilt. The belly is decorated with gilt scrollwork that is drawn with great freedom and charm… The post is japanned black with gilt chinoiserie subjects, now largely worn away.
Since Evans’ workshop was so close to the Rose Tavern, it’s tempting to speculate that Hogarth’s painting shows an earlier example of his work. And might it even give us a clue to the finial that would originally have adorned the V&A harp?
It has been plausibly suggested that Evans’ ‘unusually splendid’ harp was built for William Powell, appointed harper to the Prince of Wales in 1736. In the same year, Powell played Handel’s Bb Major Concerto for Harp, Lute, Lyrachord and other instruments in the premiere of Alexander’s Feast. The concerto shows the ‘Power of Music’, championed by the character Timotheus, bard to Alexander the Great.
Timotheus placed on high
Amid the tuneful quire
With flying fingers touch’d the lyre:
The trembling notes ascend the sky
And heavenly joys inspire.
Just as the sound of Timotheus’ ‘lyre’ did ‘ascend the sky’, Handel’s writing for harp shows high, fast figuration in the outer movements, and extreme high notes in the slow movement.
Alexander’s Feast was revived in 1739, which year also saw the premiere of Handel’s Saul. In this dramatic and richly orchestrated score, David’s music soothes King Saul’s anger:
Fell rage and black despair possess’d
With horrid sway the monarch’s breast;
When David with celestial fire
Struck the sweet persuasive lyre:
Soft gliding down his ravish’d ears,
The healing sounds dispel his cares;
Despair and rage at once are gone,
And peace and hope resume the throne.
David’s ‘lyre’ is represented by a solo for unaccompanied harp. The music is slow, but once again in the high register.
[John Parry, painted by his son William Parry c1770; harp by John Richards]
Half a century later, Edward Jones’ historical, literary and musical survey of the Relicks of the Welsh Bards (1784) characterises the type of instrument built by Evans and by John Richards (born in 1711, and thought to have studied with Evans) as the triple or modern Welsh harp. Its shape is distinctive: where the instrument rests against the player’s shoulder, it is relatively low (much lower than Italian triple harps of the previous century). This facilitates access to the highest strings, as needed for the virtuoso style of high, fast passage-work. But at the top of the pillar, the neck swoops upwards to the characteristic ‘high head’, providing long strings for a powerful bass. The frame and ribbed back are hardwood, the belly of soft pine or deal.
The strings are arranged in three rows, divided like the black and white keys of a keyboard instrument. The two outside rows have the diatonic (white) notes, duplicated on each side for left and right hands. This duplication allows certain special effects, which became a cliché of Welsh harp variations. In between, the central row has the chromatic (black) notes. The player inserts a finger between two diatonic strings to reach the chromatic string in the central row.
Jones associates medieval literature and historical documents of bardic practices with the late-18th-century triple harp, although he admits that “some of its present appendages were probably the additions of the latter centuries”. An illustration on page 41 of Relicks and the frontispiece of Jones’ second volume, The Bardic Museum (1802), depict just such ‘modern Welsh’ harps, but the 1784 frontispiece shows quite a different instrument, an older form that is much more plausible as truly Welsh, and as a genuine Relick of previous centuries.
[Welsh Triple, 1802]
[Welsh Triple 1784]
[Old Welsh harp, frontispiece to Relicks of the Welsh Bards]
At the end of the seventeenth century, a Cambridge professor, James Talbot, made extensive manuscript notes about various types of musical instruments, including Triple harps and old Welsh harps. He describes a single-row proper Welch harp with a box carved from a single piece of holly, and an oak back. He states that these old Welsh harps have brays or cogs, wooden pins at the belly, that touch the vibrating strings to make a nasal, buzzing sound. Strings fastened at the Belly by Brays instead of round Buttons which give it a jarry sound. Such bray pins were a typical feature of renaissance harps throughout Europe.
Somewhat confusingly, Talbot calls this Welch or Bray Harp the true English harp. But I suggest that we can understand this in a similar sense to harpist John Parry’s calling his 1742 compilation of Welsh airs Antient British music… retained by the Cambro-Britons (more particularly in North Wales). Talbot’s Bray Harp is a genuine relic, an ‘antient British’ harp retained particularly in Wales. Talbot’s nomenclature also serves to distinguish this old Welsh instrument from the wire-strung Irish harp, which he also describes. He also distinguishes between the jarring Welsh Bray Harp with its single-piece holly sound-box and a lute harp without brays, constructed in the newer English form with a ribbed back and soft-wood belly.
Still today, some writers suggest that the old Welsh Bray Harp ‘cross-bred’ with the 17th-century Italian triple harp (which certainly came to London) to produce the 18th-century Welsh triple harp. But there is no trace, no DNA of the old Welsh harp in Jones’ modern triple. No bray pins, no holly sound-box, no oak back, no carved sound-box. Expert opinion therefore accepts that the Triple Harp came to Britain in its Italian form, and was imported into Wales during the eighteenth century, where (thanks in part to Jones’ alluring mix of myth and history) it then became established as the national instrument.
It would indeed be a bitter pill to swallow for anyone with Welsh blood in their veins, if the national instrument were just a foreign import, with no true connection to earlier Welsh culture, let alone to the ancient Britons. But the 18th-century Welsh triple harp does show significant differences from 17th-century Italian harps, in particular its high-head shape and soft-wood belly.
These crucial changes are already in place at the end of the 17th century, and are detailed in Talbot’s descriptions (made with the help of a Mr Lewis) of Triple Harps. Talbot describes the three rows of brass tuning pins, with as many buttons in Belly (the corresponding string pegs at the soundboard). He specifies Air-wood (high-quality maple) for the ribbed back and Cullen cleft (deal) for the sound-board. In one table, he gives precise measurements for both high- and low-headed harps
For high headed Harp
best length of Belly 3 ft 7 inches 4 lignes
Bow with head 6ft 3 inches
Length of Belly low head 3ft 2 inches
Bow with head 5ft 0 inches
This gives ratios of the height of the top of the pillar (bow with head) to the length of the sound-board (Belly) of approximately 1.75 (high-headed) and > 1.5 (low-headed). A higher ratio means that the harp is higher-headed, that the instrument is comparatively lower at the player’s shoulder. A high ratio makes the high notes easier to play.
Note that even Talbot’s ‘low-headed’ harp, is definitely higher ratio than early 17th-century Italian harps. I estimate the ratio for the harp depicted by Zampieri as approximately 1.25. And the harp shown by Jones in 1802 is very high-headed indeed, with a ratio close to 2.
[Domenico “Domenichino” Zampieri: King David playing the harp]
~ 1.25 Italian early 17th (Zampieri)
>1.5 English circa 1700 ‘low headed’ (Talbot’)
~1.75 English circa 1700 ‘high-headed’ (Talbot)
~1.9 Welsh 1802 ‘modern triple’ (Jones)
On the authority of Lewis, Talbot states that what he calls the English Triple Harp is seldom used in Consort, though capable of Thorough Bass; and (in another paragraph) that the Triple Harp is seldom used in Consort but generally alone. This is consistent with the change of shape: the earlier Italian triple is optimised for continuo-playing, whereas Talbot’s English Triple is lower at the shoulder, making it more suitable for solos with soprano-register melodies. As the repertoire tends more and more towards high, fast passage-work, even higher-headed shapes become more and more preferable.
Does all this spell disaster for the Welsh patriot? Was the instrument imported into Wales during the 18th century an English Triple Harp?
As we have already seen, it is difficult to disentangle English and Welch in Talbot’s manuscript notes. For him, the genuinely ancient proper Welch bray harp is also the true English harp. But he clearly distinguishes the old, single-strung holly and oak Welch instrument from the single-strung English or lute harp with maple ribs and a softwood soundboard. The three paragraphs on Triple, English Triple and Triple harps do not mention anything ‘Welsh’, or ‘Italian’. The three paragraphs on Welch, Welch or Bray and Welch harps do not mention triple stringing. And according to Rimmer’s commentary on Talbot here, no Welsh source mentions a triple harp in Wales, until the 18th century.
But both before and after Talbot’s time, many prominent harpists playing in London are Welsh. For the 17th century, Peter Holman has traced here a line of court harpists, showing a clear change from Irish to Welsh names. Before the Commonwealth, they play Irish harps, but at the Restoration in 1660 Charles Evans (a good Welsh surname) is appointed his Majesty’s harper for the Italian harp. The flurry of harp-related activity in the 1730s is linked to Welsh harpers (in particular, William Powell) and to the Welsh luthier David Evans. Around this time, Welsh nobility are enthusiastic patrons of music, notably the newly- created Duke of Chandos (James Brydges, until 1719 he was styled the Earl of Caernafon), Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn (patron of John Parry from 1734), and Frederick, Prince of Wales (who employed Powell from 1736 onwards).
[Duke of Chandos]
[Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn]
[Frederick, Prince of Wales, at the cello]
To conclude, there was indeed a proper old Welch harp, but it had brays, was constructed in a different form and from other types of wood, and it was not triple. Jones’ (1784) modern Welsh harp had both similarities to, and differences from early 17th-century Italian triple harps. Crucial design changes were made during the late 17th century, so that for Talbot, the triple harp had been naturalised as English. Such triple harps made, played and funded by Welshmen came to new prominence in London in the 1730s.
In Britain, the 18th-century triple harp is certainly associated with 18th-century Welshmen. But before the mid-18th century, the triple harp was not particularly associated with older Welsh culture. It is not organologically related to the old Welsh bray harp. Its repertoire was in the fashionable Italian style championed by Handel himself. In his operas and oratorios, the triple harp represents Alexander the Great’s lyre, an Israelite harp, the Psalmist’s lyre or a vision of the Muses, but never anything Welsh.
The first printed publication of Welsh airs for the harp is Parry’s in 1742. Jones’ great flood of enthusiasm for Welsh culture and antiquarianism, attempting to link his modern triple harp to ancient bardic traditions, comes only in 1784.
So much for the instrument itself – more on its players and repertoires in a future posting.
[A painting by William Parry, from the collection of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn. John Parry plays the harp, his other son David holds a copy of Handel’s coronation anthem Zadok the Priest]
Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.