6) Instruments and tuning
Now we've tried the music, it's time to look at some of the other issues involved in interpreting it. Let's start with some tricky questions, where the answers you choose could make a big difference to the sound.What sort of harp?
As far back as the Laws of Hywel Dda, we find references to the telyn rawn
, or horsehair harp. From the fourteenth century, we have the "satire on the leather harp" (telyn ledr
- possibly a gut strung harp) an entertaining poem attributed to Iolo Goch, in which the poet denounces the new-fangled harp, which, he says, has a false roaring sound, a studded soundboard, needs hooked nails to play, is so heavy the harper needs to hire a boy to carry it, and is fit only for an Englishman. Instead, he advises bardic apprentices to stick to the "bright harp of black horsehair", which was apparently played by King David himself! By the fifteenth century if not before, the telyn rawn
had brays, L-shaped string pegs which lightly touch the strings and make them buzz, and there are several poems which describe and praise the telyn rawn
. Some people suggest that the studded soundboard of the telyn ledr
may indicate that it had brays - in which case, this may have been an innovation at the time, and older Welsh harps may not have had them. But it seems that the traditional Welsh harp, at least according to the poets, was the horsehair-strung harp.
Of course, nothing concerning this music is quite that simple! One generation's unacceptable innovation can be the next generation's emblem of youth, and a commonplace for the generation that follows - think about the introduction of the electric guitar. The ariandlws
, the silver trophy awarded at the 1523 Eisteddfod, and other illustrations around the same date, show what looks very much like a Gothic harp of the same type as was being played in Europe; and in the seventeenth century, James Talbot described a gut-strung bray harp as the "proper Welch harp", well after bray harps were out of fashion elsewhere. So it is conceivable that, a generation after Iolo Goch, harpers may have adopted the gut-strung harp, as well as its brays, in time for this to be the harp for the ap Huw music.
There is also a passage in some versions of the Laws of Hywel Dda in which apprentice harpers on qualifying are said to give up the telyn rawn
and take up "another". Unfortunately there's nothing to say what this other harp may have been - it could have been simply a bigger and better model of telyn rawn
- but Peter Greenhill has pointed to the Irish influence on early wales, and suggested that professional harpers, like their Irish counterparts, may have been playing wire-strung harps, while poets, declaimers and amateurs used the horsehair-strung instrument.
If you want to see what brays look like, there's a picture here:http://www.marilynrummel.ca/images/brays.jpg
And there are pictures of two Welsh carvings of harpers here:http://www.cornwallharpcentre.co.uk/images/cotehele.jpghttp://www.clera.org/pics/telyncerflun.jpg
The first, from about 1510, shows a very Gothic-looking harp. (Notice also the crwth
which is being played by another musician off to the left - I couldn't find a good online image showing both musicians.)
The second, from the early fifteenth century, shows a much squatter instrument, with 26 strings by my count - just right for the ap Huw repertoire. Is this a wire harp? - the shape is right, but the soundbox looks a bit flimsy. Or is this the size and shape of the telyn rawn
Here we come to a thorny problem.
Lets start with the one thing which is clear: one of Robert ap Huw's tuning diagrams (on page 109), and also the Medley version in the Iolo manuscript, show that the b of the manuscript is generally a B flat; and this is likely to be true for many, if not all of the pieces in the manuscript.
Beyond this, though, things are more confusing. There are a number of manuscripts that describe different tunings - cyweiriau
- and mention five approved tunings and a number of others. But the descriptions are fragmentary and very hard to make sense of. Several of the pieces in ap Huw manuscript have titles or instructions that refer to these tunings, and the manuscript also contains several charts (pages 108 and 109) which look like tuning diagrams. One of these is labelled kras gower
- his spelling for one of the approved tunings. It appears to be a pentatonic tunic, achieved by tuning the b strings to a and the f strings to e. But none of the pieces in the manuscript work well with this sort of tuning, not even the cwlwm cytgerdd
sections which another manuscript says are played in cras gyweir
- and some of the other tunings are bizarre - for example, kower chwich
, the "strange tuning",- has the strings tuned a,g,c,b,e,d,g,f, etc. - and I do wonder if these charts represent clever experiments rather than anything to do with normal playing.
There are also some references to tunings in later manuscripts. Robert Evans has looked at these together with the ap Huw diagrams and you'll find his suggestions for tunings here:http://www.bragod.com/bragod4-3.html
Meanwhile other people, most lately Peter Greenhill, have pointed out that all the music in the manuscript works well if the harp is tuned in F, i.e. with B flats and all other notes natural. It's a nice simple solution; this is what I do, and having tried out other suggestions I find that for most of the music I prefer the sound of the F tuning. But in that case, what do all those elaborate descriptions of the cyweiriau
really refer to? What pitch?
There are two questions here. First of all, the g1 of the manuscript represents G gamut, which in medieval music theory corresponds to our G at the bottom of the bass stave. That puts the range of ap Huw's music from cello C, the C below the bass stave, to G at the top of the treble stave. But were medieval Welsh harps that big? The illustrations I linked to above don't look it; and on gut, nylon or wire, the music can sound very murky at that pitch; some people suggest that (like Renaissance flute parts) the music is actually intended to be played an octave higher. On the other hand Ann Heymann has recently had some low-pitched, horsehair strung bray harps made, and on these, strung very lightly, the music does work well at the low pitch.
Then there's the question of what the general pitch was anyway at the time. Since harps were commonly played with crwth
or pipes, it seems to me that there must have been some degree of pitch standardisation. (Both crwth and Welsh pipes go very well with harp, by the way.) But there are no surviving mediaeval sets of Welsh pipes, so we don't know what that pitch might have been. And measurements on early English viols have suggested that there may have been two different pitch standards in use - so a sixteenth century C may have been either a modern D or a modern A. My solution at present is a simple one - to play the music where it seems to fit the harp; but if I were to try playing with a crwth player I'm sure I'd have to modify that to suit them!
So, a lot of uncertainties; and, equally, a lot of scope for experiment.
Just as an illustration, here's a very short extract from profiad y botwm
, played first at low pitch on a lightly strung bray harp, then an octave higher on wire harp.