harp is one of the most beautiful musical instruments in both sound and
appearance. Soothing and stirring in equal measure, the harp sings to us
and moves us like nothing else. It is equally at home in the foreground
or background of any occasion. It can provide understated accompaniment
to the conversation of a social gathering or be the centrepiece of an evenings
entertainment. The harp has been part of social occasions for over a thousand
years and probably far longer.
is a phrase Liath uses to describe her style of playing, her instrument
and the type of music she plays. This is traditional music from the British
Isles and Ireland and original tunes composed from her place within those
Some people like to call it 'Celtic' or 'Folk' harp, but
these are not accurate descriptions. Throughout history, the harp has usually
been linked to high status and courtly settings, although in Wales, the
harp traditions were kept alive by itinerent harpists and gypsies.
'Celtic' is a difficult word and much misused. The tribes labelled
as 'Celts' lived throughout Europe and the name was only applied in quite
recent times to the peoples of Britain and Ireland. The musical traditions
within the different areas of the British Isles do have some similarities,
but also many distinctions and it is more useful to consider each in its
earliest triangular harps seem to be from Scotland, but soon spread throughout
Britain and Ireland. Typically, the Irish and Scottish instruments were
squat, strongly contructed wire strung harps, which were played with the
fingernails. These traditions were nearly lost, but are currently undergoing
a renaissance thanks to harpers such as Alison Kinnaird and Ann Heymann.
The early Welsh and English (Germanic) instruments seem to have been strung
with horsehair, which was later replaced by gut. There are fascinating early
accounts of harps which were made entirely with materials from horses. There
are also many old tales about magical harps made from various animals -
or even from people, as in the tale of the Mill Dams of Binnorie. Two sisters
are competing for the love of a man and one drowns the other in the mill
ponds. A harper find her body and contructs a harp from her breastbone,
using her fingers as pegs and her beautiful long hair as strings. The harper
ends up in her fathers court, where the harp begins singing of its own accord,
revealing the crime to all.
of Modern Harp
modern nylon or gut strung harps fall into two categories, pedal and lever.
(This is a massive generalisation, as traditional instruments also include
the famous triple harp of Wales and the wire strung harps of the Gaelic
traditions.) What most people think of as a harp - the enormous gold-covered
instrument - is a pedal harp.
harps are typically used by classical and jazz musicians, as the use of
pedals allows the chromatic freedom of those styles. The thick front pillar
of the harp contains a complex system of pulleys which alter the tuning
of the entire instrument when the pedals
traditional harpists favour the lever harp. Each string has an adjacent
which sharpens that individual string. Because most traditional music is
modal, rather than chromatic, there is less need for rapid key changes.
However, lever harpists often enjoy stretching their skills with pieces
that include an incredible amount of lightning fast lever changes.
Lever harps tend to be smaller than pedal harps. They range from lap harps,
which may only have 19 strings, to the larger floor harps. Liath's harp
is a Pilgrim Progress and has 41 strings, which is large for a traditional
harp. This means that he has gorgeous bass strings which add richness and
depth to the sound.
is Traditional Music?
is a wealth of traditional music which dates from medieval times right up
to the present day. It includes material such as songs, ballads and dance
tunes, some preserved by collectors, others which have survived down the
years in the thriving oral cultures of the British Isles and Ireland. Traditional
music is often passed down aurally, so the living tradition is vitally important
to the passing on of music. Written notation cannot capture the intricacies
of rhythm and ornament that characterise much of traditional music. Unlike
classical music, which can be very prescriptive in the way it is performed,
traditional musicians are likely to put an individual interpretation on
their music, so that no two traditional harpists will play a tune in the
of the old harp repertoire has been lost. The harp fell out of fashion after
the 17th century, with the popularity of the new keyboard instruments. Fortunately,
collectors such as Edward Bunting managed to collect many tunes from the
old harpers before the tradition completely died out. The Bunting collections
are now an invaluable resource for modern harpists continuing in the old
Irish harp traditions. Harp repertoire also disappeared due to persecution.
In Scotland the playing of the harp was suppressed during the Clearances,
with many instruments destroyed. Although much was lost, many of the harp
tunes survived in the repertoire of other instruments, such as the pipes,
and are now being reclaimed by modern harpists. If
that information has whetted your appetite, Alison Kinnaird's study 'Tree
of Strings' is a great way to find out more about the harp throughout British
and Irish history.
To contact Liath, click to email
or telephone 0115
925 3737 / 0783 183 3310