Translate this page into  
Translation by GO! Network

Tiny harp

The ap Huw Manuscript

Much of the following information comes from Mediæval Celtic Harp Music, by James Travis, published in Miscellanea Musica Celtica Musicological Studies, Vol. XIV, (Institute of Mediæval Music, New York, 1968)

Trinity college harp

The bray pins referred to are a common feature on medieval harps. They are pins that are placed close to the strings, causing a slight buzzing sound somewhat reminiscent of a sitar.

The manuscript was likely transcribed by a Robert ap Huw, who was harpist to James I. The music is given in a kind of tablature; that is, notes are represented by letters. The tablature is explained in the MS, and is related to tablature systems found for other instruments in the same period.

During the mid-18th century, the MS belonged to Lewis Morris, a Welsh antiquarian, who added additional material, some of which he claimed to have copied from a book of William Penllyn, a 16th century harper, and a Mr. Meyrick.

This copied material sets out the Twenty-Four Measures, a "series of harmonic patterns composed of two contrasting harmonies, and used as a basis for grounds and variations". Some of the compositions in the book follow the structure of one of the Measures, and some do not. The material includes three different lists of the Twenty-Four Measures. All three lists are different, but show substantial similarity.

According to ancient documents, the Twenty-Four Measures were settled at a meeting of skilled musicians called by prince Gruffydd ap Cynan.

Gruffydd ap Cynan's father became an exile in the year 1040, living in the Norse-Irish kingdom of Dublin. Gruffydd's mother was Irish, and he was raised in the royal court of Dublin. He reconquered his patrimony, the kingdom of Gwynedd (North Wales), with the aid of Norse and Irish troops. The Annals of Ireland, recording Gruffydd's death in 1137, mention that he brought back with him from Ireland "lyras, tympanas, cytharas, cytharizantes".

Among the chief musicians assisting at the musical conference were Matholwch Wyddel (Matholwch the Irishman) and Olav Gerddawr (Olav the Minstrel). From their names it is likely that they came from Ireland with Gruffydd, and some of the other musicians may have done so as well.

As well as the Twenty-Four Measures, the conference also produced a body of laws regulating the profession of music, the Statute of Gruffydd ap Cynan. Several copies of the Statute exist, none earlier than the early 16th century. While the different copies are not identical, they do show remarkable similarities to Irish laws of that time.


Friendly relations between Ireland and Wales ended within a few years of Gruffydd ap Cynan's death. In 1170 the Normans began their conquest from Ireland from Wales, with the assistance of Welsh troops. Wales at this time was under increasing Norman influence, although it was not fully conquered until the death of the last independent king, Llywelyn ap Gruffyd, in 1282.

The 16th century Welsh historian Powel describes the music of Wales as consisting of three types: the compositions of the bards, the music of the uneducated, and the music for the harp and crwth. (The crwth, or in English "crowd", is a bowed string instrument.) Powel states that, unlike the rest, this last type of music was brought from Ireland.

This gives us the possibility that the Twenty-Four Measures, despite some variations resulting from oral transmission between the 12th and 16th centuries, provide a sample of the style of music played at the courts of the Irish nobility around 1100 AD.

In support of this contention, Travis points out that the tablature used is based on a tuning in G, which Bunting recorded as the traditional harp tuning of Ireland. Other known tablatures on the continent are based on A or C. However, the Welsh music recorded is in the keys of C, F and Bb, not G. Thus the tablature may have been of Irish origin.

What then is the nature of the music recorded in the ap Huw manuscript?

Different types of pieces appear, some with names mentioned as traditional kinds of test pieces in the Statute of Gruffydd ap Cynan, such as gosteg, caniad, proviad, etc. The terms gosteg and caniad were also applied to poetic forms in early Wales. This implies a relationship between music and verse which can be confirmed by comparing the verse structure with the corresponding music. The proviadau, on the other hand, seem to have characteristics more suited to instrumental pieces.

Harper In addition to this "Celtic harmony", the ap Huw MS also contains examples of conventional tonic-dominant harmony. Sometimes the two are mixed in the same piece. The use of a drone bass like that of a bagpipe is also encountered. There are also examples of modulation among modes, and even the illusion of modulating to a different key area, produced by omitting the note differing between the two keys (for example, modulating from F to C by omitting the note Bb/B). The maximum amount of modulation that is possible with a diatonically tuned instrument is thus encountered. However, this is found only in the proviad and pwnc types. The caniadau show modulation only in type of harmony, and the gostegau have no modulation at all. The proviadau also make use of the Lydian mode (major scale with an augmented fourth), which is not found in the other types.

I might make mention of another unusual piece of music, Nobilis humilis, a 12th century hymn to St. Magnus originating in the Orkney Islands, at that time a part of Norway. This two-part hymn is in the Lydian mode, and is almost completely sung in parallel thirds. In standard European musical theory at this time the third was considered a discord (as in fact it would be in the Pythagorean tuning system in use at the time). In a slightly later period a style called gymel was found in England. This was a method of moving voices to sound like parallel thirds without actually using them (which was forbidden by the harmonic rules of the time). And in the 15th century, the use of parallel thirds and faux-bourdon (parallel first inversion triads) spread from England to the continent. Is this predeliction for the interval of a third the result of Scandinavian, Celtic, or Norse/Gaelic influence? (Note that the quotation from Giraldus given below suggests a Norse origin for some of these stylistic devices.)

Some of the pieces in the ap Huw MS follow a Measure, and some do not. Some have refrains or codas. These may embody a different Measure or no Measure. The principle of sectioned development is followed, based sometimes on one motif, sometimes more. The compositions built on Measures adhere strictly to the principle of variations on a ground. The others may use stylistic similiarity to achieve unity.

This variety may indicate that by the time that this music was being recorded, the system of the Twenty-Four Measures was breaking down.

Irish feast In the Irish poetic tradition, we find both improvised verse and pre-composed verse. Improvised verse is found in the form of short, witty, comments, and also in the caoineadh, or lament for the dead. The caoineadh is generally performed by women. The most famous such work is the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, said to have been improvised in 1773 by Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill after her husband was murdered, and recorded by bystanders. However, in the older Irish tradition, the most respected poems were those of highly trained male poets, who sat for long hours in darkened rooms to compose their work. The poet would not recite the poem himself, but employ for this purpose a reacaire or reciter, and possibly as well a harper. The poet himself was too esteemed a person to stoop to public performance. We know little at all about the means by which the harper accompanied the poetry.

Although traditional Irish and Scottish music as played today does not use harmony as a structural element, it is nevertheless true that in examining the melodic line of a tune it is often found to outline movement of triads by a major second. This is especially true in many of the older Scottish and Northumbrian tunes. Typical movements would be between D and Em triads, between Em and D triads, or between D and C triads. The same a fourth higher is also common. As compared to the Welsh material presented by Travis, the basic concept is the same, but the modality—or, one might say, the tuning of the harp—is different.

Although I can't claim to have examined all the Scottish and Irish tunes extant (probably numbering over 10,000), I've looked at quite a few, and in only one solitary case did I see a melody that could be construed as outlining root movement by a semitone as described by Travis, which I might think of as being in the Phrygian mode. There are other tunes that outline chord structures similar to that described by Travis, but to my ear they tend to suggest a modern tonic-dominant relationship, with the 5th note of the scale either included or implied in the dominant harmony. Perhaps some industrious graduate student might like to enumerate what percentage of such tunes actually do not include the 5th note of the scale. I believe it would be a minority.

Harp carving

Giraldus also discussed the music of Wales:

Unfortunately Giraldus did not provide a detailed comparison between the musics of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. It's a shame because he is the sole writer to come down to us who discusses these topics. What a pity we have no way to interview him or provide him with a tape recorder!

Is any harmonic music of the kind described by Giraldus found in Ireland in more recnet times? Some of the older sources suggest that this may be the case.

If such a type of singing existed in Ireland, it has vanished without trace. From the description, I am reminded of the "three man's song" of Cornwall, said to be popular in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Such a type of singing (and it is not clear exactly what it was) may have been imported into the Waterford area, which culturally looked more to Britain than to Gaelic Ireland. How it migrated to the West coast is a matter of conjecture.

In modern times the Irish singing group The Voice Squad has developed a style of singing traditional songs in harmony consisting of parallel moving chords. I must confess I find it tedious to listen to more than a small number of songs presented in that way. I don't believe that they claim to have any traditional model for their style.

Other examples can be found in the waulking songs of the Scottish Highlands, in which group performance of the recurring refrains is assumed, but without any use of harmony.

Travis does present an example of a piece of music that illustrates his argument, and it is one of the most celebrated and controversial songs in the entire medieval period.

(More to come)

Kells head Go to the traditional music instruments index page.

BookGo to music encyclopedia directory

Hearth Go to The Standing Stones home page

Lighthouse Go to the Standing Stones Site Map (listing of the entire contents of this website)

Stonehenge border

STANDING STONES is registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office as a federal service mark. Unauthorized use of this mark for performing live or recorded music, or providing music-related information over the Internet, in interstate commerce in the United States, is prohibited. For full details on the activities covered by this mark, consult the US Patent and Trademark Office database.