Traditional HarpLiath Hollins, Harpist

The 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.

Traditional Harp 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 traditions. 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 own right.

The 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.

Types of Modern Harp

Most 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.

Pedal 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
are pressed.

Most traditional harpists favour the lever harp. Each string has an adjacent lever 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.

What is Traditional Music?

There 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 same way.

Much 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