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by Peter Greenhill

The music tradition that the Robert ap Huw Manuscript represents became extinct long ago, but did the type of harp that the music was played on suffer the same fate? It seems so. The manuscript does not include a description of its design and the material it was strung with, but the music text does make it clear that it was very different from modern harps.

Let us begin by looking at the historical records. The first clear indication is Gerald of Wales' mention of the use of brass strings in the 12th century. He wrote in his Irish Topography, immediately after describing the ways in which Ireland, Scotland and Wales all shared the same kind of instrumental music, that they used strings of brass, not of gut, and it seems probable that by 'they' here he meant those three nations. It must be unlikely that he meant the musicians of Ireland alone, because we know well that Scotland used brass strings.

Ireland's old bardic poetry is rich in descriptions of the enchanting power of the sound of the harp and of instrumental music in general, but what is less well known is that the same is true in Wales. Dozens of Welsh poems reveal a strong taste for purity, brilliance, sweetness and clarity, and for bell-like sounds. Most tellingly, harps and their music are described using metallic adjectives. Good examples are: aur dannau - gold strings, goldwir - gold wire, and arianllais telyn - the silver voice of a harp.

This might come as a bit of a surprise to those who are accustomed to reading that "THE Welsh Harp" in early times was strung not with metal but with horsehair strings, or gut strings, but the fact is that a lot of Welsh poems referring to the harp have been rather overlooked. The idea that Wales had just one type of harp, and that this was pretty much exclusive to Wales, can be appealing, but, as with most things, the reality is seldom simple. And different types of instrumental music are not at all like languages. A language may often respect a geographical or political border, but a type of music or a type of instrument seldom does, and that was particularly true in the Middle Ages. So let us focus in now on the actual complexity of early harping in and around Wales.

There are late medieval references in Wales to as wide a variety of stringed instruments as you find anywhere in the British Isles. In relation to the classical string tradition - cerdd dant - the really relevant ones are crwth, timpan, and harp. For harp strings, there are references to horsehair, gut and metal. Now when you sift through all these references and all the evidence on music, a slightly complex picture emerges.


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