Happy New Year 2016

 

 

 

 

2016 Happy New Year

 

 

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

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

 

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.

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Look Bach on 2015

ALK & Peri

 

Bach’s Prelude & Sarabande performed on baroque triple harp, against the background of a year of research, training and performance; publications, research findings; operas and concerts around the world.

Thanks to all co-researchers and musicians, friends, colleagues, participants and audiences!

 

 

Looking forward to seeing you in 2016!

 

Peri Euridice Preface vale

 

Please join me on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

 

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.

 

 

Historical technique for Early Irish Harps

As interest in and knowledge about Historical Irish Harps (aka Early Gaelic Harps) grows, as well-made and fine-sounding instruments become increasingly available, as insights into historical styles and period aesthetics are sharpened and shared, it’s high time to consider how we might recover historical playing techniques. We have a good model of how to do this work of re-discovery in the revival of period techniques for other historical instruments: harpsichord, viola da gamba, recorder, baroque violin and European Early Harps. The modern revival of those early instruments has many decades more experience than we have with Early Irish harps, so we would be wise to take whatever we can from the hard work they already put in. As Isaac Newton wrote in 1676, we can see further “by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Where to look?

So what sources of information are available to us?

  1. Period information specifically related to the Early Irish Harp (music including technical instructions, treatises with technical information, iconography etc)
  2. Other sources of period information (other harps, similar instruments, other instruments and voice, literature etc)
  3. Personal experience of modern experts

We need to synthesise all the available information, examining each source for its merits, and weighing one piece of evidence against another. Apparent contradictions should alert us to the need for further investigation, and/or reconsideration. And – most importantly – our approach should prioritise those various sources of information in the order I’ve given.

For example, whatever opinions you might read in my blog are less significant than hard information you find in historical sources. Doh! Of course! And the same goes for any modern writer’s (or musician’s) opinions. So the challenge goes out to everyone, anyone with any interest in the subject, to find pieces of evidence that might challenge the accepted view. After all, knowledge only advances when someone dares to challenge what the previous authorities declared as indubitable fact!

Galileo and the Philosophers

Galileo and the Philosophers

What can we expect to see?

So as we put this evidence-based approach to work, what can we expect to see? The revival of other early instruments shows us that

4.  Historical techniques are different from 20th-century techniques

5.  Historical techniques vary from one historical period to another

6.  Historical techniques have consistent principles from one instrument/voice to another, within the same period

7.  Historical techniques differ from one place to another, not according to geography, but according to schools of influence

 

That last point is especially important. Within the same period, we do see significant differences in techniques from one place to another. These differences do not respect national boundaries, but are associated with shared aesthetics, cultural communication. So in the late 17th century, the musical aesthetics of the French style influenced many other countries: in Ireland, Carolan wrote Minuets. Technical methods followed the same routes as the aesthetic styles – if you want to play in French style, you’ll need French technique. Thus Muffat’s comments (in Florilegium, 1698, available, but not free, here) on the violin style of Lully made French violin technique available to musicians in the German-speaking countries who wanted to play in the French style.

Meanwhile Italian musicians brought Italian violin technique to Germany, too. By the mid-18th century, violin technique in Germany was a complex mix of French and Italian influences, described in detail in Leopold Mozart’s Violinschule (1787) here.

Similarly, Carolan’s contemporaries noticed how he brought the fashionable early 18th-century Italian style into his music. We can clearly trace in 18th-century Scots and Irish music three schools of influence: an ancient layer of Gaelic tradition (most visible in the gapped scales and characteristic ornaments); a 17th-century layer of French style (especially dance rhythms); a surface layer of Italian fashion (virtuosity and drama).

Available Evidence

So keeping in mind the principles of Where to Look and the guide of What we can Expect to See, what can we observe about period techniques for Early Irish Harps?

1a Music

There is very little (if any) music, let alone music annotated with technical instructions, for historical Irish Harp, that survives as a reliable indication of how the old harpers actually played.. Much of the repertoire remained in the aural tradition for centuries, and most of the publications of harp music were intended (and therefore, we may presume, adapted) for other instruments. Around 1800, Bunting includes some technical instructions in his published arrangements, but the technical information has to be assessed carefully since the music itself is heavily adapted. Luckily, we also have Bunting’s MS notebooks, which record the various stages of his work from field recording (noting down a tune as sung, played on fiddle, or played on the harp) through the process of adaptation and arrangement to the final published version. These notebooks include a few hints on technique, but fall way short of what we might wish for (detailed fingerings for an entire tune, for example). 18th-century prints are also one step removed from the harp itself, and do not include technical information. We find harp music in 17th-century lute tablatures, but these supply very little technical information.

1b Treatises

We don’t have Carolan’s Recipe for the Harp, more’s the pity! In fact, we have almost no period technical information for historical Irish Harp. Bunting’s publications and note-books give us some information on treble-hand ornaments and bass-hand chords.

What we do have is an 18th-century tradition of the first tunes that were taught to students of the Irish harp. Simon Chadwick discusses three such tunes and gives his suggestions for a technical approach in his book Progressive Lessons for Early Gaelic Harp, read more here.

Chadwick Progressive Lessons

You can see Bunting’s manuscript sketch of the Second Tune Burns March here  (The crossing out is Bunting’s mark that he has transferred the material to the next stage of adaptation and arrangement).

Burns March Bunting MS

 

The final arrangement for pianoforte is in his 1809 publication.

 

 

Burns March Bunting 1809

Comparing these two versions, there is plenty of room for speculation and debate as to which elements of detail seen in the final publication are genuine memories of Denis O’Hampsey’s performance on Irish harp, and which are Bunting’s own adaptations for a pianoforte publication. For example, the published version suggests how the notes might be divided between the two hands, and gives a lot of information about sustained and damped notes, all of which is consistent with other information this period. But the pianoforte arrangement also features extreme dynamics and rallentando, which contradict the information Bunting himself provides, that the old harpers played “briskly” and avoided the “sentimentality” of the 19th-century pianoforte style. However, the publication’s over-dotting of the long notes in bars one and two, and the slur indication, both serve to emphasise the difference between long/resonant and short/damped. This  is consistent with the principle of Good and Bad notes that we find throughout European music in the three centuries or more before 1800 (see below).

But we don’t know what kind of fingering system was used. Simon Chadwick’s realisation has something of medieval Ap Huw, something of 20th-century Crossed Hands. It does not look like the Good/Bad fingerings we see for many European instruments in the 16th/17th centuries, nor like the 18th-century approach we see in European treatises (German Essays and French Methods). With Simon’s book, as with Bunting’s output, the reader must decide for themselves how to separate historical information from editorial adaptation. With all due academic propriety, Simon makes your task easier, by giving you access to Bunting’s versions so that you can make your own comparison.

The fact that we know what were the First Tunes to be learnt in the early 18th century is a wonderful piece of information. Unfortunately, any modern interpretation of that information is working at several removes from what the old harpists actually played. We should synthesise the information hinted at in these First Tunes with what we know more surely from other sources.

1c Iconography

There are lots of period images, which give us plenty of suggestions for the basic posture, position of the hands etc. Surviving instruments also preserve signs of wear and tear, indicating how they were used by historical players.

aoneill

 

Carolan with small harp

2a Other Early Harps

We have a lot of period information and modern expertise to draw on. The ‘schools of influence’ concept can help us apply French and Italian techniques to Irish harp.

2b Related Early Instruments

We have a huge amount of period information and modern expertise to draw on. We can learn from historical Irish pipers and fiddlers. And we can learn from all the European instruments and voice treatises. If we look for the common ground, we can see strong consistent messages from all these sources, that we can confidently apply to Irish harp.

2c Other period sources

We have Irish texts to show us the characteristic phrasing of Irish song melodies. We can learn from any musical instrument, and from period literature and philosophy. There is a bottomless well of period information from Ireland and the rest of Europe, all of which we might usefully examine for possible relevance to Irish harp technique.

3 Modern expertise

If there is a current consensus, it is based largely on modern expertise. This is a valuable source of shared knowledge, but we must bear in mind that 20th-century wire-strung techniques were developed to play the repertoire as it was understood in the 20th century, in the way it was played in the 20th century, with the instruments that were available in the 20th century. Modern wire-strung technique therefore focuses on how to play the jigs and reels of modern tradition; how to play fast and loud in the modern manner; how to play evenly and smoothly in the modern style; how to control the excessive treble resonance of 20th-century steel-strung harps.

Coupled hands Heymann

Ann Heymann’s (2001) Coupled Hands technique makes it easier to play wide-ranging fast tunes by using both hands for the melody. It is available here.

 

Intro to wire-strung harp

This modern tutor, edited by Bill Taylor and Barnaby Brown, features contributions from Ann Heymann, Javier Sanz and Bill Taylor, and is available here.

Weighing the evidence

4.  Historical techniques are different from 20th-century techniques

20th-century techniques evolved to deal with particular challenges. Historical techniques evolved to deal with different challenges: how to play the historical repertoire of a particular period; with the slow steady beat of historical Tactus; with the short-term phrasing contrasts of period style; how to create the rich bass resonance that was so admired from the middle ages onwards, on thick brass strings.

Therefore, we can confidently expect that period techniques for historical Irish Harps will be quite different from 20th-century wire-strung methods.

5.  Historical techniques vary from one historical period to another

This makes our task with the Irish Harp even more complex. We have so little information, and the information we do have is from around 1800. When we look at the music itself, we see that music from Carolan’s time changed considerably as it was passed around by aural transmission during the 18th century. During the 1840s, William Forde collected many variants of older tunes, and some of these variants show extreme differences. More about the Forde MS here. During the 18th century, the old nail-technique was almost entirely abandoned.

We must assume that period techniques changed, in line with the music itself. Parallel changes in techniques for other harps, for other instruments, and the changing demands of the music can suggest what changes might have happened when.

Nevertheless, there are certain fundamental principles that are common to a wide range of early techniques (various instruments across a wide chronological period). It is reasonable to apply these fundamental principles of early techniques to Irish harp. And frankly, given the lack of other evidence, we have no alternative!

6.  Historical techniques have consistent principles from one instrument/voice to another, within the same period

This encourages us to seek out those fundamental principles, and apply them.

7.  Historical techniques differ from one place to another, not according to geography, but according to schools of influence

So we can look for help for the Irish harp from 15th/16th-century Welsh traditions (e.g. Ap Huw MS, read more here); from 17th-century French sources; from mid-18th-century German sources that describe the ‘international’ mix of Italian and French styles, from late 18th-century French sources that describe the harp techniques brought to England and Ireland around 1800.

These patterns of influence suggest strong parallels between the chronological development of Irish harp techniques and the big story of technical changes in Europe for all kinds of instruments.

All this encourages us to examine the fundamental principles of historical techniques (for any instrument, anywhere in Europe), and experiment with how to apply them to historical Irish harps, playing historical repertoire in a historical style.

Here are some provisional pointers.

Position

Period images show us that

  • The player sits with one leg more extended than the other
  • The harp is positioned with the top of the box more-or-less under the player’s chin.
  • The hands rest on the soundbox

All this is consistent with period posture when sitting in any situation, and with the wear-marks from the player’s hands resting on the soundbox of the 15th-century Trinity harp.

My personal experience is that it helps to rest the hands on the soundbox firmly: this allows the fingers to be relaxed and move freely. I counterbalance the pressure of a finger on a string with increased pressure of the hand on the soundbox. This passes the physical sensation of playing down through the body in a chain of actions/reactions, finger on string, hand on harp, harp on shoulder, shoulders supported by spine, sitting well-balanced on the chair, sensing the connection to the floor in your feet. This proprioceptive chain creates the sensation that you play a note with your entire body, and that you are simultaneously balanced, centred and connected to the earth.

Hempson

Which hand to use?

  • One hand plays the treble, the other hand plays the bass.
  • The hands are usually widely separated.
  • The left hand plays the treble.

Images and surviving music support the historical division of roles between the hands – one hand plays the treble, the other hand plays the bass. This is consistent from Ap Huw to Bunting. Bunting mentions hand-crossing as a special effect, used very sparingly. This is consistent with techniques for other harps and keyboards in this period.

There is no historical support for, and considerable period evidence to contradict, the 20th-century technique of  Crossed (Linked or Coupled) hands. That is a modern technique, evolved to deal with the modern challenge of playing the modern repertoire in the modern style.

For the Irish harp, period sources show a strong preference for left hand in the treble, right hand in the bass. Modern players may have good reasons for preferring right hand in the treble. This is a matter of personal choice, it makes no difference to the sound (if you set up your instrument in accordance with your choice of treble hand). The days are long past, when we thought it was acceptable to force people to change their natural handedness.

Brutal attempts to suppress left-handedness in the past.

Brutal attempts to suppress left-handedness in the past.

See my video lesson 1: Position here.

Introduction to Early Irish harp 1 Position

How to move your fingers

Accumulated experience and period evidence for other early instruments teaches us

  • The hand is relaxed, with the fingers and thumb gently curved
  • The fingers rest on the strings and ‘slide’ across the strings, rather than ‘pulling’ or ‘plucking’ from behind the strings
  • The finger-stroke is slow
  • There is a wide range of movement for a long note, a small movement for a short note
  • Increased volume comes from pressure on the string, not from speed of movement.
  • The movement is similar to giving a shoulder rub, to massaging the scalp when washing your hair, to kneading dough for bread-making

These fundamentals are common to any instrument with low tension strings. There is no significant difference whether one plays with fingertips or with nails. However, there is a historical change around 1800, as string tension increases greatly and the period aesthetic moves away from Rhetoric to 19th-century Romanticism.

These fundamentals are very different from the technique of modern classical (or modern ‘Celtic’) harp. 20th-century instruments are different, 20th-century aesthetics are different: it is to be expected that 20th-century techniques will also be different.

ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 2 Finger-movement

Which finger to use

This is the element of technique that changed the most, as we see from parallel developments in European harps and related instruments.

Across a wide period, and across many different instruments, teaching books have a consistent structure. More about period teaching books, here. There is a short introduction, which could be summarised as “hold the instrument this way up, this is where the notes are, play in tune, play in time”. Then the book considers three main topics:

  1. Short-term phrasing (what early musicians call Articulation). This is created by  tonguing patterns for flutes, bowing rules for violins, and fingerings for harps, keyboards etc. More about phrasing here.
  2.  Ornamentation (more about Irish harp ornaments here)
  3. Good Delivery (period style, what modern musicians would call Interpretation)

Some books have a fourth section, about Accompaniment. (Continuo, in the baroque period).

The short-term phrasing patterns of Articulation change, and the fingering/tonguing/bowing techniques change accordingly, during the period of the Early Irish harp.

Medieval

If medieval Irish harp-playing was similar to the Welsh styles we see in the Ap Huw MS (more about Ap Huw here), then the music was ornamental, rather than melodic/syllabic. Finger patterns were evolved to produce crisp ornaments, that could be played fast and with certain notes damped for the sake of clarity. The hand is fairly static. We see the remnants of this technical approach in the ornament fingerings given by Bunting.

Just as “classical” early Irish poetry is not constructed according to the accentual metres of European poetry (and Carolan’s easy-listening song lyrics), so the medieval technique of the Ap Huw style does not correspond to the Good/Bad notes principle of later music.

Renaissance & Early Baroque

16th and 17th music has melodies that relate closely to song-melodies. The tunes are therefore syllabic (you can set a text to the tune, with one, two or more notes to each syllable). Just as period poetry has accented and unaccented syllables, so early music has Good and Bad notes, which are played with Good and Bad fingers.  The rule is simple, a Good finger for a Good note, a Bad finger for a Bad note.

The question, which finger is which? Different techniques (various instruments, various periods, various places) make different choices: we may conclude that it doesn’t so much matter which choice you make, but it does matter to make some choice). I speculate that earlier Irish harp techniques might have concentrated on three fingers (index Good, middle Bad, ring Good) with the thumb kept for ornaments. Later Irish harp techniques were probably similar to European harps (thumb Good, index Bad, middle Good).

European historical techniques for harps with the hands close to the soundboard cross the thumb under the fingers. Irish harps were played with the hands close to the soundboard.

Melodies in this period tend to move step-wise, with little fragments of scales upwards and downwards. European historical techniques for harps with the hands close to the soundboard go upwards 32 32 32 and downwards 12 12 12. This works well on Irish harps, remembering that many intervals of a third are not true “jumps” but rather Gaelic gapped scales.

ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 3 Good & Bad

Late Baroque and Classical

There is a significant change in aesthetic and techniques during the 18th century, which is clearly established by the time of the three great mid-century treatises: Quantz for flute (1752) here, CPE Bach for keyboard (1753 & 1762) here, , Leopold Mozart for violin (1787) here. The same approach is seen in late 18th-century French harp treatises, read more here.

European 18th-century harp technique works very well for 18th-century Irish music on historical Irish harp.

This was the period during which Irish harpists abandoned use of fingernails. Playing with nails in the older tradition, I find it easier to play thumb-under. If you play with the finger pads as was the incoming fashion, you might well use the thumb-over position described in the late-century French sources.

My advice to students about thumb-under/thumb-over is that it doesn’t really matter much which you use. But you really need to choose: if your thumb can’t decide whether to go over or under, and ends up striking against the index finger, the result is disastrous! Just choose.

Late 18th-century fingerings stretch out the hand to help cover wide-ranging tunes and bigger leaps. The fourth, even fifth, finger comes into use. These fingerings respond to the challenges of the 18th-century repertoire, and I find that they work even for the jigs and reels of the later tradition.

These fingering are convenient to use, they make difficult melodies possible. But they do not create the Good/Bad phrasing, that is still part of the style even in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If you use this kind of technique, you have to create the Good and Bad notes for yourself. The three great treatises make it clear that the concept of Good & Bad notes still applies, even during the later 18th century when the technical methods have moved on.

Meyer title page001

 

ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 4 18th-century fingerings

 

Which technique shall I learn?

My advice would be:

  • If you have the time and patience, learn the appropriate technique for the period of the music you are playing.
  • The best way to sensitise your ears to the sound of Good/Bad phrasing is to experiment with the 16th/17th century Good/Bad fingerings.
  • If you are going to learn just one technique for Historical Irish Harps, learn the late-18th century French technique, here.

 

ALK video coming soon!

Introduction to Early Irish harp 5 Comparing fingerings circa 1700

 

Helpful Hints

Don’t worry about left-hand treble or right-hand treble. Just choose.

Don’t worry about thumb-under or thumb-over. Just choose.

Don’t worry too much about damping. Play Good and Bad notes, and listen. Damp anything that continues to annoy you!

20th-century wire-strung methods have instilled a terror of resonance, and an instinct to damp everything. This results in a negative mind-set, where the rich resonance of the historical Irish harp is choked, and players are inhibited from creating any sound at all. Learn to love that wonderful deep bass, thick brass, resonance. Make your melodies as clear as they need to be with selective damping, but let your harp’s voice be heard.

Thinking too much about damping is like driving with one foot on the accelerator, the other foot on the brake. You won’t get anywhere. The resultant sound is rather like John Major’s infamous locked throat voice-production (have a good laugh, here)

More about selective damping, in a later post.

Meanwhile, if you have some historical evidence to add to this, or contradict my suggestions, I would love to hear your comments!

fingernails

 

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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.

Precision tuning & Early Irish harps

Pythagoras tuning

This post is my summary of (and comments on) a paper by Paul Dooley, given at Scoil na gCláirseach, the summer school of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, on 14th August 2014. More about Scoil na gCláirseach here.

Summary of Paul’s presentation

1. Once you allow for the historical tuning with two Gs (the ‘sisters’), the earliest surviving Irish harps (Trinity & Queen Mary) have string lengths that fit well with a theoretical ideal for minimising inharmonicity throughout most of the compass, but the basses are considerably shortened. This corresponds very closely to a surviving early Neapolitan spinet. The implication is that these harps could be tuned very accurately. More about suviving Irish harps here.

Trinity

ALK comments:

The modern re-discovery of Early Irish harps is following a trajectory that was seen with other Early Instruments during the 20th century. Many mid-20th century harpsichords were markedly different from period instruments, owing more to a 20th-century piano tradition than to historical information; nowadays there is a wide range of well-made, historically appropriate harpsichords to choose from. The accumulation of shared knowledge amongst players and makers of Early Irish harp has now reached a point where well-made, historically appropriate instruments are available, and players can reasonably expect their instruments to do the job they were originally intended to do.

In the 1960s and 1970s, mainstream musicians often accused early musicians of being out of tune and technically insecure: not without cause! But the improvement in standards of instrument-building and playing during the 1980s allowed audiences to expect the best early music to be at least as well in tune and technically competent as any other professional performance. Early Irish harp is not easy to play nor to tune, and the modern performing tradition has a shorter history, and a smaller number of players than (for example) harpsichord, recorder or viola da gamba (these three instruments were established in German Music High-Schools many decades ago, there is still no full-time course in Historical Irish harp at any conservatoire). So it is inevitable that technical standards in Irish harp are still in the development phase: we are still in the exciting pioneer-days, living out the initial, steeply-rising section of the learning curve.

There were two further developments in Early Instruments during the last decades of the millenium. Players not only improved their technical control, they also aligned that technique itself ever closer with historical information. This is the next challenge for players of early Irish harp, to forge techniques that are not only effective, but also genuinely historical, evidence-based. 

Meanwhile, practices of tuning in 20th century Early Music also became influenced by historical information.  But what does it mean to be “in tune”? As for any element of performance practice, the answer depends on the period, aesthetic culture and repertoire being played. The mainstream standard is Equal Temperament, a compromise that is acceptable in every tonality, but which is also flawed throughout. There are ‘standard operating procedures’ in today’s Early Music, which do not necessarily correspond to historical information: for example, there is a strong tendency to use Vallotti’s 1779 temperament for music of much earlier periods. The Anti-Vallotti facebook group, here,  will give you an idea of the passionate debates aroused by such topics. The whole subject is much debated, sometimes with fairly complicated mathematics, and even a thoroughly practical approach requires a clear understanding of the function of various intervals in the music being performed, and the aural skills to tune accurately. 

Harmony of the Spheres and intervals

It is a fact of acoustics, which can be verified mathematically, that one cannot have all the intervals in the chromatic scale perfectly in tune, pure. Equal Temperament spreads out the impurities evenly across the whole scale. Historical temperaments choose purity in certain areas, at the cost of impurity elsewhere. The practical solution is to make sure that the impurities are hidden where they will not create a problem. Medieval temperaments favoured fifths (making the thirds out of tune), Renaissance temperaments narrow (‘temper’) the fifths to make the major thirds pure. 18th-century temperaments use a variety of pure and impure fifths and thirds to make some tonalities better than others.

Most Irish harps are essentially diatonic, so we are restricted to a narrow range of tonalities. This favours temperament choices that make the accessible tonalities especially in-tune, since the inevitable impurities can be hidden away in areas of the chromatic compass that are inaccessible to the instrument. Such temperaments, with many pure intervals, sound especially good in the long sustain and enormous resonance of historical Irish harps. So here is another challenge for today’s players, to experiment with appropriate historical temperaments, especially temperaments that have many pure intervals.

In short – there is room to raise our standards of technique and tuning, and to make our approach to both more historical. We should explore temperaments that have many pure intervals (in contrast to Equal Temperament, in which every interval is impure).

Paul’s presentation continues

2. Experiments with period wire-making techniques showed (by high-tech metallurgical analysis) that very high levels of purity could be obtained, even with a ‘low-tech’ set-up, and that the annealing process (for drawing thick to medium-thin strings) also improves inharmonicity.The implication is that early wire strings could be tuned very accurately.

Rose wires

ALK comments:

In the last 30 years, there has been a considerable accumulation of knowledge and experience, and a resulting improvement in standards of wire strings. Well-constructed instruments can withstand the tension of thick brass strings (clearly specified in 17th and 18th century sources). Ann Heyman, Simon Chadwick and others (including Tim Hobrough and me) have experimented successfully with precious metal strings (hinted at in earlier sources). It is much easier to tune an Irish harp, well strung to today’s standards, than it was with the strings of the 1980s.

However, I would still say that I find it harder and slower to tune my Irish harps than the gut-strung instruments, harpsichords, organs and regals that I also tune frequently. Perhaps there are further improvements to be made in manufacture and selection of wire strings, but a more significant improvement might come from building harps from hard wood and not from willow. The debate about willow is only just begun, but my hunch is that when we have more data, we will see that willow was more of a traditional assumption than a historical choice. Until recently, we harpists have admired willow for its ability to bend under the tension of all those wire strings, but we also have to admit that this same bendiness plays havoc with our attempts to tune precisely. Most makers of other instruments (i.e. not Irish harps) admire woods that do not bend so much, and surely we harpists would be happy to tune a more stable instrument!

As late as the mid-1990s, I considered that the margin of error when tuning an Irish harp was too great to make quarter-comma Meantone (the typical temperament of the 16th and 17th centuries) practicable. Quarter-comma Meantone sounds wonderful when tuned accurately, but if a major third is just a tiny bit too narrow it sounds awful. The 5ths of quarter-comma meantone are described in period sources as “as narrow as can be accepted” – and yes, if they get any narrower, they do indeed sound unacceptable. Quarter-comma Meantone is a high-risk tuning strategy: it sounds great until you get it wrong, and then it sounds terrible!

But with the improved strings and stringing setups available today, I can confidently tune quarter-comma meantone on my baroque Irish harp, and I use a variety of pure-interval tunings on my 15th-century “Queen Mary” copy, depending on repertoire.

Queen Mary Harp

Meanwhile, I was impressed with the high standards of metallurgical purity Paul obtained with his home-made strings. As he commented, low-tech manufacturing was measured with high-tech sophistication to reveal remarkable consistency. On the other hand, trace amounts of certain “impurities” in metal strings can produce useful properties in terms of strength, density and tone-colour. We should not assume that chemical purity was necessarily the goal: carefully controlled impurity could be desirable. But Paul’s experimental demonstration shows that we can reasonably assume string-makers of earlier times were able to make wire with just the chemical composition and physical properties that they wanted. In earlier times, good strings might have been better than the strings available to us today.

Paul’s presentation concludes


3. Looking at the Ap Huw MS, Paul suggests that what seems to be a collection of scordatura tunings (e.g. pentatonic scales etc) is actually a collection of temperaments, in which the default Pythagorean (pure fourths and fifths) is adjusted to produce good major thirds where needed for certain pieces, or even good minor thirds where needed for other pieces. 

And he demonstrated this, with two very accurately tuned harps.

Ap Huw MS

ALK comments:

This is a very plausible suggestion, and the musical results were most convincing. The idea is entirely consistent with what we know of the development of temperaments in renaissance Europe, gradually shifting from late medieval Pythagorean to early baroque Meantone.  Adjusted Pythagorean (with some good thirds) was a step along this path, during the period (1340-1500) of the pieces transcribed into the Ap Huw MS (circa 1613). Such tunings especially suit harps with their many open strings, waiting to resonate in sympathy with any pure interval sounded on the instrument.  Although the Ap Huw MS is associated with the gut- (or horsehair) strung Welsh harp, there is a general consensus that it is closely related to period practices in Ireland, and I would agree with Paul that these temperaments are perfectly suited to Irish harp. Indeed, the wire strings have even more resonance, so that the resonance effects of pure intervals are even more marked on the Irish harp.

For Ap Huw specialists, the next step is to try all the surviving pieces according to Paul’s interpretation of the temperament instructions. But the application of Paul’s ideas can be much wider, if we understand the underlying principles and put them to work in any repertoire that we play on Irish harps.

Principal #1

As we tune an Irish harp for a piece, or a set of pieces, we are not only choosing the notes we need (F natural or F sharp is the most frequently encountered choice); we are also adjusting the temperament, optimising the tuning for the particular intervals that structure in the music we are about to play.

 

Principal #2

The resonance of the harp, especially the Irish harp, encourages us to use pure intervals for the most important harmonies.

In later repertoires (e.g. Carolan, circa 1700) the music often ranges freely through the available harmonies. For example, the famous prelude Feaghan Geleas (Try if it’s in tune) has harmonies of G major, A minor, E minor, and D. The period aesthetic favours pure thirds, so we will have to temper the fifths in order to get so many different chords all sounding good. I would suggest quarter-comma Meantone.

Principal #3

The limited scale of the Irish harp (not all chromatics are available), and/or the restricted choice of harmonies in Irish music mean that we can hide impurities where they will not be heard.

 

Earlier repertoires, and some conservative, ‘traditional’ pieces from later sources use a more restricted harmonic palette. So-called “double-tonic” tunes (and many Ap Huw pieces) have only two chords. For example, the Gypsy Lilt (from the early 17th-century Rowallan lute MS, though the piece itself might be even older) has two harmonies, which we can play on the Irish harp as D major and C major (you have to tune F# in the high octave, F natural in the bass). We could tune D-A as a pure fifth, and D-F# as a pure mheajor third, to give us a pure triad. Mmm…. lovely! And we can tune C-G as a pure fifth, and C-E as a pure major third, and we have another pure triad. Mmm, again!

Now we have to decide how to connect those two triads. There is a clue in the music: the C major chord often has the A in it. So we could make A-E a pure fourth. Now everything sounds really good. There are some pretty bad intervals in this temperament (D-G is horrible) but that interval is not heard in this piece.

The piece has two more notes that appear only infrequently: B and F natural (in the bass only, the treble has F#). These notes function as a dissonant appoggiatura to the C major harmony, resolving onto C and G. We could create these notes from pure major thirds (G-B, F-A) or from pure fifths (E-B, C-F): either option creates the same result. F natural and B create a dissonance in any temperament. But when we play those two dissonant notes together with C (which clashes against the B), and then resolve onto a pure triad (with a pure added sixth, C major plus A), there is a very strong contrast of dissonance/consonance.

Dissonances resolving onto consonances are one of the main expressive devices of renaissance music. Temperaments with pure thirds are typical of the late renaissance, temperaments with pure fifths AND pure thirds are typical of the early renaissance, and might have been preserved in conservative traditions. Such temperaments work particularly well on harps, especially Irish harps. Paul Dooley’s paper links period instruments, historical string-making techniques and the Ap Huw MS to suggest tunings for Irish harp that are fully consistent with renaissance musical developments in the Europe.

The academic ideas fit together really well. So let’s get our Irish harps, and try some high precision, high purity historical tunings!

Paul Dooley

[Paul Dooley]

PS

If you are not accustomed to historical temperaments, here are my tips for getting started.

1. Get a good tuner. I recommend ClearTune, available as an inexpensive App for any Smart Phone.

2. Try quarter-comma Meantone, to get your ears accustomed to the sound of pure major thirds.

3.  If you want to experiment with the kind of temperaments Paul suggests for Ap Huw (and I recommend for any double-tonic pieces), first look at the music to identify the structural harmonies. These will usually be two triads, for example G-B-D and A-C-E. You can tune each of these two triads with a good major third AND a good fifth. Then you must decide how to link the two triads, by choosing an interval with one note from each triad to tune pure (for example E-B).

4. Now you need some simple arithmetic, in order to construct a table of “plus and minus” for each note. You’ll see that your tuner has an indication of cents (one hundredths of an equal temperament semitone).

ClearTune

5. Here is the vital information. Compared to your tuner’s standard equal temperament, a pure fifth is 2 cents wider; a pure fourth is 2 cents narrower; a pure major third is 14 cents narrower. (Yes, now you see that equal temperament is impure throughout!).

6. So let’s construct the temperament for my imaginary example, a double-tonic piece on G major and A minor. We tend to start building a temperament from A = O (no plus, no minus). A-E will be a pure fifth, so E=+2. C-E will be a pure major third, so C=+16. That’s the A minor triad done.

Next we link to the other triad: E-B  will be a pure fifth, so B=+4.

Now we construct the G triad: G-B will be a pure major third, so G=+18.  And G-D will be a pure fifth, so D=+20.

Finally, if you want F#, make it a major third with D, so F#=+6.

It’s convenient to write all this into a table for tuning an Irish harp from the sisters Gs:

G=+18,   A=0,   B=+4,   C=+16,   D=+20,   E=+2,   F#=+6

Notice that D-A will sound terrible, but there are no D chords in this double-tonic piece. (If there are three chords or more, you will need quarter-comma Meantone instead).

7.  Now you’re ready to tune. Set your tuner to equal temperament, and tune each note plus or minus so many cents, according to your table.

Play your piece, and enjoy all those pure intervals. Mmm, lovely!

Harmony of the Spheres Fludd

 

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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.

Irish Harp Ornament of the Month #4: Striking Upwards

The Mountains of Morne lie ahead, it’s high time to Strike Upwards!

Mountains of Morne

 

The same combination of finger-movements that we learnt for the Long Shake here is just what we need for what Bunting calls Activity of finger ends, striking upwards. He gives the Irish name as Barlluith-beal-an-airdhe. 

 

Striking upwards

 

As with the Triple Shake here the finger-movements are a short segment of a Long Shake. But now the segment is slightly longer, and the sound that results is rather different. Here it is in modern notation (3 = middle finger, 2 = index etc).

 

Striking upwards ALK

Start as for a Long Shake with 3 2 4 2 (fingers 3 and 4 are both on the same string, in this case, F#).  Then instead of playing another note, just let finger 3 come to rest on that same (F#) string, damping it. Meanwhile, the finger-2 string (G) rings on. And that’s all there is to it!

WATCH THE VIDEO: Irish Harp Ornament #4 “Striking Upwards”

As with all ornaments, practise the finger-movements slowly, getting them perfectly right, before trying to speed them up. If you’ve followed the sequence of ornaments so far, you should find this one fairly straightforward to play. But its name hints at some subtle details of how and where it might be used.

Activity of the finger ends” is a strong indication that such quick notes are played with a small movement of the last joint of the finger, not with a large movement and not with the whole finger. Using just the smallest joint of the finger helps the movement be quick and light, and a short finger-stroke helps you get that finger back onto the string again sooner. All this works particularly well on metal strings and with fingernails: a small movement of the fingertip is enough to produce a crisp, clear sounding ornament.

Striking upwards” characterises this ornament as ‘upward’ – the ornament moves from low to higher. The main note is the last one, which is sustained (in this case, the final G). As for all ornaments of this period, the Striking Upwards should begin on the beat. A good way to be sure of this, is to make sure that the first note of the ornament coincides with the bass note. In this case, that would probably be a bass G, perhaps even a full chord of G major (Bunting’s full hand). This will produce a strong dissonance as the F# of the ornament clashes with the G in the bass. So this upwards ornament will strike firmly.

A good place to use this ornament is where the melody approaches a long note from below. For example, in the first tune of the main part of Bunting’s 1840 collection, Sit down under my protection the first two phrases both end this way. Here I’ve transposed Bunting’s arrangement into G major, simplified the accompaniment and – in the second line – added Striking Upwards:

Sit down under my protection

Probably one would choose to add this ornament only in one of these two Upward locations, but either is possible. And both produce a clash, a Strike of the ornamented melody against the bass.

One last comment. It is just possible that this ornament, played three times in succession, is what Bunting meant by his enigmatic Triple Shake. We don’t know for sure, because Bunting does not show the damping for his Triple Shake, and the one application of it in the whole of his output is problematic. In my interpretation of the Triple Shake here, it begins on the main note, like the other Shakes.

In contrast, Striking Upwards begins on the lower auxiliary, which is what produces the Striking effect. So Striking Upwards does not seem to belong to the category of Bunting’s Shakes. And the threefold dissonances of a triple Strike would be a departure from the harmonies that we see elsewhere in this repertoire. But there is certainly room for debate here: I look forwards to your comments.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irish Harp Ornament of the Month #3 – The Triple Shake

Welcome back after the winter break! As storms batter the western isles, what better time to sit indoors and practise Irish Harp ornaments? And what ornament could be more Gaelic-sounding than a Triple Shake, Tribhuilleach or creathadh coimh-mhear? And how could I possibly resist making it ornament #3?

Three-leafed clover

But at this point, I have to issue a warning. In the ornaments we’ve looked at so far, we’ve seen connections to (and differences from) European practice of the same period, and we’ve compared Bunting’s Table of Ornaments with the opportunities to use those ornaments in the pieces he prints later on. But there is no equivalent of this Triple Shake in European music, and (as we will see) our principal source, Bunting (1840) available here  is unsatisfactory.

So this wonderfully Gaelic ornament remains somewhat enigmatic, and the realisation I propose here is necessarily conjectural. I look forward to your comments and alternative suggestions.

Here is the information from Bunting’s Table of Ornaments (page 25).

Triple Shake Bunting

Remember that the period fingering notation uses + for the thumb, 1 for index finger, etc. (see Ornament #1 – The Long Shake). Although for several of the more complex ornaments Bunting gives information about stopping the sound, for this Triple Shake he does not. I believe this omission points us towards the solution I suggest at the end of this posting.

Bunting indicates opportunities for other Shakes frequently in the pieces he publishes, with the conventional Tr marking (from Italian trillo). Many of these opportunities are at Cadences (see Ornament #2 – The Cadential Shake). But there is only one appearance of the Triple Shake, on page 92 in the music section, in a piece Bunting describes as Cooee en Devenish or The Lamentation of Youths, composed by Harry Scott in 1603 for Hussey, Baron of Galtrim. According to the Bunting’s Preface p91, he noted down Cumha an Devenish from the playing of Dominic O’Donnell,  a harper from Foxford in County Mayo. Bunting wrote the music into his notebook BMS12 in 1811, and the transcription published in 1840 abounds with those peculiar graces of performance alluded to in the Table of Ornaments.

This Lamentation is similar to another circa-1600 piece, Cumha Caoine an Albanaigh or Scott’s Lamentation for Purcell, Baron of Loughmoe (the late 17th-century English composer, Henry Purcell was a distant relative) who died about 1599 (page 6 in Bunting’s music section). These Lamentations are highly significant in Bunting’s output for they are linked to traditional rituals of mourning (in particular, the imitation of keening, the crying or wailing for the dead) and seem to preserve many details of ornamentation from two centuries earlier.

In his transcriptions of the Lamentations, Bunting takes special care to notate many ornaments, labelling them with cross-references to his Table of Ornaments. But it is far from certain that the harpers shared his view that these pieces were special. Bunting writes that O’Donnell appeared totally unconscious of the art with which he was playing. My working hypothesis is that Bunting’s 1840 version of the Lamentation of Youths was deliberately created as an exemplar of how to apply ornaments.

Some of those ornaments might well have been played by O’Donell in 1811 (and noted in BMS 12), others might have been played, not noted at the time, but remembered and restored in later versions. But I suspect that Bunting might also have added some ornaments (not played by O’Donell), according to his best knowledge of how ornaments were used, in order to complete his exemplar. A full analysis is beyond the scope of this article, but would be a fascinating topic for discussion at Scoil na gCláirseach 13th-19th August 2014 (details here) We can also look forward to a forthcoming article from Ann Heyman on the two Lamentations.

Meanwhile, there is plenty to think about in relation to the Triple Shake. Here it is, as Bunting applies it to the Lamentation of Youths.

Triple Shake in Lamentation of Youths

Bunting applies the Triple Shake in the position of a Cadential Shake. The underlying simple melody is falling from A to G, and the accompanying harmonies move conventionally from D major to G major. The rhythm of the Triple Shake corresponds to the Table of Ornaments, although the notes are three strings higher, A and B instead of F# and G. The fourth beat of the bar is filled in with an ornamental Turn, with a very Irish-sounding gap (the turn moves from G to E, omitting F#). So far, so good.

But now the problems start. If you play the Triple Shake with the fingering given in the Table of Ornaments, since there is no damping, both notes ring on. If anything, the B rings louder and longer, since it is written as a longer note, and the A will damped as you replace your finger ready to start the next element of the Triple Shake, or ready to start the final Turn. The resulting sound is messy and discordant, since the B does not fit well with the D major harmonies.

Simon Chadwick speculates that the Triple Shake is therefore an ornament on the note B, that begins on the lower auxiliary note of A. But this still leaves the problem that the B does not fit with the accompanying harmonies (proudly labelled as another piece of authentic detail Lancrodh or full hand.) And when we looked at the Cadential Shake, we saw that the Cadence with accented A falling to G is very typical.

And when we compare this one bar from the Lamentation of Youths to the remainder of Bunting’s output, an even more serious problem emerges. Not only is this the only example Bunting gives of a Triple Shake, but

There is no other opportunity to apply the Triple Shake like this, in the whole of Bunting’s output.

There are many opportunities for Cadential Shakes, but they are all much too short for the three-beat Triple Shake.

Meanwhile, there is something rather unsatisfactory about Bunting’s application of the three-beat Triple Shake to the four-beat A of his unique example in Lamentation of Youths. He has to fill up the missing beat with a Turn, but he told us in the Table of Ornaments that the old Irish harpers did not finish the shake with a turn, as in the mode adopted at present. 

My hypothesis is that in the enthusiasm to include lots of ornaments in a piece that seems to exemplify the circa-1600 style, the Triple Shake was applied in the wrong place. There is no place like this in the rest of the repertoire, and the Triple Shake doesn’t really fit, even here. Bunting’s limited understanding of the function of this particular Shake is also shown by the lack of information on damping.

But there is an opportunity for a Triple Shake that occurs many, many times in this repertoire. Many tunes repeat the final note, the tonic, three times.

Bunting’s first music examples are at page 15 of the Preface. The first phrase of the first piece ends with three Cs. The second phrase ends with three Bbs. The third phrase ends with three Gs, and is repeated. The next phrase ends with three Cs, and the final phrase repeats the second phrase, ending with three Bbs.

Triple Shake opportunities

The final phrases of both parts of the next tune end with three Gs. There are hundreds more examples, throughout the book. Indeed, this Triple Tonic is an instantly recognisable feature of Irish melodies.

So I suggest that we can apply the Triple Shake not to the penultimate note on the Dominant harmony (as for the Cadential Shake), but rather to the final note, the Triple Tonic.

All we need to do now, is to sort out the lack of damping in Bunting’s Table of Ornaments. Here is my solution, with modern notation (1 = thumb, 2 = index finger etc). I’ve chosen to put the Triple Shake on G, since we often play melodies in G major, because they suit the standard tuning of the historical Irish harp.

Triple Shake ALK

The finger-movements are like a small section of the Long Shake. After playing G A G quickly, the index finger drops silently onto the A, damping it so that the main note G rings on. That’s one element – play three elements to make a Triple Shake.

So now when you see a Triple Tonic, you can give it a twist with a Triple Shake …. Cheers!

Triple Tonic

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 Researcher’s Otherworld: A Dream of the ancient Irish Harp

It was that liminal time, just before the winter festival. The scribe had been working hard all week, painstakingly transcribing old legends, cherished myths, ancient documents, examining beautiful images and puzzling over antique words, sifting every sentence to winnow out the precious grains of truth from the chaff of idle speculation. As he took his rest, the music of the wind was like the strumming of a mighty lyre, the beat of the rain the pizzicato of a mystical psaltery, and sleep overpowered him with sweet, irresistible force…

Newgrange solstice

I found myself on the side of a mountain, by the entrance of a dark cave. From inside the cave came the sound of everlasting music, and as I entered, I heard two voices calling to me. “Cruit” said one; “Tiompán” said the other. The Dancers of the Centuries had made eight circles.

I followed the more noble voice to the higher path, and as it called again “Cruit“, I saw the tiny figure of a fairy musician, playing a lyre. It was too dark to see if the lyre had six strings or three, but as the musician’s hand strummed the strings, the lyre’s voice said once again “Krrt”.

Image

Now I followed the ruder voice’s cry of “Tiompán” along the lower path, until I saw another magical musician playing a psaltery. In the darkness, I could not see if he plucked the wire strings with his fingers or with a quill, whether he played a melody with tiny hammers or beat out a rhythm like a drum. But I heard the sound of the psaltery’s voice, now as bright as gold “Ting!”  now as dull as iron “Bang!”.

Image

The dancers made another three circles, A triangular form appeared before my eyes, but I could not tell what it was. Was this the new instrument the Bishop of Dublin had told me of?

Another circle, and an old man came to me, in the garb of a druid. “My name is Gerald”, he said to me in Latin, “and I come from Wales”.

Image

I asked him to tell me more about the musicians of this lonely mountain. “They are more skilled than any other nation” he replied, “Their music is rapid and lively, although the sound is soft and pleasant”. And he told me more, about their “intricate multiple harmonies”. And he spoke a third time: “Along with the duller sound of the thicker string, they boldly play the tinklings of the thinner ones”.
However, my desire was to know more of their ancient instruments, which Gerald called cithara (I think this was the harp) and tympanum (which I could not see clearly, but seemed to be a lyre or psaltery with metal strings.) Was this tympanum my Lord Bishop’s instrument of six strings? 
But Gerald would not tell me which instrument had the metal strings, though I could see for myself, outside the cave, the three-sided form of a cithara, strung with the spun hairs of a horse’s tail, or with the dried entrails of a sheep or wolf.
Image
The darkness of the cave withheld from me the secret knowledge of the ancients. The voices still cried out “cruit” and “tiompán“, but I could not see which instrument cried with which voice, unless they all answered: “cruit”. And the sacred instrument of three sides, with the voice of willow and wire I longed for, this was nowhere to be found amidst the mists of myths.  

To the music of time, the dancers made three more circles. And at the end of the fifteenth circle of the hundred years, my Lord, there appeared before my eyes a new harp of clear song, a board with its belly swollen like a woman with child, strung with thick wires of strong brass, of pure silver, even of finest gold! It played a strange music which I cannot describe in writing, that reminded me of the wail of the Scottish pipes, of the buzz of the Welsh telyn, of the mathematical music of bells, of monks chanting the canonical hours and of old women lamenting over their lost their sons. And I heard a new word: “Holy, holy, holy – cláirseach, clàrsach, clarsha” it called to me, in accents of the West, of the Islands, of the Highlands.

Image

But the dance only lasted three circles until the music of the cláirseach died. Fiddlers from Italy, dancers from France, soldiers from England, all played faster, higher, stronger. Wise Men from the East summoned the cláirseach to Belfast, and poked around for it in the musical cave. Like surgeons, they drained its life-blood, transplanted it to the city, exchanged its wiry sinews for the insides of sheep…

Image

Image

And with this the scribe suddenly awoke from his dream-turned-nightmare. His visit to the Otherworld had lasted only a few moments, he was sure, but in the everyday world already the Winter Festival was over. Quickly, he scribbled down his speculations, for they did not contradict the hallowed documents he had studied the week before (his work had already been sent to be published in the codex of a Northern land). Of course, he could not prove that his visions were true, but perhaps some fellow scribes and musicians might recognise them …

On the first day of the new millenium, Music and the Celtic Otherworld by Karen Ralls MacLeod was published by Edinburgh University Press.

The Historical Irish Harp: Myths Demistified by Andrew Lawrence-King, Katerina Antonenko & Natalia O’ Shea will be published in a forthcoming issue of Studia Celto-Slavica.

Image

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.

www.historyofemotions.org.au

The Long Shake (Irish Harp Ornament of the Month #1)

Barrluth

There is an accompanying video for this posting, here.

Ornaments are like spices in cookery. Even though they are small, they add a lot of flavour. The right ones are essential, for that authentic taste. But the wrong ones, or the right ones used badly, can spoil the whole dish, even when the main ingredients are good. Some you need to add from the start and bake slowly, others you can sprinkle on at the last minute.

The best way to get confident with ornaments is to learn one at a time. So at Scoil na gCláirseach, the summer school of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, we came up with the idea of an Ornament of the Month. If you practise an ornament 2 or 3 times a week, by the end of a month you’ll be ready to move on to the next one. And by next summer, you will have a good collection of ornaments that you know how to play, and (even more important) that you know where to use.

Warning

The ornaments in this series (and especially their fingerings) are specific to Irish harp. European ornaments are sometimes different. Historical fingerings on other harps (in particular, French single-action harp of the same period) are different.

But these fingerings are suitable for neo-Irish (i.e. modern, ‘Celtic’ or ‘lever’) harps as well as Historical (wire-strung) Irish harps.

I focus on the 18th century: the music of O’Carolan, the harp-playing of Denis Hempson, the first printed publications of Irish music, the style of the last itinerant players as collected by Bunting and others around 1800.

Sources

Bunting’s table of ornaments with fingerings for Irish harp is the principal source for technical details. His transcriptions, and those by Ford, show how players of the time applied the ornaments to particular tunes.

From the end of the 17th century, we have tables of ornaments (from Playford & Purcell in England, D’Anglebert in France, and many others) which show strong correlations with what Bunting noted down a hundred years later, supporting the hypothesis that Irish 18th-century playing preserved features of earlier French style. Georg Muffat’s detailed analysis of how to apply French ornaments is also consistent with what we see in Irish sources. There are certain differences of course, and Bunting points these out: where relevant, I will repeat his warnings.

How to practise

As for any other technical skill, practise your ornaments at first very slowly. So slowly, that you get them absolutely correct, with no possibility of error. Once your fingers have learnt what to do, try a fast one: just launch yourself into it, and see how it flies.

Avoid practising at medium tempo, stumbling & correcting: if you repeat a mistake again and again, it will become permanent!

Practise slowly enough to be perfect … and then play fluently, without stopping.

The Long Shake

So, after all that preamble, here is the first Ornament of the Month, the Long Shake. It’s a good one to start with, because it teaches the fine control and finger-substitution that are needed for many other ornaments too. And there are many chances to use it in Irish tunes. Here it is:

Long Shake

If you are checking against your own copy of Bunting (and you should always check against original sources, if you possibly can!), you’ll notice that I have modernised the fingering notation to thumb=1, index=2, middle=3, ring=4, little finger=5.

Rest your treble hand on the harp, as seen in period images. This will steady your hand, so that your fingers can move lightly on the strings. Arrange fingers 3 and 4 to strike the same (main note) string. The index finger 2 strikes the upper note.

Use small finger motions for the fast notes of the Shake. Use a greater range of finger movement, and a slower movement, for a long note.

Once you have the basic action of the long shake going nicely, you can take just a few iterations to make a Shake that will fit into the rhythm of your tune.

Shake

Bunting does not specify any damping, but I suggest that at the end of this Shake, you let your index finger stop its (upper note) string, leaving the main note to sound alone. I show this with the small, crossed-out notehead on the upper note, the damping finger [2] in square brackets, and the main note that sounds on in red.

Notice that this Irish Shake (unlike its English and European cousins) begins on the main note, not the upper note. Also, there is no turn through the lower note at the end of the shake, it just stops.

Begin the Shake on the beat, not ahead of time. This is sometimes difficult for modern players, who have been taught to place ornaments ahead of the beat. Synchronise the first note of the ornament with your bass note, or with your tapping foot.

Bunting doesn’t say anything about this, but other 18th-century sources emphasise the importance of making the ornament start with a strong note, and end softly.

In general, on the beat, and loud-soft are good general guidelines for many ornaments.

That’s it: now it’s up to you to practise. Shake slow and perfect, or Shake speedily, flying fluently. Time spent now practising very slow and very perfect is an investment that will reward you handsomely later.

And in my next post, I’ll show you how you can take a tune and apply your well-practised Shake.

ALK Irish baroque

More about Scoil na gCláirseach here

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”

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.

www.historyofemotions.org.au