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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