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THE FORGOTTEN,
SILVER-VOICED HARP OF WALES
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by Peter Greenhill

THE LATER CLARSACH

Note that the 25-stringed harp of the ms. is sufficiently short to be entirely comfortable with its base resting on the chair between the player's legs, and gives the appearance - in profile - of being what has always been described as a 'knee' harp. Indeed, this is such a comfortable and convenient size that harpists would not have been easily persuaded to move onto larger harps. How interesting, then, that the repertoire in the ms. was so ancient or so conservative that it had no truck with the much larger harps, including metal-strung ones, that had been abroad for many centuries before the ms. was written.  

But there are several more technical points, which relate this harp to the metal-strung clarsach (also spelt as ‘cláirseach’, and styled in English as 'Irish harp' or 'Celtic harp', or just recently as 'Gaelic harp'). 1) The need to use gold strings in the bass indicates ratios between string lengths that were similar to those on the earliest surviving clarsachs - i.e. the harmonic curve was in a similar position and was a similar shape. 2) It is natural that the harp for instrumental music would have had forward-facing soundholes, to project the sound - where harps are depicted as lacking these, we are looking at instruments of accompaniment, where there was a concern not to eclipse the vocal delivery (early lyres, primarily for accompaniment, had no soundholes either). 3) Harps in Wales could bear rich decoration - gems and such. 4) This particular playing technique dictates that the uppermost strings have to be positioned off-centre into the soundboard, towards the upper hand of the player to allow it the close access that is required. 5) The sequential note-series of strings is interrupted in the lowest octave, where a note (E) has no string. 6) At times, the chords in cerdd dant involve a width of spread between certain fingers - particularly between the forefinger and the ring finger - which are impossible with the sort of string-spacing used by modern gut harps. Only the narrow string-spacing that we know from the early surviving metal-strung harps makes playing these chords possible.  

Now each of these features is to be found in relation to the earliest clarsachs from Ireland and Scotland, and certainly here we must be envisaging the early precursor of the clarsach; one which must have had a wide geographical distribution. Of course, in view of the evident musical exchanges that continually took place throughout the British Isles in the Middle Ages, and particularly because of the desire in Wales to emulate the quality of instrumental music in Ireland (as described by Gerald of Wales), the aristocratic players of this classical music in Wales would never have rejected the 'Rolls-Royce' of harps used elsewhere, with its metal strings. Even the Irish term 'corr' for the harp's harmonic curve seems to have been used in Welsh also. That said, the effort involved in not only the playing, but in the construction, maintenance, transporting and tuning, of metal-strung harps is enormous, so it is easy to imagine there might have been harpists, particularly towards the end of the tradition, who could not or would not make that commitment and who may have been motivated to play this music on wooden or leathern harps with horsehair strings (or even gut strings if they avoided the cerdd dant nail technique). But doing that would have only hastened the tradition’s decline!

 

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