THE QUEEN OF HARPS
Ego sum Regina Cithararum (I am the Queen of Harps): so reads the inscription on the 1621 Cloyne Harp (also known as the Dalway fragments), which now belongs to the National Museum of Ireland, and is kept in store at Collins Barracks. In a seminar at Scoil na gCláirseach (the summer school of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, more about Scoil here) last August, Simon Chadwick skillfully reviewed the state of research into chromatic Irish Harps, and Thomas Zapf demonstrated a prototype reconstruction of the Cloyne Harp, with a fine performance of Dowland’s “Lacrime”‘ pavan.
Period descriptions – Vincenzo Galilei Dialogo della Musica (Florence, 1581 here), Praetorius De Organographia (Wolfenbuttel, 1619 here) and the Talbot MS (Cambridge 1690s here) – make it clear that chromatic Irish harps did exist, but do not give us all the details we would like to have. Nevertheless it seems plausible that the typical layout of the strings was more-or-less similar to an Italian ‘arpa doppia’, with two or perhaps three rows of strings in the centre of the compass, and with the lowest octave or so in the bass “diatonic only”. [Of course, those bass strings can be re-tuned for each piece, just as is done for the bass strings on lutes]
The Cloyne harp survives only partially: we have the beautifully made neck and part of the fore-pillar (the Dalway fragments), but the soundbox is missing. The neck has a short extra row of pegs in the centre of the compass. This extra row and the total number of strings strongly suggest some kind of chromatic stringing. Simon described various experimental reconstructions including Tim Hobrough’s (used extensively for performances and recordings in the 1990s and still going strong), two harps developed as part of Tristram Robson’s researches (the surviving second model kindly donated to the HHSI), a copy made by Evans & Flockhart for the National Museum of Ireland, and the most recent attempt, David Kortier’s prototype (played during the seminar by Thomas Zapf).
It was noted that many modern reproductions have exploded under the extreme tension of so many wire strings. Tristram’s first harp had to be rebuilt, Kortier’s prototype has a temporary repair to a deep split in the box, Evan’s & Flockhart’s also broke: otherwise Hobrough’s is the only reconstruction to have survived intact. Simon speculated that perhaps the soundbox of the original also exploded, which would explain why it is no longer with us today!
Early Music Magazine May 1987 includes two articles about Chromatic Irish harps. Mike Billinge & Bonnie Shlajean showed how a multi-row layout (at the soundboard) can be achieved from a single-row line of pegs (at the neck). (I would add that the historical playing position (with the hands resting on the soundboard) implies that the string layout at the soundboard is all that matters for playability.)
Peter Holman set out some of the evidence for the use of a chromatic Irish harp (rather than a gut-strung Italian or Spanish harp) in William Lawes’ music “for the Harp Consort.” Although some early harpists continue to promote gut-strung Italian triple harp for this repertoire, the academic consensus is that the case for Irish harp has been proven. ‘The triple harp idea does not hold up to scholarly scrutiny’, writes John Cunningham in ‘Some Consorts of Instruments are Sweeter than Others’: Further Light on the Harp of William Lawes’ Harp Consorts’, Galpin Society Journal, 41, April 2008, 147-76. See Cunningham’s book, The Consort Music of William Lawes, 1602-1645, (Woodbridge, 2010) for more about the Harp Consorts. The best edition is Jane Achtman’s 2002 diploma thesis, published by PRB productions here in 2007 , even if her preface is now out-of-date (in an attempt to be even-handed, she discusses triple harp at length). You can hear one of the Pavans performed with Irish Harp on the recording Exquisite Consorts by The Harp Consort (available from Amazon here).
Reinhard Thym’s painting of musicians at the court of Christian IV in Denmark shows an Irish harp (we see the player’s hands resting on the soundboard, but we cannot see the string layout), lute, viol and flute. A lot of consort music from this court survives, in particular music by William Brade. In England, Thomas Bedoes played Irish harp amongst a large consort of plucked and bowed strings in Shirley’s 1634 masque The Triumph of Peace. You can hear another Pavan by Lawes performed with the line-up of the Thym painting on the recording Exquisite Consorts (here again) and English masque music with Irish harp on the Tragicomedia CD Orpheus I am.
Simon drew attention to two contributions to this growing body of research, coming from his work together with David Kortier and Thomas Zapf. A change in the angle of the neck and the spacing between the tuning pins seems to indicate the point at which the Cloyne harp’s basses went “diatonic only”. And the geometry of the string layout can be improved by taking the strings from the upper row of tuning pegs via the pegs of the lower row (using the lower row pegs as bridge pins). Very useful practical tips!
I have performed and recorded on the Hobrough reconstruction, performed on Tristram’s harp (there is a video, somewhere in the HHSI archives) and briefly played Kortier’s prototype. I suggest that there are three questions to be addressed: sound-quality, playability, and fidelity to the Cloyne as a (partially) surviving original).
Kortier’s harp has the best sound I’ve heard so far from a chromatic Irish harp, but his first sound-box exploded. I’m now planning to ask Katerina Antonenko to re-string my Hobrough reconstruction (which has a massive box modelled on the O’Fogarty harp) according to the new ideas that emerged since the mid-1990s, and to do some acoustic work on the box, to improve the sound.
However, I consider Kortier’s prototype unplayable. Kudos to Thomas Zapf for getting through Lacrime, but he also admitted that the wild irregularity of the string-layout makes the instrument impractical for public performance. Tristam’s harp is a little better to play, but still very difficult to manage. After many experiments and repeated revisions of the string layout, my Hobrough is the most playable chromatic Irish harp I’ve seen. But it’s also not easy to play. I’m now planning to ask Katerina to make further adjustments to the layout, taking into account Simon’s ideas, and seeking to improve both sound and playability.
COPYING THE CLOYNE
The fragments of the Cloyne harp are vital information. It’s wonderful that we have these two pieces, although it’s frustrating not to know what was happening at the soundboard: this is where the string-layout really matters! It’s important to study these artefacts in great detail, and to extract as much information as we can from them. However, I don’t believe that the Cloyne is necessarily the perfect model for a chromatic Irish harp that would be suitable for the complex polyphonic music of the Danish court and/or William Lawes’ consorts. In order to explore these historical repertoires, performers need instruments that sound good and are fully playable. So we need to study the Dalway fragments, and build the information from them into reconstructions that are imaginatively redesigned to suit the music.
After all, that music is also historical information.But it comes from a different milieu. We might expect the Cloyne harp, Galilei’s Irish harp in Florence, and Praetorius’ German/Irish harp to be similar, but not identical to the chromatic Irish harps that were played in Copenhagen and London. Perhaps Talbot’s information might be more closely related, even though he is writing at the other end of the century.
So I hope that this seminar and my report her will stimulate further interest and experiment in this fascinating topic. Certainly, I’ve been inspired to tune up my Hobrough/Dalway/O’Fogarty monster again, and see what we might do with it next. When Tim made it, he included a surprise for me, an inscription that reads CITHARARUM REX REGINAM TANGET – Of harps, the King plays the Queen!
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.