In Memoriam Pat O’Brien: Introduction to Italian Baroque harp

 In Memoriam

Pat O’Brien, lute and guitar guru, was also a charismatic influence on the revival of historical harps. In 1986 he contributed to the pioneering Early Harp conference in Basel, and over the next few years taught at the influential Bremen Harps & Lutes events. He was a founder member of The Harp Consort, appearing in many concerts and on the CDs Luz y Norte, Carolan’s Harp and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. With the New York Continuo Collective he facilitated a creative dialogue between harpists, lutenists and singers. He also taught at the Julliard School.

Most of today’s leading early harpists and lutenists benefitted from Pat’s insightful and authoritative teaching. Many of us are privileged to have known him as a friend, a larger-than-life character whose powerful presence we sadly miss, even whilst the inspiration of his work lives on.

Pat thought a lot about Historical harp technique, and he and I discussed the subject at length over many years. This article owes much to his ideas, and is dedicated to his memory.

Pat O'Brien

INTRODUCTION TO ITALIAN BAROQUE HARP

Part I: History

This instrument is called in Italian arpa doppia, because it is very large [twice the size of the renaissance ‘gothic’ harps that preceded it], and because it has a low bass compass [as we also say ‘double-bass’, ‘double-bassoon’ for instruments with low bass notes]. It has more than one row of strings, providing strings for chromatic and diatonic notes.

Jacopo Peri

Jacopo Peri with a renaissance harp (1589)

 

The Barberini harp  (17th century)

The Barberini harp
(17th-century)

 

We see medium-size double-harps in Italy, with two rows of strings, around 1580. The ‘Este’ harp is typical, with the shape of a gothic harp, but rather larger size, and with two rows of strings.

Este harp

 

In the early 1600s, we see much larger harps with three rows of strings [two diatonic rows, chromatics in the middle row]. These are still called arpa doppia, or sometimes arpa a tre ordini [with three rows].

 

We do not know the details of the transformation from medium-size & 2 rows to large-size & 3 rows. There is comparable situation with our lack of detailed knowledge of the similar transformation of the renaissance lute to the baroque theorbo, which took place around the same time.

theorbo Confortini

The large 3-row harp was a highly successful design. It, was exported to France, Germany and England. It later interacted with Welsh harps to produce the Anglo-Welsh baroque triple harp [around 1700, more on Welsh harps here].

The primary function of the arpa doppia around 1600 was to accompany, in the new style of continuo. [More on continuo here.] The instrument is designed to play bass, with extreme low bass-notes easily available; and to play harmonies in the tenor/alto register. The playing position is optimised for this function.

In the painting,  Allegory of Music (above), the very large Barberini harp is shown leaning forwards (in contrast to the modern position with the instrument leant backwards). I’ve tried the Barberini position, and I find it plausible. I sometimes use a less extreme version of this position, with the harp leaning forwards just a little: the harp will not fall, because your hands are resting on the soundboard. Most 17th-century paintings show that harp was positioned approximately upright [where it balances], with the player on a chair of normal height.

The player is thus rather low, with the harp high above. If you turn to look at the strings, you will be looking at the “tuning A” [eg A 460/440/415, whatever]. Without turning, your normal focus is on the strings corresponding to the range of the bass-clef – the normal range of baroque bass-lines.

It is easy to reach forward and down with the left hand, to play the extreme bass notes close to the soundboard. It is more difficult to reach up and back with the right hand to play the high treble. This is consistent with the main role of the instrument, to play continuo.

Of course, players did take advantage of the solo possibilities of the arpa doppia. Monteverdi and Trabaci write solos that dramatically exploit the entire compass from d” to GGG, 4½ octaves, sometimes in a single phrase. But the normal 17th-century soprano range remains within the C1 soprano clef [a third below treble clef].

In 18th-century instrumental music, composers often write an octave higher than this. Thus some German 18th-century harps, known as Davidsharfe,  were medium-size with 2 rows [allowing easier access to the high notes]. Italianate triple harps were also played in Germany, and it is not known whether CPE Bach’s Sonata was intended for triple harp, single-action pedal harp, or perhaps even for 2 instruments (one plays the solo, the other realises the continuo). [You can read Mary Oleskiewicz’s article on CPE Bach’s sonatas here Mary Oleskiewicz on CPE Bach. See the first page of her edition here, and consult the complete edition here.]

 

The 18th-century Anglo-Welsh triple harp is very large, but has a different shape, with very long bass strings, but not extending above the player’s head and shoulders in the treble. Again, this allows easier access to the high notes. [More on Welsh triple harps here.]

 

Our Italian baroque harp, the 17th-century arpa doppia, is optimised for 17th-century music. It can play very chromatically, but within a narrow range of basic tonalities [a simple piece in a ‘bad’ key is very difficult]. The instrument is designed to play continuo accompaniments, and is also very suitable for 17th-century polyphonic music or for dramatic solos. This is precisely how it was used at the time: this is also the kind of published repertoire that survives.

Agazzari frontispiece

Part II: Technique

The modern binary of Technique/Interpretation is not the best way to consider how to play Early Music. Many teaching books from the baroque period [most famously the three great treatises: Quantz for flute (1752) here, CPE Bach for keyboard (1753 & 1762) here, , Leopold Mozart for violin (1787) here] share a common structure with three or four main sections.

18th-century teaching books

Much of what we would now describe as elementary technique is dealt with very quickly. Hold the instrument like this, play in time (read more about rhythm for Early Music here), and play in tune (for the period of the arpa doppia the default temperament is quarter-comma meantone).

After this short introduction, the first subject to be dealt with at length is Articulation. This means tonguing-syllables for wind instruments, bowing for violin, and fingering for keyboards and harps.  This section therefore links phrasing (especially short-term phrasing) to the basic technique of each instrument.

The second section teaches how to play ornaments (technique), and how to use them (intepretation). Often, certain ornaments are required for the sake of musical ‘grammar’, just as certain words require diacritical marks. What might seem to be a tiny mark, an optional extra, is an essential requirement if you ‘speak the language’ of a particular musical style.

The third section teaches Good Delivery. This is not quite the same as modern Interpretation. There is less emphasis on the performer’s Expression, or on translating the composition into some new form. Rather, the idea is to get the music across to the audience, clearly and effectively. The desired effect is muovere gli affetti to move [the audience’s] passions.

[Read more about How does it feel? A history of heaven, hearts and harps here.]

In this Introduction, I’ll follow the example of those historical teaching books, dealing quickly with the basic playing position, and spending more time considering Articulation, i.e. how musical phrasing (in period style) connects to historical technique (fingering).

2.1 Position

Find the balance-point of the harp, and bring yourself towards the instrument. You will need to sit well forward on the chair. Put your right leg forward, alongside the instrument. Draw your left foot back, so you have easy access to the extreme basses, playing the strings close to the soundboard.

Keep some weight on your feet. You can test this, by seeing if you can stand up without first adjusting your position. Stand up and sit down a few times, until you have found a seated position that still has your feet firmly on the ground.

 

Charles II, seated in typical 17th century manner. But I have flipped this image horizontally, in order to show the right leg extended, as needed for baroque harp.

Charles II, seated in typical 17th century manner. Note that I have flipped this image horizontally, in order to show the right leg extended, as needed for baroque harp.

 

For those interested in radical authenticity, you could experiment with having the instrument leaning forwards, held from falling by your hands resting on the soundboard (as we see with the Barberini harp, above.

For anyone coming from modern harp, you might need to remind yourself frequently to re-set the harp upright, since you’ll be used to its leaning backwards.

Your nose will be around the “tuning-A” string. You can easily see the bass-clef register. You can easily reach the extreme low strings. Don’t worry about the high trebles, you won’t need them yet.

It might feel strange to have the instrument ‘so high’: don’t worry! You might find it difficult to focus your eyes on so many strings: don’t look!

Zampieri 

You can watch the video here.

Introduction to Italian Baroque harp 1 Position

2.2 Hands – relaxed for delicate control

With the low-tension strings of an early harp, your fingers don’t need strength, as much as smooth relaxation and delicate control. Excess strength will tend to morph into unwanted tension in the hand. So it’s a useful exercise to re-calibrate the strength in your hands, especially if you are coming from higher-tension pedal harp.

gentle hands

You can do the following exercise with real water-bottles, but it’s even more effective if you just imagine the bottles, and let the learning go direct into your subconscious.

 

 

water bottles

 

1. Hold you hands out, palm upwards, and imagine that you are holding two large, 1-litre, plastic bottles, full of water. As the bottles lie horizontally in your hands, wrap your fingers gently around the bottles. Feel the cool touch of the plastic… are there drops of water on it? Use just enough strength to support the bottles.

2. Now pour out half of the water, and then hold the bottles again. Notice how much less effort is needed, now.

3. Now pour out the rest of the water, and hold just the empty bottles. Notice how your hands feel, now.

4. Turn your right hand so that the thumb is uppermost. Let your index finger wrap inwards a little more, and your little finger ease outwards a bit. Bring the middle and ring fingers close to each other.

Your hand will look like this:

Baroque hand

Default hand position from Burnett: The Art of Gesture

This position, with the fingers delicately curved, is the typical shape of a renaissance/baroque hand, that you will see in thousands of period paintings.

Charles II hands

The historical ideal of graceful posture was to have just enough strength in the hand to maintain an elegantly curved shape, but no excess tension. That’s an ideal starting point for historical harp-playing, too.

renaissance hands

Holding you hands out again, palm-up as before, bring your thumb into the palm, aiming towards the base of the little finger. (It varies from person to person how far the thumb wants to go. Just move it as much as is easy and comfortable for you). Then wrap your fingers around your thumb.

This is a basic human movement that we learn as tiny babies. Don’t think of it as a sophisticated “harp technique”, just keep the movement as easy and smooth as possible.

baby hands

As the last stage of this preparatory exercise, try bringing your thumb into your palm, and then wrapping the fingers around it, one by one: index, middle, ring, little. Gently, smoothly. Imagine your hands are moving through honey, not air, so that the movement is slow and sweet, like a slow-motion film.

 

1… 2… 3… 4… 5

Keep it simple!

2.3 Hands on harp

Place your hands on the harp, with the weight taken on the soundboard. Hold your fingers in a relaxed curve. As you move your fingers, let your hand remain still.

Hands on baroque harp

Place your hands on the harp, close to (but not touching) the strings. Repeat the wrap-around exercise.

This is especially valuable for modern harpists. Your long experience with the modern instrument has taught your hands an automatic response to being placed on a harp, i.e. to use your modern technique. So you have to give yourself time to learn another, different technique. At first, away from the harp; then on the harp, but not yet on the strings.

When you are comfortable with the wrap-around exercise, not touching the strings, take a short break. During a break like this, the learning you have done consciously is transferred to your unconscious mind.

Locking Attention

 

Now place your hands on the harp again, with your thumb and fingers on adjacent strings. Push gently on the strings, feel the contact. Rest your hand firmly on the soundboard, really take some weight down into the harp.

Now do the wrap-around exercise again, and let some sounds emerge from the strings. Move your fingers slowly. Focus on the smooth, easy movement, not on the resulting sound.

Most likely, the sound will be pleasant, but rather soft. To get more sound, apply more pressure on the strings, but keep the finger-movement slow.

To improve your sound, apply even more pressure, but keep the finger-movement slow. Let your fingers move through the complete range of movement, slowly. Don’t explode off the string: let your finger (or thumb) move slowly and smoothly.

More pressure. And slower. 

2.4 On the strings

It’s important to position your fingers accurately on the strings. The position is different from that for modern harp.

Place your fingers on the strings, not behind the strings. Your fingers are on the strings, and as you play, they slide across the strings. They slide slowly, with smooth pressure. The secret is to find this controlled sliding, like a violin bow sliding across the strings with enough pressure to make a sound, and with slow speed to sustain the sound.

Your fingers are on the strings applying pressure, not behind the strings and pulling. Here is an easy test for the correct finger-position:

1. Place your fingers on the strings in your best historical-harp position.

2. Push on the strings. Push firmly, and observe what happens.

If your fingers are correctly placed on the strings, you will be able to push the entire harp sideways.

If your fingers are behind the strings, when you push strongly, your fingers will slip between the strings. Whoops! Use this feedback to adjust your finger-position, and try again.

To begin with, you will need to remind yourself frequently of the basics:

  1. Rest your hands on the harp.
  2. Keep your hands still whilst your fingers move.
  3. Fingers on the strings, not behind.
  4. Slow, and with pressure.

Where does all this come from? It’s a mixture of historical information, information from historical keyboard & lute-playing (many ideas from Pat O’ Brien), and my personal experience. Period paintings and study of historical gesture shows us basic positions; lute-playing shows how to be on the string (it’s the only way to play both strings of a double course simultaneously); period violin technique shows the importance of slow, smooth pressure; keyboard, harp and lute techniques show us how to relate finger-movements to the period principle of Good and Bad notes.

2.5 Fingering

Now that you can move the fingers well, which finger should you use for which note? Period fingering systems copy the patterns of speech, so that you can play your Italian harp with an Italian accent.

Around the year 1600, Italian texts have mostly two- or three-syllable words, with a characteristic pattern of accented/unaccented syllables. The historical terms for these syllables are Good and Bad (or sometimes, Long and Short). When composers set such texts, they put a Good note on each Good syllable.

Articulation Good & Bad syllables

[You can read more about historical articulation, The Good, the Bad & the Early Music Phrase here.]

For Italian harp, thumb and middle finger are good. Index finger is bad. Patterns of two or three fingers are usually sufficient for melodies, corresponding to the two or three syllables of the most frequently encountered words.

Period melodies often move stepwise (a jump might indicate the separation between one phrase and the next). So it’s useful to practise the basic fingering for scales:

Upwards: 3 2 3 2 3 2 3 2 ….. and 1 at the top.

Downwards: 1 2 1 2 1 2 ….. and 3 at the bottom. Pass the thumb underneath the fingers.

A good exercise is to play a scale up and down across and octave and one note. Listen for the characteristic sound of Good & Bad notes, like Frank Sinatra’s dooby-dooby-doo.

Helpful Hints:

On the upward scale, place two fingers (3 & 2), play two notes (with your hand still), now slide your hand, and only then replace your fingers on the next two strings. Don’t let your fingers “look for the strings”. Rather, let your hand slide up the harp just the correct distance, so that when you put your fingers onto the strings again, they are in exactly the right place.

On the downward scale, let your thumb move directly from playing one string to resting on its next string (i.e. thumb jumps down a third). The index plays after your thumb has already crossed underneath. This disadvantages the index finger, helping to produce the Bad effect that we want. To keep your hand in contact with the soundboard, you need to slide your index finger down the string (towards the soundboard) as you go along.

When you come to a chromatic note, you might need to adjust the fingering. Often 2, or thumb, will be needed, regardless of the good/bad rule. Get back to good/bad as soon as you can.

E.g. D major ascending: 32 2(f#)2 32 2(c#)2

Period Principles

The principles of historic fingering are very simple.

  1. Put a Good finger on a Good note, a Bad finger on a Bad note. (If you are not sure about the notes, sing the melody Frank Sinatra-style, to dooby-dooby-doo. The doo is Good, the by is Bad. If you are still uncertain, try to reverse the Sinatra syllables: you’ll quickly convince yourself which way round is best.)
  2. Obey this principle, even when it makes the fingering complicated or awkward. Difficult fingering is better than bad phrasing!
  3. If you have a piece of stepwise movement, go up with 3 2 and down with 1 2. 
  4. When choosing between 1 or 3, put any movement of the hand where you logically want a jump or break in the music. Fingering and phrasing are totally united.

Chromatic notes

To reach a chromatic note in the inner row with the thumb, push the lower adjacent diatonic note aside and lean your thumb on this string whilst you play the chromatic. The thumb ends up hooked around this diatonic string.

 

E.g. to play F# with the thumb, push aside and lean on the F-natural, play F#, end up hooked around F-natural.

 

To reach a chromatic note in the inner row with a finger, push the upper adjacent diatonic note aside and lean your finger on this string whilst you play the chromatic. The finger ends up hooked around this diatonic string.

 

E.g. to play F# with a finger, push aside and lean on the G, play F#, end up hooked around G.

 

You cannot lift your hands up and away from the harp at the end of the note: your thumb or finger is still hooked around a string! This necessity confirms the ‘hands on the harp’ position we notice in period paintings, and which we studied earlier.

The secret to playing the chromatic notes confidently, accurately, without extraneous noises, and with a good sound, is that you leave the finger or thumb hooked into the middle row, after sounding the string.

And of course, Slow. With smooth Pressure. And your hands stay still, resting on the harp.

It’s a useful exercise to practise scales in difficult keys, and also chromatic scales.

Chords

It is difficult at first to coordinate the finger-movements when some notes of the chord are chromatic, others diatonic. Practise each note in turn to perfect the movement, before trying to synchronise the whole chord.

Try all the major and minor triads, in both friendly and un-friendly tonalities!

See the video on basic technique – fingering, chromatics, chords – here.

Introduction to Italian Baroque harp 2 Basic Technique

For a normal “good-note” chord, arpeggiate in both hands approximately simultaneously. Play “bad-note” chords unarpeggiated.

For a long arpeggio, play a low-octave bass note alone, then arpeggiate left hand then right. Play the bass-note on the beat (not before).

Continuo-playing requires sophisticated use of chord and arpeggios – this is just a beginning.

Harmonies

The first step is to learn good positions for the basic major and minor chords. Here are some guide-lines:

 

  • Third at the top, and/or doubled sounds good
  • Compact position (hands not separated, perhaps even overlapping) is good
  • Treat “tuning-A” as the upper limit for chords
  • Don’t use thirds in the bass below tenor-C, they are too ‘growly’
  • Try for big chords, at least 3 or 4 notes in each hand.

 

Introduction to continuo for Italian harp 1 Good & Bad

More about Continuo in a later posting, and forthcoming video series.

 

Tuning

Two tunings were in general use in the 17th-century: with Bb in the diatonic row [historically more common] and with B-natural [my own usual tuning]. Scordatura was frequently used.

ALK with Rainer Thurau's "Zampieri" Italian baroque harp

ALK with Rainer Thurau’s “Zampieri” Italian baroque harp

 

On my harp, the ‘extra black notes’ between E & F and between B & C are used for enharmonics. This is typical of 17th-century practice: in the 16th century, these strings were tuned to important notes like D and A, for additional resonance.

 

The standard tuning of my harp is (from the bass upwards):

 

Left hand row:

FFF GGG AAA BBBb CC DD EE FF GG AA BB          etc       to g’

 

Middle row:

CC# EEb DD# FF# GG# BBb AA# C# Eb D# F# G# Bb A# c#     etc       to c”#

 

Right hand row:

FF GG AA BB C D E F G A B c d e f g a                                               etc       to c” d” eb

I keep my harp in quarter-comma meantone (details in another posting)

Pat O'Brien, ALK & other founder-members of The Harp Consort, at the recording sessions of Luz y Norte in 1994.

Pat O’Brien, ALK & other founder-members of The Harp Consort, at the recording sessions of Luz y Norte in 1994.

 

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com .

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.

How did it feel? A History of Heaven, Hearts & Harps

HISTORY OF EMOTIONS

We can imagine a time-travelling Arts journalist asking: “You just heard the first opera… you played continuo next to Claudio Monteverdi… you fought a duel  with Rudolfo Capo Ferro… you danced with Louis XIV … you acted for William Shakespeare … you went drinking with Henry Purcell … you built a pendulum clock according to Galileo’s theories … you can see with your own eyes that the sun goes around the earth… Domenichino Zampieri made you a harp with three rows of strings… How did it feel?”

 

How did it feel

 

This question – easy to ask, but rich in potential for surprising answers and further, more profound investigations – might well be the unofficial motto of the Australian Research Council’s Centre for the History of Emotions. From nodes at major universities and conservatories across Australia, in research and performance projects around the world, and across a wide range of humanities disciplines, CHE’s investigators not only look at Emotions in History, but also use Emotions studies as a lens by which to view a broad field of historical themes, and to understand how Emotions and History continue to Shape the Modern.

I am a Senior Visiting Research Fellow for the Centre, attached to the University of Western Australia, and this post was first presented at a joint event of the World Harp Congress and the Centre for the History of Emotions in Sydney,  Australia in July 2014.

CHEWHC Sydney 2014 logo

 

At the beginning of the baroque, around the year 1600, the period aim to muovere gli affetti – move the passions – gives us confidence that Emotions studies are historically appropriate, as we try to understand the role of the harp within the music and culture of the time.

So whose passions are we trying to move? Simply to ask the question re-locates the focus onto the audience, a much-needed counter-balance to the academic tradition of studying composers and works, and to the conservatoire habit of concentrating on what performers do.

Audience Studies are a vital new area of musicological investigation – what makes music meaningful for the listener? How can we attract new listeners? Why are we losing touch with some listeners?  I’m privileged to collaborate on such research with Prof John Sloboda at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. And studies of Historical Audiences are an important part of our work at CHE, led by Dr Penelope Woods.

theatre-palais-cardinal Louis XIII

EARLY MUSIC & THE HARP

This harp-flavoured post introduces some general ideas concerning Early Music, and connects these ideas to the aesthetics of two particular cultures: Italy around 1600, the period of Monteverdi’s first opera, Orfeo, in which the harp plays a major solo, as well as within the continuo ensemble; and the late 18th-century, where we have the Mozart Concerto for traverse flute and single-action harp, and CPE Bach’s Sonata (it’s debated whether this is for Italian triple harp or French single-action harp). Orfeo, CPE Bach, Mozart

One of my tasks here is to do some myth-busting, correcting some favourite misunderstandings of what Early Music is about, and pointing out some alarming discrepancies between what we see in historical sources and the standard operating procedures of today’s Early Music. So I have some images to help identify a popular myth, and to show when we’ve bust it. But since I wasn’t quite sure what a myth should look like, and I didn’t want to start exploding sacred cows, I’ve chosen the metaphor of Vampires, both modern and pseudo-old, which (like mistaken ideas) hang around half-dead, until someone arrives to slay them.  And according to the principles of the baroque opera stage, the good guys will be on my right, the bad guys on my left.

myth busting

And I have this genuinely 17th-century image to draw your attention to important historical information that you might want to follow up for yourselves later. You can read more on my website: www.TheHarpConsort.com  as well as elsewhere in this blog.

Attentionem poscit and art

 

 

Right side… Good Doggy.

Not Authentic

Over the last half-century, recording companies helped to create an audience for Early Music by promoting performances that were advertised as “on authentic instruments”, “on period (or original) instruments”. Of course, this was just a shorthand way to label what was meant to be a fundamentally different approach to music-making, but it left a misleading impression that the instruments themselves, whether original or modern reproductions in period style, were the most important ingredient for achieving Authenticity.

HIP not Authentic

Nowadays, we tend not to use the A-word, since we all recognise that complete historical Authenticity is impossible. And taking the other meaning of that word, Authentic in the sense of true to one’s personal beliefs, we also recognise that every musician assembles their musical identity from many influences, that historical information as well as inspiring teaching or convincing performance can shape what each of us feels to be “true” to our personal values. So let’s leave behind us the rather negative concept of Authentic Instruments, and use the modern phrase, Historically Informed Performance, abbreviated as HIP. After all, the only alternative to being Historically Informed is to be Historically Uninformed!

A more recent attempt to describe what we mean by Early Music (that term is still frequently used, informally and amongst performers, but its more hip to say “HIP” in academic circles), was that the musicians would seek to respect ‘the composer’s intentions’. This phrase has also been rejected, because it plays into the old-fashioned, Romantic idea of idolising the Master Composer, and because baroque composers didn’t want you to play what they wrote. Like a modern singer-song-writer, or a jazz-composer, baroque composers expected you to take their idea and make it your own, with improvised variations, your own touches of arrangement, even wholesale re-writing.

Respecting the composer's intentions

LOOKING BACKWARDS THROUGH HISTORY?

Looking backwards through history

Another, more subtle danger is that we find ourselves looking back into the past, from our modern perspective. The recent past (that fun CD released last year) looms large; close behind are ghostly shadows of our early musical education, and of the education that shaped our first teachers. We might be smart enough to avert our gaze from all those Romantic geniuses who clog the middle distance, and there at the far end of a dark tunnel we can just make out Mozart, Handel, Bach and (very far off now) Monteverdi. The problem here is that we are looking the wrong way down a telescope – the object of our study appears very distant and small – and we are looking the wrong way through time.

The way to understand Monteverdi is not via Mozart, Handel and Bach. Even if we know those later guys better, Monteverdi didn’t know them at all. We need to approach Monteverdi from inside the culture of his own time, not looking backwards into the past, but looking around us in his historical present.  We need to look sideways, not only at the harp, but at other kinds of music, at other performing arts, at literature and paintings, at period science, at dancing and swordsmanship. To understand his culture fully, we need to start a bit earlier – perhaps with the generation of his teachers – and move forwards through time with him. Then we might have a better idea of “how does it feel”.

Looking sideways inside history

 

Otherwise, if we view old music only from our modern perspective, we may end up trying to squeeze an ancient culture into an utterly different framework, a round peg into a square hole.

As we begin to read what period writers themselves considered important, we quickly realise that our modern concepts of Technique and Interpretation, and of Conservatoire teaching in general are inappropriate. But much of the discussion amongst today’s Early Musicians is also dominated by topics that are hardly mentioned by 17th-century writers. The pages of Early Music Magazine, and online discussion groups give a lot of space to arguments about pitch, temperament and vibrato.

Today's priorities

 

But there is nothing about any of these subjects in the most important documents describing the performance practices of the early seicento: the preface to the first opera, Cavalieri’s Anima e Corpo (1600), the preface to the second opera, Peri’s Euridice (also 1600), Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche (1601), Viadana’s figured-bass motets of 1602, Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Agazzari’s guide to continuo-playing, Dal Sonare Sopra’l Basso (both 1607) and the preface to Gagliano’s Dafne (1608), Monteverdi’s Vesperae (1610), his prefaces to Combattimento and the Lamento della Ninfa (1636), Shakespeare’s advice to the players in Hamlet (1600) and the anonymous circa-1630 guide for a music-theatre’s artistic director, Il Corago.

Sources circa 1600

 

Meanwhile, we know that renaissance courtiers spent several hours every day for most of their lives, practising dancing and training with swords. If we want to know how did that feel, how such training affects posture, musculature, and modes of thought, we can read and try out the recommendations of the Book of the Courtier, Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528 and many reprints across 20 European cities and six languages, it was one of the most widely-read books of the time), Negri’s dance-treatises (1602 & 1604) and Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro of the Art of Swordfighting (1610).

Sources circa 1600 list

FALSE FRIENDS

The past is a foreign country Hartley and Howard

When learning a foreign language, we have to take care with so-called ‘false friends’, words that sound familiar but have quite a different meaning in the other language. For example, if you are new to Australia, it might help you to to know that a hot Barbie is not a blonde doll.Smiley

So it is with the language of the past – familiar-sounding words mean something quite different, and we need to understand a different set of assumptions.

Hexachord

 

There were only six notes in the 17th-century scale, the Hexachord, so that ascending above A-la imposes a choice between B- fa and B-mi. This choice is guided by different rules in different periods, and it’s often left to the performer to make an appropriate decision: the notation may leave the question open. We absolutely cannot assume that What You See Is What  You Get. The meaning of the notation itself has changed, over the centuries.

And when we move out from tiny details to the big picture, we see utterly different use of language, showing that the underlying assumptions are also utterly different. Around the year 1600, what is Music? First, and most importantly, it was the Music of the Spheres, musica mondana, the perfect music made by the movement of the stars and planets as they danced in their circular orbits around the earth, turned by the motion of the highest sphere, the primum mobile. This is the music of the cosmos, turned by the hand of God. Secondly, we have musica humana, the harmonious nature of the human body. Last of all comes musica instrumentalis, actual sounds made down here on earth, with our voices and harps.

Three kinds of Music

Some other 17-century ‘false friends’ to beware of are Harmony (which just means, organised sound; the most significant organisation is usually rhythmic rather than chordal harmony in the modern sense); and  Tempo (which just means time, measured in semibreves, whole notes, which last about two seconds).

False friends

ASSUMPTIONS

So much for language. Let’s explore some basic assumptions.

What is important? In his  Preface to Le Nuove Musiche (the book containing that famous song, Amarilli mia bella), Caccini prioritises Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all. And not the other way around! This contrasts strongly with modern conservatoire teaching, which focusses on sound-production, and even with the concentration of today’s Early Music Movement on vibrato, pitch and temperament, certainly with the tendency to focus on ‘original instruments’. All those questions of Sound came “last of all” to the 17th-century mind. Rather, they were thinking about Text and Rhythm.

Text, Rhythm and Sound

Who is important? We should try to clear from our minds the Romantic image of the genius performer, expressing his (and in the 19th-century it was mostly his) sublime emotions in front of the reverent, silent audience of nobodies, sitting in the dark, worshipping at the temple of culture. 17th-century music privileges the Audience. As La Musica says at the very beginning of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, “I’ve come from by beloved Permesso to you, great heroes, noble race of Kings, to narrate whose fame even heavenly praise would not reach the truth, since your reputation is so high”. Only in verse two does she introduce herself, “I am Music”.

Audience, not Performer

What is music for? As a Rhetorical Art, music seeks to persuade the mind, delight the senses, and move the emotions. The period language muovere gli affetti, to move the passions, reminds us that multiple, contrasting emotions are at play – not just the intensification of a single emotion, as in Romantic music. The audience’s feelings are engaged by the movement of the passions. And so we performers might well want to explore a History of Emotions.

Docere Delectare Movere

RHYTHM

So let’s consider those historical priorities of Text and Rhythm. I’ll come to Text in due course, but in order to understand musical Rhythm, we first have to ask What is Time?  Our assumption today is that musical rhythm sits, with various degrees of freedom, within Time itself, which is Absolute. We can measure this Time rather accurately, with our digital watches, and we can impose it on our music with metronomes, although we feel that the higher art is to bend time into something more ‘musical’, with rubato. All of that is an essentially 20th-century view of Time, even though it has now been updated by Einstein’s relativity,. But that 20th-century view is utterly irrelevant to the period before Isaac Newton.

What is Time

17th-century Time is cosmic, measured by the perfect, but very slow-moving, clock of the sun and stars. Time is human, measured by the body-rhythm of our pulse or heartbeat, at about one per second when we are relaxed. In the lowest, practical sense, Time is measured by Music, since around the year 1600 a minim (half-note) is one second, as close as human beings can make it.

The best clocks could just about count the seconds. So when Galileo discovered the pendulum effect, observing a swinging chandelier in Pisa Cathedral, he checked it against his own pulse. When he needed split-second timing, to measure the acceleration due to gravity, he used the highest precision timing system in the known world: music. He got his lute-player to play fast variations (divisions, as they were called back then), which literally divided up the minims/seconds into crotches, quavers and semi-quavers, giving him precision measurement down to 1/8 of a second.

You can try the experiment for yourself in an online simulation, here.

What is Time

Just as the movement of the cosmos is driven by the most divine, outermost, slowest sphere, so musical time is organised by a constant slow beat, and the faster notes fit inside this. So baroque musical rhythm is defined by Tactus, a slow steady beat, like a perfect clock, like the clock of the cosmos, or the steady beat of the human pulse.  If your pulse falters, you are sick: if your heart stops, the music also dies.

Guidar il tempo

But early 17th-century sources describe certain, highly specific ways to Drive the Time in passionate music. This is dangerous stuff – if you lose control of the Time Chariot, the sun will crash into the sea. But just as you can raise your pulse rate by exercise or emotion, or lower it by relaxation (adagio means ‘at ease’, ‘take it easy’), so Frescobaldi (1615) explains how to change the time between sections in different rhythms, or how to suspend the beat in the air, momentarily. And Caccini talks about sprezzatura, nonchalant or ‘cool’ rhythm, in which the singer floats freely above a steady tactus in the continuo bass.

Music of this period was not conducted, although we often see conductors in today’s Early Music. That is a gross anachronism. Agazzari and Il Corago tell us clearly that the entire ensemble is guided by the continuo, Dowland tells us that it is Tactus itself that “directs a song in measure”. Peri expects that singers will “dance to the rhythm of the bass”, so for recitative (where speech-like rhythms are needed on the level of individual syllables) he reduces the continuo activity to semibreves and minims, just enough to maintain the Tactus.

Continuo not conductor

One of the consequences of this historical view of Time, of organising Rhythm by the slow count of Tactus, is that melodies have to fit inside the tactus. And it’s the accompaniment that maintains the Tactus. So accompanists do not follow soloists, rather soloists must fit with the accompaniment. Peri expects that singers will dance to the rhythm of the bass.

This is a big shock to modern classical musicians, and even today’s Early Musicians mostly ignore the clear historical evidence. Playing continuo today can be like a fairground game: you wait there with your triple harp or theorbo, until a little yellow duck (the tenor) waddles into your sights, and then you fire off a chord, and hope to hit him in root position.

Duck shoot

The take-home message is that music pre-1800 has a slow steady pulse (even if the actual notes are going fast), and the melody is guided by the bass. No rubato, no conductors.


 Tactus

TEXT

Agazzari writes that instruments should play with the affetto e somiglianza delle parole, with the emotion and the semblance of words. For singers, the sung text shows the emotional changes from one word to the next. Notice that, in this style, there are many different, changing, contrasted affetti. Frequently there is an abrupt change in text and music to the contrary emotion – an opposto – signalled by the word ma (but), or by images and gestures that point to opposite sides of the stage: here and there, heaven and hell, you and me.

Text and Rhythm

In this period, instrumental pieces are often taken from vocal originals. So we can take the emotional changes from the original words, just as Agazzari instructs. In a piece where there are no words, we can still recognise emotional changes from characteristic melodic figures, so that an early Sonata shows the same strong contrasts and abruptly changing opposti that we’ve learnt to expect in vocal music.

But what about Agazzari’s somiglianza, semblance of, similitude to words? To imitate on the harp the effect of speech, we need to think about the sound of language. In Italian, many common words have two syllables, accented-unaccented, or (in period terminology) Good-Bad: piano, forte, dolce, arpa, pasta, pizza, Roma. Three syllables can be accented Bad-Good-Bad allegro adagio sonata Caccini Firenze, Milano, spaghetti; or Good-Bad-Bad: table is tavola, the last one, ultimate, is ultimo, Claudio Monteverdi worked in Mantua.

Articulation Good & Bad syllables

These common words form the typical patterns of the language, two or three syllables, more or less alternating Good and Bad. Where the syllables are joined together, the join can be smooth with single consonants, as in the word legato, or it can be a bumpy join with a double consonant, as in the word staccato. And of course, the consonant that starts each syllable has its own colour su, giu (up & down), no, si (no & yes) ma (but). All of this joining and separating between syllables is what Early Musicians mean by ‘articulation’. Just we ‘articulate’ our words, in order to speak articulately, on an early instrument we ‘articulate’ the notes, in order to sound as if we are speaking.

So baroque harps, baroque flutes, baroque violins, harpsichords all aim to imitate the sound and emotions of speech. This fundamental consideration is much stronger than the subtle differences between one instrument and another. In this period, musical style and passionate rhetoric are not instrument-specific. That’s good news for us harpists, since much of our best-known early repertoire is shared with, or stolen from other instruments: the Luduvico fantasia was published for vihuela in imitation of the Spanish harp; Handel’s concerto was published for Organ, even if first played on Welsh harp; the CPE Bach sonata might have had a second instrument to play continuo, and we don’t know for sure which kind of harp he meant; the Mozart concerto is shared with the flute.

But in each of these periods, the local aesthetic is derived from text and vocal music, common to all instruments, and unified across all the arts.

Unified aesthetic

In contrast to a modern opera production, in which the text, the music and the staging tell three different stories, in baroque opera everything tells the same story, all directed by the artistic director Il Corago, who has ‘universal command’ over every element of the production, but who is subject to the structures, sounds and emotions of the poetic text.

THE TRUE ART

This unity of aesthetic means that baroque harpists can learn from other instruments, and that we can expect to find a high level of agreement about essential priorities as we compare different sources. In the second half of the 18th century, our guides to the CPE Bach sonata and Mozart concerto are the three great treatises of the 1750s, as well as the harp methods of the 1760s, 70s and 80s; their fundamental agreement far outweighs their subtle differences.

Of course, historical teaching books have plenty of detailed information to offer, but we can also come to understand the underlying assumptions of period aesthetics by studying the big picture of how writers organise their material, from Milán in the 16th century, and Ribayaz in the 17th; to Quantz, CPE Bach and Leopold Mozart in the mid-18th; Meyer, Cousineau and Ragué in the following decades. We can follow a chronological story, as the broad consensus gradually changes.

The True Art

All these writers deal very quickly with sound-production: hold the instrument the right way up, and tune it like this. Of course, there are further subtleties, but we won’t find them in period teaching books. We have to reverse-engineer the technical means from our knowledge of the aesthetic end-goals, from iconography, from information about other instruments etc.

Milan teaches how to compose renaissance polyphony, Ribayaz how to play baroque dances.

All the 18th-century books are structured in the same order, to teach Articulation, Ornamentation and Good Delivery.

18th-century teaching books

Articulation (as we have just seen) is how to make the instrument ‘speak’.

Ornamentation is not only decoration but also a kind of musical grammar, just as those funny marks on French words are not just typographic decoration, but a basic requirement of the language. café, garçon, fête, naïf, près. In language and in music, these small marks are mentally added even if the writer forgets them; they change the sound and the meaning.

Good Delivery is not quite the same as modern ‘interpretation’. A baroque musician is not an ‘interpreter’ who translates the music into a new language, or comes up with his own explanation of it. Rather, the baroque musician is like a fine speaker, who delivers poetic lines well, who communicates to an audience the sound of the words, the meaning of the words and the emotions of the words. The term Expression is another ‘false friend’: the performer’s aim is not to express his own emotions, but to convey the emotions of the music to the audience, just as an actor does not express his own feelings, but conveys to the audience the emotions of his character. Peri and Il Corago emphasise that baroque music is modelled on the speech of a fine actor.

Some baroque books include a section on accompaniment – filling out the left hand with improvised harmonies (Ribayaz) or improvising harmonies to accompany a soloist or orchestra (CPE Bach). In the CPE Bach sonata, the continuo might be realised by the same harpist who plays the right hand, or perhaps by a second instrument. We don’t know the composer’s original intention.

So let’s take the period organisation of Articulation, Ornamentation, Good Delivery and Continuo, and apply some of the detailed historical information to the baroque harp. Articulation is produced in different ways on different instruments – with tonguing syllables tiri liri or diddle diddle on the flute; with bow strokes on the violin; with choice of fingers on harps, lutes and keyboards – but the common aim is to imitate the sound of speech. So we need Good and Bad syllables, and for Monteverdi we need to link them in the patterns of typical Italian words piano, forte, dolce, pizza, pasta, arpa. Good links to Bad.

On the harp, we match Good and Bad syllables, Good and Bad notes, to Good and Bad fingers. For 17th-century Italian harp, 1 is Good, 2 is Bad, 3 is Good. Just as the word-accents mostly alternate Good and Bad, so the scale fingerings alternate. 3-2 ascending, and 1-2 descending. With this fingering, scales are not homogenous – dadadada – but are articulated. Think of Frank Sinatra – dooby-dooby-doo. The technical procedure matches the sound of the language also by joining together Good-Bad. Piano, forte, dolce, pizza, pasta.

The whole shape of the Early Music phrase is not like the long curved lines we see engraved into 19th-century scores. Rather it alternates Good and Bad, and has the principal accent almost at the end of the line.

To be or not to be, that’s the Question.

But the last syllable is unaccented, a Bad. This leads to a general practice in HIP of not arriving triumphantly on the last note, with a massive false accent. Rather, the assumption is that the last note is a Bad syllable, unaccented.

However, today’s Early Music performers mostly ignore clear period advice not to slow down or break before the last note. At cadences, we often hear a rallentando and a hesitation before the final note – whereas Caccini and many other 17th-century sources ask for ornaments to accelerate and run smoothly into the last, unaccented note.

Metre and Accent

Those most famous words of Shakespeare To  be or not to be, that’s the Question have a very similar pattern to the famous first line of Dante’s Inferno: Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita. The subtle difference is that Italian has more two-syllable words joined Good-Bad mezzo, nostra, vita whereas English has many monosyllables grouped into iambics Bad-Good, to be / or not / to be. So we can play the harp in the historical accents of different languages. Monteverdi should sound Italian. Bach should sound German. But what about Mozart in Paris: does his music speak Italian, French or German?

We can play Continuo also with Good and Bad chords; more notes and a quick roll on the Good, fewer notes and plaque on the Bad. With carefully use of resonance and damping, we can join Good and Bad, Italian-style. Piano forte dolce pizza pasta  Or Bad-Good, to be / or not  / to be. This is how continuo-players can imitate the somiglianza, the semblance of words described by Agazzari.

In his theorbo-book, Kapsberger shows how to make the arpeggio commune – ‘default arpeggio’ across two beats. This is how continuo-players can maintain the Tactus, so that they direct the song in measure, as Agazzari and Dowland recommend.

Text and Rhythm work together in music in the same way that word-accent and metre do in poetry. Tactus corresponds to poetic metre, it is like a clock that counts the time steadily. The music itself follows the patterns of word accents, which may, or may not, coincide with the ticking of the tactus clock. Sometimes the Good syllables match the Tactus: “When /I do /count the /clock that /tells the /time“. But sometimes they are subtly syncopated: “If /Music /and sweet /Poe/try a/gree“. Similarly in baroque music: there is a steady count (the Tactus), but the accents don’t always fall on the downbeat.

Early Musicians are often asked to be ‘free from the tyranny of the bar-line’. This phrase is helpful, if we understand it to mean that the word-accent does not have to coincide with the first beat of the bar, i.e. with the Tactus beat. But some modern players think that they should completely ignore the Tactus and play in free rhythm. Period sources make it clear: the Tactus is kept, slow and steady, like an old clock; but you don’t necessarily put the word-accents on the Tactus beats. This concept, of measured rhythm and independent accents (rather than accentual rhythm), is perhaps the most significant difference between modern and pre-1800 approaches. You can read more in George Houle’s excellent survey of Performance, Perception and Notation 1600-1800, Metre in Music, here.

OTHER TECHNICAL QUESTIONS

Other technical questions are not answered in the teaching books, but have to be investigated through historical images, via other instruments, or reconstructed on a pragmatic basis, once we understand the end-goal. So we see that the historical position for the Italian triple harp is with the instrument high, the player seated low; the low-tension strings require less strength, more relaxation in the hand; the hands rest on the soundboard (surviving instruments show wear-marks), the thumb crosses underneath the fingers (as with the lute), the finger-strokes are slow.

ORNAMENTS

This is a huge subject, but the take-home message about 18th-century Ornaments comes from combining the information in Quantz’s CPE Bach’s and Leopold Mozart’s treatises. Play ornaments on the beat, with a long upper auxiliary, and with decrescendo (the so-called Abzug, phrasing off). On the harp, don’t try to make too many iterations, rather concentrate on being on the beat and getting that Abzug. There are fingerings for trills in the 18th-century harp methods.

You need the Abzug also for appoggiaturas; Leopold Mozart says that you should ‘ooze’ into the second note, hineinschleifen in the original German. The 18th-century harp methods also focus on the appoggiatura.

 

Ornaments

 

EMOTIONS

But in a historical style that does not rely on Rubato, constant Vibrato, constant Legato, nor Conductors, where can we find the Emotions?  Singers move the passions with the changing meaning of each word, alternating happy and sad, as Monteverdi’s La Musica explains:

I am Music: with my sweet phrases I can make tranquil any troubled heart;

And now with noble anger, now with Love, I can inflame the most frozen mind.

For sustaining instruments like the flute or violin, long notes are highly sensual, drawn-out with a slow bow or a languid breath, releasing the long suspense with a touch of vibrato at the end of the note. Whitney Houston demonstrates baroque long notes perfectly in And I will always love you, here.

But what about us harpists, with neither text nor sustain to play with? Quantz explains in detail the Good Delivery for dissonance and resolution. The dissonance is played loud, the resolution soft (another Abzug), and the more intense the dissonance, the louder it is played, and the softer the following resolution. On the harp, we can also move down even more près de la table to make a more painful sound on the dissonance, and then up the string for a soothing resolution. Most importantly, we can feel the effect of the dissonance as an increase in tension, with a relaxation at the resolution.

Where is the emotion

DREAM-TIME

Just before I finish, I’d like to let you know about a completely new area of research that is opening up right now, one that may revolutionise our ideas about Emotions in Music and in History, and about musical pedagogy for any repertoire.

Over the last twenty years, clinical and research psychologist Joe Griffin has developed a new theory of Dreams, which offers a convincing biological, evolutionary and psychological model, replacing the outworn ideas of Freud and Jung.

Dream Time

 

Griffin shows that Dreams are the mind’s way of dealing with those powerful emotions of the previous day which were not dealt with at the time. Dreams resolve unfulfilled expectations (whether good or bad). But what we experience in our dreams is not the actual situation that brought on the unresolved emotion; rather the dream is a metaphor, a mix of memories that matches the pattern of the unresolved situation.

Dreams operate in a particular mode of sleep, characterised by rapid eye movement. The dream state is therefore known as the REM-state. There are other altered states of consciousness that allow us to enter REM-state whilst we are awake, such as day-dreaming or hypnosis. Griffin calls the REM-state the Theatre of Dreams. A signal from the lower brain, a so-called PGO-spike, calls attention to the beginning of the dream.

Many musicians, sportsmen and women, creative writers and composers know the special state of consciousness known as Flow, or being ‘in the zone’. It’s that Zen thing. It’s related to Mindfulness. You’re relaxed, but wonderfully concentrated on the task at hand; you feel quietly confident that you can manage it, you feel calmly exhilarated at the challenge it presents to you; you don’t feel self-conscious, you are just ‘there’, in the moment, in the groove; in a certain way, Time seems to slow down, so that you can calmly take in all the incoming information, and calmly make an elegant decision and execute your reponse perfectly; your artistic intentions and your manual actions unite perfectly; you are working at high efficiency, but you could continue for hours without getting tired; you feel happy, even elated.

It’s a great feeling, and it is being in Flow that makes the difference between an elite performer, musician, martial arts practitioner or sportsman and one who is merely ok. It is being in Flow that can lift any of us beyond the limits of our normal abilities. There is exciting work going on in Hungary and Holland about teaching Flow to musicians. Not just Technique and Interpretation, but how to get into Flow.

My own research project hypothesises that Flow is another REM-state. I’m suggesting that such elements of Historically Informed Performance  as the slow, steady count of Tactus, a kind of meditation on rhythm, and baroque gesture with its frequent calls for attention, might function as gateways into Flow. And not only for the performer, but also for the audience. Specific features of baroque stage-practice – Historical Action – support the hypothesis that Baroque Operas (and Shakespeare’s dramas) are a Theatre of Flow, where performers and audiences share an REM-state, the mind’s Theatre of Dreams, in which emotions can be communicated powerfully through the metaphors of poetry and music.

REM-state allows us to reach something beyond our everyday experience – that spiritual dimension to art that every music-lover believes in, whatever we choose to call it. In 17th-century philosophy, music connects us humans to the cosmos. Many of you will know about so-called Dreamtime, in which indigenous Australians connect to their family’s homeland and traditional beliefs through a spiritual state of music, art and story-telling. The Star Wars idea of a Force that we all share, that we can all learn to use, is perhaps not so far off.

Super-human instruments

And it’s around the year 1600, just as opera is being invented, that we see the invention of larger-than-life, super-human instruments like the theorbo and arpa doppia, with super low-notes and uber-chromaticism. With such an instrument, a super-hero like Orpheus can travel to Hell and back, and use his super-powers to persuade Charon into a magic sleep – another REM-state, of course.

We could almost imagine Monteverdi’s T-shirt: my super-power is Flow, what’s yours?

My super-power is FLOW

CONCLUSION

Leaving aside these dreamy speculations, as we study the emotional language of historical music, we can view that history from the inside if we adopt period priorities and appreciate ‘foreign’ assumptions. We can consider what we would like the audience to receive, rather than what we performers want to send out. We can concentrate on Text and Rhythm, not Sound. We can search for the shared aesthetic that unifies many arts within one culture, one region, one period; as well as for the contrasts between one culture and another.

HIP summary

Our harps will speak eloquently, if we focus on short-term phrasing, two or three notes at a time, articulating them with Good and Bad, giving them the semblance and emotions of words. As harpists speaking the language of historical music, we are like actors playing a role, and like actors we want to present our lines with Good Delivery, which will include all the skills of Rhetoric and Historical Action: what we do with our bodies, hand gestures and facial expressions. One of the hot areas of current Early Music research is baroque gesture, or (as it was called at the time) historical Action.

The 17th-century writer John Bulwer quotes the great orator Quintilian, quoting Cicero, quoting the Greek rhetorician Demosthenes, who was asked: What are the three secrets of Good Delivery?

Demosthenes Cicero Quintilian

 

 What are the three secrets of Good Delivery?

Action! Action! Action!

 

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com .

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.

 

How to Practise

  • As with any training, practise little and often. 15 minutes, 3 times a week is better than 3 hours once a week.
  •  3 minutes concentrated,  disciplined work will advance you further than 3 hours of unfocussed playing.
  •  Unfoccused practising is not only wasted time, it creates bad habits which are hard to get out of later.
  •  If you are not in the mood for hard-working practice, play through your music for pleasure, but without stopping!

 THERE ARE 2 GOOD WAYS TO PRACTISE:

1. Get it right

Play several times through a small section (as small as it needs to be, to be sure of getting it right), at a slow tempo (as slow as it needs to be, to be sure of getting it right).

Get it right! Get it right 10 times consecutively.

Every time you get it right, you create a good memory, a good habit. (And every time you get it wrong, you create a bad memory, a wrong habit – so get it right!) Go slow enough, stay focussed and concentrated so that you get it right.

Get it right!

2. Don’t stop

Play through a medium or long section without stopping.

Don’t stop! Even if you make a mistake, don’t stop.

By continuing, you develop your feeling for steady rhythm, and for a smooth flowing performance. (But if you stop, you develop the habit of stopping, which is hard to break, so don’t stop!). Stay focussed and concentrated so that you don’t stop.

Don’t stop!

THERE IS ONE, MUCH-USED,  BAD WAY TO PRACTISE:

 Start off playing, make a mistake, and stop temporarily

Now correct the note you are on, and continue until the next mistake

You have just rehearsed “making an error and stopping”. Next time, you are very likely to make the same error, and stop again. You have not properly fixed the error, or practised getting it right.

You have practised “getting it wrong”.

And your practice will probably be “successful”: you will get it wrong next time too!

SUMMARY

Either “Get it Right” or “Don’t Stop”.

Know which kind of practice you are doing.

Don’t fool yourself – bad practice does not help you. Actually, it sets you back. Because practice does not make perfect… practice makes permanent. Bad practice makes it permanently bad!

Practice makes Permanent

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com .

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.

The Triple, or Modern Welsh Harp

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.

Image

[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.

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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.

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[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.

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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.

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[Welsh Triple, 1802]

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[Welsh Triple 1784]

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[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.

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[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]

File:Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, 3rd Bt by Michael Dahl.jpg

[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]

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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.