History of the Harp
For nearly two thousand years, the harp held an unrivaled place of honor among the various Celtic peoples. Far from being a “folk” instrument, it was costly and difficult to build and took many years of training to master. The harp was the primary instrument that accompanied the singing of syllabic poetry and clan lore spanning history, genealogy, and stories: the full oral literature of the time. It was deemed an essential part of cultural life; no event, save battle, was considered complete without music from the harp.
From the early medieval period onwards, the harp in Ireland and Western Scotland evolved very differently from harps used in the rest of Europe. In contrast to the lightly built gut-strung harps of the continent, Gaelic harps were built with a stout frame, strung with brass wire, and were played with the fingernails, resulting in a rich bell-like tone.Professional harpers were normally employed by the nobility and in some cases the church. They enjoyed an elevated status and privilege in their society; the highest amongst musicians of the time. Many chroniclers visiting Ireland from the 12th to 17th centuries praise the harp and its music. Even the Anglo-Norman cleric Giraldus Cambrensis, who despised the Irish, had this to say:
“It is in musical instruments… that this nation has attained a laudable degree of refinement, surpassing immeasurably the skill of all other nations. Bold and rapid, yet sweet and agreeable; the notes of the Irish harp are quite unlike the slow and somber melodies of the British instruments to which we are accustomed. It is amazing how correct rhythm can be observed in so bold and hurried sweeping of the fingers; and how, amid all those quavers and the multitude of chords the master-hand combines this sweet rapidity… into a glowing strain of harmonious melody.”
The 17th century brought devastating changes in Ireland and Scotland that left the native nobility largely unable to remain patrons of traditional arts. The most famous harper and composer in Irish history, Turlough Ó Carolan, lived during this period. Blinded by smallpox as a youth, he took up the harp, and then traveled Ireland extensively. His work was a vibrant fusion of the ancient Gaelic tradition and the Italian baroque style that was popular with his patrons.
“amid all those quavers and the multitude of chords the master-hand combines this sweet rapidity ... into a glowing strain of harmonious melody.”
Ó Carolan's brilliance notwithstanding, toward the end of the century the once esteemed harpers had been reduced to itinerant musicians traveling the countryside to make a living, and the profession itself was in jeopardy. In July 1792 several concerned citizens of Belfast organized a festival to promote the dying art. The festival commissioners hired a 19-year-old organist named Edward Bunting to collect music from the ten harpers that attended. He became so taken with the project that he spent the rest of his life collecting music and technical information from the dwindling number of harpers. Subsequently he published a large number of these works in arrangements for the piano. We owe much to Bunting, as his effort to preserve this music helped sow the seeds for the harp's revival in the 20th century.
Despite attempts to continue the old harping tradition, by the last quarter of the 19th century the Gaelic harp fell victim to changing musical tastes and social fashions—but the instrument would not be silent forever.
In the early 20th century interest in the old Gaelic harp was rekindled by several dedicated musicians, researchers and instrument builders. Robert Bruce Armstrong was probably the first in modern times to play and study the instrument again. His exhaustive study of the surviving instruments and music resulted in his seminal book “The Irish and Highland Harps.” Instrument builders such as Arnold Dolmetsch in the 1930's and Georges Cochevelou in the 1950's began making new instruments, but it was not until the 1970's that the harp's revival began in earnest.
In 1970, American harp maker Jay Witcher began producing new Gaelic harps closely modeled after surviving originals. Shortly thereafter, Ann Heymann started her research and acquired a Witcher harp. From the start she emulated the old harp techniques recorded by Bunting and, nearly singlehandedly, rediscovered its ancient playing methods—becoming the Gaelic harp's first virtuoso player in nearly two centuries. Ann and her husband and musical partner Charlie continue to lead the revival in every facet and inspire others to start playing. Other gifted musicians and scholars such a Alison Kinnaird, Patrick Ball, and Simon Chadwick have helped bring the old harp to the attention of a wider audience. This noble instrument can be heard and enjoyed again today!