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by Peter Greenhill


What, then, of the purely instrumental music? That horsehair strings were used for accompanying the voice tells us nothing about the harps of the instrumentalists and of the bulk of the Robert ap Huw manuscript. It has sometimes been assumed by modern writers that if horsehair strings were used for accompaniment they must have been used for truly instrumental music as well, but these were entirely separate fields. The instrumentalists were the highly respected music specialists, the gwyr wrth gerdd dant or tantorion, drawn from the aristocracy or the professional class, quite unlike the vocalists, the datgeiniaid or clerwyr, who were drawn from the servant class, or perhaps sometimes from the ranks of young trainee poets. It is vital to understand this, that there was not just one category here: 'players of the harp'; but two entirely separate categories, with almost nothing in common with each other.

For instance, an instrumentalist would always solicit his reward directly from a patron, whereas a vocalist would normally receive his via the instrumentalist or the poet he acted as servant to. The complexity of the system is shown by a fascinating provision in one version of the Welsh legal code, in translation: "Every pencerdd telyn (every head of music of the harp - probably) is to have 24 pence from the cerddorion (musicians) who have left off the telyn rawn (the horsehair-strung lyre here, probably, not the harp) and who wish to become recognised musicians and suitors". This is to say that on graduating - we cannot be certain from exactly what to what - a musician had to pay a sum to the pencerdd. Most probably, the payment was compensation for the pencerdd no longer deriving income from the musician's performances, but it may have been an indenture payment on the pencerdd taking on the musician as a student in the first place, if instrumentalists were commonly recruited from the ranks of the vocalists. Either way, here we definitely have a progression by musicians, from using the horsehair lyre or harp, into a more mature business framework. But whatever it was that the musician became here, it certainly did not involve a horsehair instrument.

With the confusion over what the horsehair-stringed instruments were used for cleared up, we are brought back to the concept of the metal strings implied by Gerald and by the poems. We can focus in closer on the exact nature of the instrumentalists' harps by looking at the music of the Robert ap Huw Manuscript itself, along with all the other technical evidence on cerdd dant.

The first thing that immediately strikes the ear as you become familiar with the richness of the harmony of this music and its attention to minute detail is that, given a choice, no-one would ever have chosen to play such music on gut or horsehair strings if metal strings were available. Or, looking at it another way, music like this would never have evolved on gut or horsehair strings. The music simply needs the sustain and clarity of metal strings, else its most precious and distinctive assets are virtually thrown away. I shall come back to these vital points later.

There are other practical factors that come into play here. As all modern harpists know, constant damping in the treble is simply unnecessary on gut strings. The same is true of horsehair. You can detect damping on gut strings, but the effect is so slight that a culture would never trouble itself to evolve any system of damping as extensive as the cerdd dant one for either gut or horsehair. That is why it is only for metal-strung harps that we have records of damping, and the same will be true here - for this most supremely efficient, mature system of damping.

On a properly tensioned metal-strung harp, harmony this complex simply has to be controlled by damping. This explains why the contemporary explanations of the technicalities of the music focus particularly on how the entire system of harmony depends upon the need to control the chords created, to create a clean sound when required, and why the ms. text provides all the details of when and how this was done in practice.

And then there is the use of the fingernails here, to pluck the strings. There are ways of using nails on gut, but this particular nail technique frays them to destruction very quickly indeed. Through the early 1970s, before I built my cerdd dant harp with its 25 metal strings, I had to use a gut-strung harp, so I can personally vouch for the simple impossibility of this kind of nail attack ever having been used on gut strings. You can do it, but it is not viable. Horsehair strings are a different matter - they are strangely impervious to wear from the nails. But on all strings except metal ones, this nail technique, when combined with this damping technique, has a devastating impact on the natural sonority of harps. These techniques only serve to accentuate the relative thinness and rapid decay of the sound of any strings which are not metal.

So this type of music, and most of these actual pieces, will have grown up on the metal-strung harp (along with its sister instruments of sustain - the crwth with its bowed sustain, and the metal-strung timpan) just as Gerald described. None of these pieces could ever have been played on gut strings (without abandoning the nail technique indicated in the ms., that is). This does not preclude the use of horsehair strings for any pieces that may have been used for accompaniment (as indeed some pieces probably were), since a nail-and-damping technique, once evolved on metal, does not take much trouble to transfer to horsehair. But essentially, the aristocratic solo harp in Wales will have been very similar to its counterparts in Ireland and Scotland and will have been metal-strung. For the technical details we need to look to the poetry, to the tablature and to later designs of metal-strung harp of which we have surviving examples.

Amongst the poems which writers on early music in Wales have overlooked is an important one composed c. 1495 by Owain ap Llywelyn ab y Moel. It uses the stringing of the harp to illustrate the value of bringing together two complementary factors. Two different materials are indicated: an unnamed material - no doubt bronze or brass - for the treble and goldwir - gold wire - for the remainder. This is an entirely credible combination. Ann Heymann, followed by other harpists, has already been led by the physics of early metal-strung harps to experiment with using mainly gold alloy strings in the bass. They have found that the greater density of gold, by enabling the lower strings to be thinner and more flexible, produces a better sound than brass or bronze does there.

As regards its construction, the harp indicated by the tablature was small - it had only 25 strings and so bore very much less tension in total than the earliest extant metal-strung harps, which have an extra 4 or more strings added at the lower end. It follows that its design did not need to be as robust. In particular, that most useful of markers for identifying representations of metal-strung harps - the T-section thickening of the forepillar - may well have been unnecessary. So I think there is a need to reappraise early representations of what have been presumed not to be metal-strung harps, especially in Wales and England, since some of them might have been metal ones after all. A good candidate is the Welsh carving at Dynevor, which has a pretty robust construction quite unlike the 'baroque' type of frame often encountered in that period.

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last updated 17/04/06