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

THE ACCOMPANIMENT LYRE & THE ACCOMPANIMENT HARP

Remember that there were two types of musical performance:- firstly: cerdd dafod (tongue music) - which was the vocal delivery of poetry accompanied either by the beating of a staff or by a stringed instrument; and secondly cerdd dant - the non-vocal, purely instrumental string music. Now as far as I am aware, all the references to strings of horsehair on the lyre or the harp occur in contexts that seem to be accompaniment ones - where a vocalist is accompanying himself - and never in an expressly instrumental context.

Unfortunately, the most informative source on early instruments of accompaniment - a poem by Dafydd ap Gwilym or Iolo Goch (neither of whom were solo instrumentalists) - has often been misinterpreted as a praising of a wooden harp with horsehair strings for general use, when actually it is in defence of the horsehair-strung lyre which had always been traditional for accompaniment. There is no doubt that the original, typical instrument of accompaniment was the lyre, which began to give way to various types of harp in the early 14th century. The type of harp eventually settled on for accompaniment was one with a leathern soundbox (stretched over a light wooden frame and laced at the back) with horsehair strings and buzzing bray pins. This replacement for the lyre was very different from the lyre, especially in that the lyre probably had had no buzzing mechanism, but in the end at least its horsehair strings were retained. The choice of the leathern harp here is easily explained - both the lyre and the leathern harp were light enough to be quite easily carried, and the vocalists who used them could travel alone or act as servants and porters to a poet or an instrumentalist, without needing to hire a porter for themselves.

 

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