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)
Fintan Vallely, ed.
The Companion to Irish Traditional Music
New York University Press, 1999
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.
Popular Music of the Olden Time, Vol. 1
1859, reprinted Dover, 1965
From this era and later, Celtic names for the triangular frame harp appears in manuscripts. The Irish, in addition to cruit, had clairsech, the Scots, clarsach, and the Welsh, telyn. (Also: the Manx, claasagh, the Cornish, telein, and the Breton, telen.) Early evidence of the harp in Wales is lacking, and no extant harps predate the seventeenth century, but telyn is mentioned in a late twelfth-century manuscript of the so-called Laws of Wales. According to the Laws (codified c. 945), a telyn, cloak and chessboard were indispensable to a gentleman, while a virtuous wife, his cushion for his chair, and his harp in tune, were prerequisites for his home.
Harps and Harpists
Indiana University Press, 1989
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.
Two peculiarities of this system are: (1) the fifth above the root note of the tonic chord is not regarded as the root note of a dominant chord, as in our harmony, and is not treated as having dominant value; and (2) the seventh above the root note of the tonic chord is treated as pertaining to tonic harmony when it appears in the treble, and as pertaining to dominant harmony when it appears in the bass.
It should not be supposed that this system, and especially its peculiarities, developed strictly from the implications of formal harmonic theory. On the contrary, it developed because Celtic musicians sought some means whereby harmony could be improvised to melody, and whereby harmonic compositions could be improvised in concert. The harmonic concepts and conventions indicated above, together with the Twenty-Four Measures (patterned sequences of the two basic harmonies), provided such a means. Any melody based on one of the Measures will harmonized with any other melody based on the same Measure, so long as the harmony changes on the same beat in each melody. And, since a particular note will always be assignable to a particular one of two chords, one needs merely to know the Measure of a melody to be able to improvise an harmonic accompaniment to it, or any number of variations on it; or again, a group of musicians, by recognizing a common Measure and a common rhythm, can each improvise melodies with those simultaneously improvised by the others in the group
op. cit., pp. 7-8
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.
op. cit., p. 12
However, the performance of verses by a solo singer to harp accompaniment (penillion singing) was by now a familiar genre in both North and South Wales: the harpist began by playing a recognised air to which the singer added an improvised line, often in counterpoint but sometimes more closely related to the harp melody. Gifted practitioners could also either improvise the short verses (penillion telyn or 'harp stanzas') or select appropriate verses from their repertoire.
In the 1860s, John Jones (known as Idris Vychan), a cobbler originally from the Dolgellau area, was responsible for codifying the practice and for outlining the rules which performers should follow. The result was to remove the elements of extemporisation from penillion performance, and to limit the repertoire to precomposed settings.
Fintan Vallely, ed.
The Companion to Irish Traditional Music
New York University Press, 1999
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.
What airs were used by the reacaire on these occasions we shall never know, since it was not the practice at the time to commit music to writing. It was thought that since the metres employed in bardic verse derived from those used in the Latin hymns of the early Church, the chants employed had a like origin. They may indeed but not for the reason stated. It has now been established that these metres were in use long before the introduction of the Christian hymnology into Ireland.
Folk Music and Dances of Ireland
Mercier Press, 1977
ISBN 0 85342 509 4
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 modalityor, one might say, the tuning of the harpis 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.
Giraldus went to Paris in 1167 and stayed there until 1172, studying the Latin poets, law, philosophy and theology. As a cleric, he must have been familiar with plainsong and, at least to some extent, with the practice of polyphony as it was used in the Church's liturgy. He must also have been familiar with the secular music which was played and sung in the households of feudal lords and in the capital cities of London and Paris. His literary and artistic standards were those of a cultivated western European ecclesiastic, not of an out-back Norman-Welshman.
In his Topographica Hiberniae, Giraldus berated the Irish as 'barbarians' for what he considered to be their lack of industry, their poor husbandry and disinterest in city life, their flowing beards and odd clothes, their love of leisure and liberty. He granted them splendour of physique and superlative skill in the practice of instrumental music. Whatever music Giraldus heard in Ireland, it did not seem to him barbarous and peculiar; he described it specifically as better executed and more agreeable than that generally heard in England. Whatever its musical idiom was, it seems to have been not far removed from that of Western Christendom, and if we examine Giraldus's words, it appears that he tried to be as explicit as possible in Latin, a language whose vocabulary was not geared to the expression of musical subtleties. His section on Irish instrumental music is worth quoting in full:
I find among these people commendable diligence only on musical instruments, on which they are incomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen. Their style is not, as on the British instruments to which we are accustomed, deliberate and solem but quick and lively; nevertheless the sound is smooth and pleasant.
It is remarkable that, with such rapid fingerwork, the musical rhythm is maintained and that, by unfailingly disciplined art, the integrity of the tune is fully preserved throughout the ornate rhythms and the profusely intricate polyphonyand with such smooth rapidity, such 'unequal equality', such 'discordant concord'. Whether the strings strike together a fourth or a fifth, [the players] nevertheless always start from B flat and return to the same, so that everything is rounded off in a pleasant general sonority. They introduce and leave rhythmic motifs so subtly, they play the tinkling sounds on the thinner strings above the sustained sound of the thicker string so freely, they take such secret delight and caress [the strings] so sensuously, that the greatest part of their art seems to lie in veiling it, as if 'That which is concealed is betteredart revealed is art shamed'.
Thus it happens that those things which bring private and ineffable delight to people of subtle appreciation and sharp discernment, burden rather than delight the ears of those who, in spite of looking do not see and in spite of hearing do not understand; to unwilling listeners, fastidious things appear tedious and have a confused and disordered sound.
One must note that both Scotland and Wales, the latter by virtue of extension, the former by affinity and intercourse, depend on teaching to imitate and rival Ireland in musical practice. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments only, the cithara and the tympanum. Scotland uses three, the cithara, the tympanum and the chorus. Wales uses the cithara, tibiae and chorus. Also, they use strings made of brass not of leather. However, in the opinion of many, Scotland today not only equals Ireland, her mistress, but also by far outdoes and surpasses her in musical skill. Hence many people already look there as though to the source of the art.
Cithara was a harp. Tympanum possibly meant a bowed or beaten lyre, perhaps adopted from the Norsemen, for some forms of these still survive in Scandinavia. Tibiae were pipes, though Giraldus did not specify what kind. The description of musical performance obviously refers to harp-playing; on a lyre, whether plucked or bowed, there is no possibility of such intricacy. The Latin terms which Giraldus used cannot be put exactly into modern musical terminology for our conception and practice of music are greatly different from those of medieval people. His key words, however, are all to do with particular aspects of styles of polyphonic music as distinct from monophonic music such as plainsong and presumably much secular vocal music of that time.
While the first paragraph describes the general agreeableness of Irish performance, the second seems to describe the playing of florid elaborations in impeccable rhythm, proportion and clarity. And we may note here that is was precisely these qualities that Edward Bunting praised, six hundred years later, in Denis Hempson, last of the harpers in the traditional style. The word translated 'polyphony' is organa the plural of organum, which denotes both a particular polyphonic techniquethat of adding one florid part above a slow-moving tenorand a piece composed in this technique. Explanatory translations of Giraldus's organa would be 'varieties of music in parts' or 'pieces of part music'. What is here translated as ornate rhythms is in the original crispatos modulos. The latter means literally 'measurement', cantus crispus is known early in the sixteenth century in England as a term for very florid polyphony in many parts, and its musical use is a metaphor taken from the primary meaning of crispus, which is curly or quivering. Irish harpers were, according to this account, incomparably skilled in contriving and playing two-part music with a complex and brilliant upper part, and Giraldus, having first described it in technical terms, reinforces this with a physical descriptionthe tinkling of the high strings over the heavier sound of the bass strings.
The curious second sentence in the second paragraph has puzzled many scholars. The 'fourths and fifths' are exactly those intervals which generally occur at structural points between tenor and added upper part in written polyphony dating from the twelfth century. The 'starting and ending with B flat', however, is enigmatic.
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
op. cit., p. 30
Giraldus also discussed the music of Wales:
In the northern district of Britain, beyond the Humber, and on the borders of Yorkshire, the inhabitants make use of the same kind of symphonious harmony, but with less variety; singing only in two parts, one murmuring in the base, the other warbling in the acute or treble. Neither of the two nations has acquired this peculiarity by art, but by long habit, which has remdered it natural and familiar; and the practice is now so firmly rooted in them, that it is unusual to hear a simple and single melody well sung; and, what is still more wonderful, the children, even from their infancy, sing in the same manner. As the English in general do not adopt this mode of singing, but only those of the northern countries, I believe that it was from the Danes and Norwegians by whom these parts of the islands were more frequently invaded, and held longer under their dominion, that the nations contracted their mode of singing as well as speaking.
A Possible Celtic Provenance for the Reading Rota
Miscellanea Musica Celtica Musicological Studies, Vol. XIV
(Institute of Mediæval Music, New York, 1968) p. 54
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.
As for music in 'as many different parts and voices as there are performers,' 'The kind of singing called Burdoon ... existed down to very recent times in the more remote districts of Ireland, such as the western part of the county of Cork and the counties of Kerry and Clare.' [Eugene O'Curry, On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, 3 Vols. edited, with an inroduction appendices, etc. by W.K. O'Sullivan, London 1873; Volume 1, Introduction, pp. ccccxcii-ccccxciii]
This Burdoon is not to be confused with faux-bourdon, to which it is possibly related.
op. cit., pp. 55-56
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.
Fintan Vallely, ed.
The Companion to Irish Traditional Music
New York University Press, 1999
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)
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