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by Peter Greenhill


Arnold Dolmetsch (the founding father, really, of the movement to attempt authentic early music performance in general) along with his wife Mabel, began the revival of this music in the 1930s, using metal strings for various arrangements of pieces from the ms. But some of the modern-day harpists who have continued with this have used gut instead of metal strings, and this leads on to an important point which has to be made here. Often, in modern arrangements of pieces from the ms., notes are played where none are indicated by the tablature, and bars are compressed into shorter lengths than they should occupy. The result is that a quite crowded note-density is soon established and this fairly high level of saturation is maintained. This helps to mask the terrible flagging that the music inevitably succumbs to, when played on gut strings that lack the sustain that the music requires when played accurately. For the tablature itself is unambiguous about the fact that, often, bars are sparsely populated with notes, and, in a wider context, this is to be expected, for this music often shares in that spaciousness, dignity and grandeur that we are so familiar with from the other ancient classical tradition from the British Isles - piobaireachd. Metal strings are - very simply - musically essential for most of the pieces in the ms., if the music is to be played accurately with the bar-lengths and the quantity of notes respected. Much of what is and what is not accurate here, by the way, has only emerged from the research in recent decades, so many printed and recorded arrangements have not had the benefit of this. But all arrangements have been vital in keeping alive the sense of intrigue and mystery that the puzzles of the tablature ignited back in the 18th century, including the puzzle of the nature of the instrument. For a very long time even the number of strings needed was unclear.

Of course it is a shame that no actual example of this small type of harp has survived, but there is no problem in building and using a reconstruction of the required design. Naturally, it does not quite have all the fullness and resonance that the larger modern reconstructions of clarsachs have - they gain from their greater size and from the sympathetic resonance of the extra strings - but it is much more convenient and comfortable, in every respect. From more than thirty years of experience, I actually recommend it over larger designs, not only because of its authenticity, but because it is so wonderfully comfortable, and being comfortable is essential to allow the player to relax and slip into the true spirit of this music.

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last updated 17/04/06