It is said the music heard in heaven is the golden sound of harps. Today the harp has an aura of mystery because the average person has never seen a real pedal harp except at the symphony and has never heard of an Irish harp. When I came to work for Lark In The Morning, my knowledge of music was superficial but included one semester of pedal harp. My first sight of the Irish harp occurred at Lark In The Morning. Fascinated with all the varieties of small harp, I learned to play a Gaelic harp, eventually joined an Irish Ceili band and learned of the interesting history surrounding the old harps, their disappearance and recent revival. History often repeats itself and a resurgence of the Irish harp seems to be occurring right now.
For several hundred years, since Henry VIII, the Irish have used a harp as their emblem. Modern coins depict the fourteenth century Trinity College harp. In ancient times, the wire strung harp was an instrument of the aristocratic class as well as the most loved instrument of the Irish people. Today, some class it as a folk instrument because the original methods of building and playing it were lost during extended political turmoil in Ireland and there has been little general interest in it for years. Recently, however, the wire strung harp has been rediscovered.
In ancient times, harpers were the counselors of kings and were given the chair of honor, titles and wealth for their services. These benefits were not inherited by their children but went to the best harper. In Ireland, the harpers were consulted before going to war and often lead the troops to battle with harp and sword, singing of victory and slaying his share of the enemy. His harp was often heavily decorated and highly revered. All Gaelic peoples liked to decorate their harps with intricate carving and crystals. Chiefs and kings added fancy gold and silver ornamentation and jewels and often created priceless treasures.
Old Celtic harps were played with a different technique than used today for pedal harps. They were traditionally held against the left shoulder, the left hand playing the upper strings and the right hand, the lower strings. Today, harps are held against the right shoulder and the hands' playing positions are reversed. The old harps were strung with thick brass wire and plucked with long, crooked fingernails which resembled quills. These harps had a loud, full, rich, bell-like sound. The upper strings, often a thin steel wire, had a sweet tinkling sound. The bass register could growl and roar. The sound of the old harps would ring for a long time so, sometimes the strings were stopped to provide clarity of tone and to avoid muddying fast passages.
In his book THE IRISH AND HIGHLAND HARPS, Robert Bruce Armstrong described the playing technique of the Highland harp* "The prolonged vibration of the wire strings required to be immediately damped or stopped, thus as soon as a finger pulled a string, another finger stopped the vibration and when the performer on the harp was proficient, no jarring of the strings against the fingernails was heard." The Gaelic word for wire-strung harp is CLAIRSEACH and was used throughout Ireland and Scotland. Harp was a word denoting sinew strung instruments.
THE ANCIENT HARP
Various forms of the harp have been around on most of the continents of the world since before written history and nothing is known about its remote origins. However, there is record of a form of harp which existed two to three thousand years ago in central Asia and Siberia which is reminiscent of the old Irish harp. Burial chambers of Ur in Mesopotamia which date from the middle of the third millennium B.C. contained three harp-like instruments. Engravings of singers and musicians playing stringed instruments, in festive and drinking scenes, suggest that this was a common practice of the Sumerian civilization. Irish bards and harpers of the sixteenth century were heir not only to an ancient tradition stretching back to pre-Christian Ireland, but to one whose roots lie in the earliest Bronze Age civilization.
Harp-like instruments found in Greece, China, Assyria, Persia and Egypt were too large to carry and, while they don't appear to have influenced early Irish harps, they may have influenced later changes through the appearance in Ireland of Christian travelers. But certain small portable harps seem to have originated among barbarian peoples of Asia. The Celtic harp resembles this instrument more than any other ancient harp.
THE HARP IN EARLY LEGEND
Legends from around the end of the pre-Christian era tell of a person named "Craftine" who was mentioned in several sources as a harper and harpmaker. Another legendary figure, Conaire Mor, was said to have three poets, nine pipers and nine harpers in his retinue, according to Irish antiquarian, Prof. O'Curry.
As these legends show, the tradition of the early Celtic harp can be traced over one thousand years but the earliest representations of the harps were found sculpted on stone in Scotland dating from the eighth or ninth century.
By the year 1000, early forms of the harp were widespread all over Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The reign of the harp in the music of the British Isles was noted by learned Europeans. These early writings span several hundred years and hint at that marvelous music which is lost. For example, Polydore Virgil, who lived in England during the first half of the sixteenth century states "...that the Irish practice music, and are eminently skilled in it. Their performance, both vocal and instrumental is exquisite, but so bold and impassioned, that it is amazing how they can observe the rules of their art amidst such rapid evolutions of the fingers and vibrations of the voice: and yet they do observe them to perfection." (Cambrensis Eversus, Vol. i.P. 311).
However, all reigns of glory must come to an end. After hundreds of years of successfully fighting off or absorbing waves of invaders such as the Vikings, Romans, Normans and Moors, the English started to become a problem to the Irish and their culture. The Irish were well used to the invasions of foreigners and in 1395, according to old records, four Irish kings submitted to the English after an arduous fight. However, that was not enough. The English insisted that the Irish "barbarians" adopt English customs as well. For example, it was an Irish custom for the king, his minstrels, harpers and main servants to share table, plate and cup together. The English stated this barbaric custom must be replaced by the table manners of England, where musicians sat separately and servants sat still farther away. According to the record, the Irish complied, at least when Englishmen were present.
HARD TIMES FOR THE CELTIC HARP
The next two hundred years brought increasing pressure from the English, which included Protestantization of Catholic Ireland. Gradually, the power of the Irish princes was eroded away and this, in turn, ended the patronage of Ireland's bards and harpers toward the end of the sixteenth century.
Meanwhile, in Scotland during the same period, highland harpers enjoyed prosperity, according to the king's treasury records. Many Scottish kings were musicians and they employed many other musicians at their court. For example, during the reign of James IV, we find "He was certainly fond of music, and there were frequent notices of harps and clarischas,,," as well as many other instruments. (Armstrong, THE IRISH AND HIGHLAND HARP, pg 142). An especially musical period according to the records, occurred from 1494 to 1503. Of twenty entries for payment of musicians, half were for large companies of harpers and minstrels who performed for the New Year's celebrations. The harpers were able to maintain their lifestyle through the end of the sixteenth century, although during the last part of this period potential harper's had to be trained abroad at Bruges. Finally, according to Manson in his THE HIGHLAND BAGPIPE, "in Scotland, the use of the harp came to an end with the pomp of the feudal system."
Harpers and bards in Ireland began to be personally harassed by the English Crown early in the 1500's and many were imprisoned as troublemakers or executed. Records show only the number of pardons. All other unlucky harpers are lost to anonymity. Ironically, while Queen Elizabeth was enjoying Irish dances performed at her court in London by her harper, she issued a proclamation to Lord Barrymore in Ireland to "Hang harpers, wherever found, and destroy their instruments." As a testament to Irish harping, however, just two months after the Queen's death in 1603, Lord Barrymore's records show he had a harper in his household.
Times grew harder still for harps and harpers between 1650 and 1660 when Cromwell ordered the destruction of harps and organs in both catholic and Protestant circles. Five hundred harps were confiscated and burned in the city of Dublin alone. In another instance, 2000 others were destroyed and harpers were forbidden to congregate.
Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, drastic changes in the life of the Irish people occurred. Music and poetry in the ancient fashion were encouraged less and less and all the old patrons were in exile or had lost their wealth. The deliberate destruction of harps and harpers ended after Cromwell. Harpers and minstrels, who once had the ear of kings, were forced to travel from place to place and beg a living where they could.
Many non-Irish peoples, including soldiers who didn't go home, settled in Ireland. Their traditional music came with them and was intermixed with Irish music. New musical knowledge and techniques were developed in Europe and imported to the British Isles, including the use of the pedal harp with its sinew strings and soft sound. Musical fashions gradually changed and the traditional sound and style of the wire strung harp did not fit in well. Many tunes were rewritten for the fiddle and other instruments because the public favored the modern settings.
In the late 1700's, the townspeople in Ireland began to develop an increasing interest in their long neglected national heritage. By this time there were very few harpers left and little music was still played in the traditional way. In the year 1790, the Belfast Harp Meeting was organized to promote the old music. Harpers were invited to come and compete for a prize. Only ten harpers, ranging in age from 15 to 97, showed up. The oldest, Dennis Hempson, at age 97, was the only harper to play in the old style with the fingernails. All the others played with the fingertips. This could possibly have been due to the influence of the new pedal harp with gut strings. At the meeting, the opportunity was taken to copy many of the old tunes down as they were played. Edward Bunting, the copyist, had not been trained in the traditional ways, so he was unable to reproduce what was played completely accurately and the last chance for complete preservation slipped away.
No traditional wire strung Irish harps had been made for a long time. There was little demand probably because the life of harpers had become difficult for so long due to the adverse social and political situation. So the method was lost. There was little harp playing in Ireland after the beginning of the 1800's. Social conditions were very bad and Irish energies were directed towards more fundamental needs. Schools were started in Belfast and Dublin in the early 1800's to teach poor blind boys to be harpers, but they failed. The traditional style of playing had been long gone anyway and had been replaced with fingertip playing.
THE NEO IRISH HARP
During the 1890's and early 1900Ís, some small harps were made in Ireland but they only vaguely resembled the ancient Irish harp with the big glorious sound. Joan Rimmer says in her book, THE IRISH HARP, that"....it can only be described as a nightmare parody of the old Irish harp. Their tone is particularly unattractive, rather like that of an ancient and decrepit piano." The pedal harp became of major interest over the years and although small harps were still made and played in Ireland, the wonderful resonant sound was unavailable and few played seriously. This unhappy condition lasted almost 200 years.
REVIVAL OF THE WIRE STRUNG HARP
About ten years ago, a feat of modern engineering produced methods to build a very resonant small wire strung Celtic harp with a very sweet sound. These harps are a successful continuation of the ancient Celtic tradition.
There are two basic sizes. The smallest is a lap harp which is extremely lightweight and portable. It is small enough to play in a car and is an excellent size as a beginning harp for children. There are also small nylon strung harps with pedal harp spacing, which makes them an ideal travel or practice harp for professional harpists. Recently developed models of both wire and nylon strung styles have an astonishingly large sonority for their size. The intermediate sized harp, which is about three to four feet tall, also comes in both wire and nylon strung styles. They weigh from 35 to 50 pounds and fit easily in the trunk or back seat of an average car. These also have a full range in the bass which makes it suitable for professional performing.
Due to the exciting new sound available, there are now several musical groups which are using the small harp regularly in their arrangements. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new golden age for the harp.