A tale from Scotland's Isle of Skye relates how music first came to those lands. A poor youth found a strange instrument (a triangular harp) floating in the waves. He fished it out, set it upright, and the wind began to play the strings -- an eerie, lovely sound the like of which had never been heard. The boy could not duplicate the sound, although he tried for many long days. So obsessed did he become that his widowed mother ran to a wizard (a dubh-sgoilear) to beg him to give her son the skill to play the instrument -- or else to quell his desire for it.
The dubh-sgoilear offered her this choice: he would take away the boy's desire in exchange for the widow's body, or he'd give him the gift of music in exchange for her mortal soul. She chose the later and returned home where she found her son plucking beautiful, heavenly music from the strings of the harp. But the boy was horrified to learn the price his mother had paid for his skill. From that moment on, he began to play music so sad that the birds and the fish stopped to listen. And that, concludes the old Scottish tale, is why the music of the harp sounds poignant to this very day.
From Ireland comes another tale about the earliest harp music: Boand was the wife of the Dagda Mor, a deity of the Tuatha De Danann (the faery race of Ireland). As Boand gave birth to the Dagda's three sons, the Dagda's harper played along to ease the woman's labor. The harp groaned with the intensity of the pain as the woman's first child emerged, and so she named her eldest son Goltrai, the crying music. The music made a merry sound as Boand's second son was born, and so she named the child Gentrai, the laughing music. At last the final infant emerged to music that was soft and sweet. She called the child Suantri, the sleeping (or healing) music. These three strains of music are still found in the repertoire of Celtic musicians -- as echoed by the Scots-English ballad recounting the trials of King Orfeo (a harper in the oldest songs, a fiddler in later variants) who played three strains of music before the king of the faery underworld: the notes of joy, the notes of pain, and the enchanted faery reel.
It is interesting to note that the modern revival of interest in traditional folk music, beginning in the 1970s, paralleled the modern revival of interest in fantasy fiction (and the birth of the fantasy publishing genre in the same decade). It is not surprising that the audiences for folk music and fantasy stories overlap, for both art forms are rooted in the lore and legends of our folk heritage. Today, you'll find quite a number of fantasy novels and stories infused with folk music and traditional ballads. Bards and wandering minstrels have long been staple characters in books set in medieval or imaginary lands, and more often than not, a small, hand-held, Celtic style harp is the instrument they play. The quick-witted Morgan of Hed in Patricia McKillip's "Riddlemaster" books, for example, was one of the first (and remains one of the best) harp-toting protagonists in contemporary fantasy fiction. Patricia C. Wrede (The Harp of Imach Thysell), Morgan Llewelyn (Bard), Charles de Lint (Moonheart) and other writers from early days of the fantasy genre created memorable bardic characters, and Ellen Kushner told the quintessential harper tale in her award-winning, balllad-inspired novel, Thomas the Rhymer.
It's not difficult to see why the harp became the instrument of choice in fantasy literature, for it is one that has always been associated with magic. The earliest harps of western Europe were most often made of willow wood, a tree sacred to the Goddess, associated with the cycles of the moon, fertility, and enchantment. The strings of the harp symbolize the mystic bridge between heaven and earth; mankind stands poised in the middle, striving now toward one and now toward the other as represented by the tension of the strings (portrayed in Bosch's painting "The Garden of Delights," where a man hangs from the strings, crucified). The harp has been associated with early pagan religions, its music called "the voice of the gods," although it was later absorbed into the Christian church and the celestial choir.
It was thought that the harp as we know it today originally came from Ireland, spreading across Scotland and Wales and over the Channel to Europe. But in 1992 the music historians Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird published Tree of Strings: Crann Nan Tued, a thorough, well-written history of the harp, presenting strong archaeological evidence that the earliest instruments came from Scotland. (The harp is found carved onto Picto-Scottish stones at least 200 to 300 years earlier than pictorial representations elsewhere in the world.) According to Sanger & Kinnaird, these large, floor-standing instruments (triangular in frame, probably strung with horsehair) passed to Wales sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries during waves of immigration from the north, while the Irish are likely to have come into contact with the harp through their religious communities established in the west of Scotland. When the Irish brought the instrument home, they altered the shape and gave it metal strings. This is the harp we know today as the Gaelic harp or clarsach.
Sanger & Kinnaird point out that it's not entirely accurate to call the harp a "folk" instrument. For many centuries the harp firmly belonged to the aristocracy; it was not an instrument to be found (like the fiddle and whistle) in a poor man's croft. Harpers were trained and educated; they were esteemed (and esteemed themselves) quite highly compared to other musicians. For common people, the opportunity to hear the music of the harp was rare indeed. In Scandinavia, harps were noble instruments by law; a commoner who dared to play the harp could find himself sentenced to death. This gave the instrument a powerful aura of otherworldliness, surrounding harp music with magical legends and supernatural associations. The ancient Volsunga Saga recounts the death of Gunnar, brother to Sigurd the Dragon-slayer. Thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes by vengeful enemies, Gunnar kept death at bay by playing a mystical song upon his harp, enchanting the serpents to sleep. For an entire day and night he played, but as the dawn broke over the land his tired fingers fumbled and one snake sunk its poison into Gunnar's hand.
We find other magical harps in countless fairy tales, epic poems, and songs. In a Swedish tale, a young hunter saves his wife from the lust of an arrogant prince by invoking the aid of her wolf-relatives to build him a harp -- a magical harp with which to gain her freedom. In a poem from Iceland (also a ballad from Scotland) one sister drowns another in order to steal the drowning girl's fiance. The body eventually floats to land, where a minstrel makes a harp from the girl's breast bone, strung with her golden hair. When he plays for the murderous sister's wedding, the harp speaks with the dead girl's voice and exposes the bride's treachery. The Scottish harper Glenkindie (like the fiddler Jack Orion) could "harp the fish out of the salt sea, or water out of a stone, or milk out of a maiden's breast though baby had she none." He plays a sleeping spell in order to seduce the daughter in a great lord's hall, but his serving man, in pursuit of the same woman, harps Glenkindie to sleep in turn and steals the maiden away for himself. The sinister Elf Knight uses a similar trick to seduce the Lady Isobel -- but she is a quick-witted young woman and escapes the encounter with her maidenhead intact. Thomas the Rhymer is the most famous harper of Scottish balladry. The Queen of Faery (known to have a fancy for handsome mortal musicians) seduces Thomas and steals him away to Faerieland for seven years. When she sends him home again, it is with the gift (or the curse) of "the tongue that cannot lie."
In Arthurian romance, Tristan disguises himself as a wandering harper when he travels from Cornwall to Ireland, seeking the cure for a poisonous wound inflicted by an Irish hero. It is there he encounters the fair Iseult and determines to win her for his Cornish king, never dreaming that he will come to love her himself, and thereby seal his doom.
In Russia, the harp was known as a gusla, the wandering harpist as a guslar. One legend tells of a Tsar who is captured while travelling in the Holy Lands. His brave Tsarita dons men's clothes, takes up her gusla, and follows his path. Playing before the infidel king, she wins her husband's freedom. The guslars of Russia are comparable to the bards to be found in Celtic lands: trained in archaic poetic modes, severe and highly formal, which were performed as sung recitations while accompanied by the harp. In the British Isles, in ancient times, the bards were held in the highest esteem. They were scholars, historians, genealogists, valued advisors to nobles and kings, and believed to possess certain magical powers; their satires could curse, even kill a man, while their poems of praise lifted fortunes. In Ireland, the fili (a hereditary position requiring at least six years of training in one of the poetic colleges) composed poetry but did not perform it; the reacaire would chant or recite with musical accompaniment from a harper. In Scotland, these three separate positions came together in the person of the bard. While not quite as highly trained as the fili, he nonetheless composed poetry himself, performed, and generally played his own harp.
Until the 15th and 16th centuries fili and bard used formal syllabic verse. When "amhran" apppeared (one of the basic meters of folk poetry), it swept across Europe and the British Isles, carried by traveling troubadours. As the strict rules of poetry became more relaxed, the role of fili began to disappear -- sped by the political events undermining the Irish and Highland Scottish social structures. In the early 17th century, the Irish poetic colleges collapsed; in Scotland, the less strict bardic training survived another hundred years. After this, harpers began to take on roles that combined those of the fili and the wandering troubadours. Their status fluctuated, then fell drastically. The British Crown considered traveling harpers to be political subversives; Queen Elisabeth I turned the bards into outlaws, uttering her famous proclamation: "Hang the harpers wherever found." Cromwell joined in by enacted a vicious harp-breaking policy. By the time of the famous 1792 gathering of harpers in Belfast, the proud old profession of bard was virtually extinct; wandering harpers were generally poor men with no alternative means of support -- like the famous blind harper O'Carolan, whose music is still played by harpers today.
In the early 1800s, harp music and its attendant folklore underwent a public revival, aided by the efforts of the Dublin poet-musician Thomas Moore. Moore wrote poems to Irish folk tunes and published them with tremendous success; his popularity rivalled Byron's and Scott's during his day, and his songs are still sung. In 1810, modern mechanization allowed a new type of harp to be patented which permitted musicians to play in all musical keys. This brought the harp back into classical orchestras and unleashed a flood of new music. The harp become a popular parlor instrument -- particularly among genteel young ladies, who, it was claimed, enjoyed the excuse to flash their slim ankles to admirers.
Even in the area of classical music, the harp had an aura of magic and enchantment. The Victorians, with their strong interest in folklore, spiritualism and the Celtic Twilight, embraced the music of the harp with a fervor that is almost hard to imagine today. A wealth of Victorian "fairy music" for the harp was written, published and performed -- music which eventually fell out of fashion along with the mystical medievalism and Arthurianism of the Pre-Raphaelites, the spiritualism and florid fantasies characterizing the age. Despite its great popularity during its day, the existence of this 19th-century fairy music was nearly forgotten altogether until English harp player Elizabeth-Jane Baldry released her lovely CD, "Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain."
Elizabeth-Jane is an old friend and neighbor of mine, living in tiny, magical cottage crowded with harps, books, musical scores and art. As a harp teacher as well as a performer and composer, she is largely responsible for the fact that there are few places one can walk in our village without hearing someone, somewhere, practicing classical or Celtic harp. With her long dark hair and long skirts she might have stepped from a Pre-Raphaelite painting, and her breadth of knowledge about Victorian culture, folklore, fairies, and the history of harp music is impressive.
"The fairy music on Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain," she says, "is the result of a journey into the Victorian fascination with the transcendental. All the music has lain forgotten in the vast archives of the British Library, and has never before been recorded or even performed in modern times. Its composers, once famous touring virtuosi, are now long dead and forgotten. Most compelling was the discovery that so many elements of the Victorian psyche are distilled in the music: a revolt against Darwinism and the birth of the scientific age, the spectacular rise of the spiritualist movement affecting even the Royal Court, a nostalgia for our rural past as the industrial revolution tightened its hold, and the rise of the middle classes with their demand for accessible music. Furthermore, the Victorian love affair with Scotland contributed to the popularity of the harp, Scotland's oldest national instrument. There was an interest for the first time in our folk heritage. The erotic imagery of fairies was an obvious outlet for the repressed sexuality of the time. Orgiastic paintings of naked frolics became respectable provided the participants had wings! Fairy music for the harp is the essence of Victorian idealism."
Elizabeth-Jane unearthed this cache of Victorian fairy music while doing research at the British Library in London. Amazed by both the quantity and the quality of this music, she swiftly made plans to put together a recording of selections from this work. Her CD was recorded on location in the 19th-century ballroom of Buckland Manor: an eighty-five-room country manor house, virtually empty, rising from the Devon countryside like the house in a gothic romance. "As I played," she recalls, "looking out on a hundred acres of untouched parkland on a golden autumn day, the wind gusting, empty urns filled with blown leaves, I felt goose-shivers down my spine . . . knowing this music hadn't been played in a century. The last time it had been performed, the manor's ballroom had just been built."
As she plucked the rippling notes of "Ondine," a reverie for harp by Georgio Lorenzi (inspired by Baron de la Motte Fouque's tragic story of a knight and a water-spirit), Elizabeth-Jane heard a woman's scream. The recording engineers heard it too and the sound was captured upon the tape. And yet, when investigated, no source for the scream could be found in that empty place. Only later did she discover that a Victorian woman had met her death in that very room, "thrown from the balcony by a husband enraged by her extravagant spending."
The late 20th century revival of interest in harp music was, like the earlier Victorian revival, entwined with an interest in all things folkloric, fantastic and mystical. I was fortunate to be a student in Dublin in the mid-1970s, when the contemporary Celtic music renaissance was first building up its steam -- a thrilling time to see new bands like Clannad adapt the Celtic harp to a new Celtic sound, or to catch sight of The Chieftain's legendary harper Derek Bell in the smokey rooms of an old Dublin pub. The Breton harper Alan Stivell began to build a following about the same time, influencing many of the younger musicians who followed after. Stivell's "Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique" is a CD that tops the list of recommendations for anyone interested in Celtic harp music.
There are so many fine harpists working today that it's impossible to list them all here, but any survey of the field should certainly also include Patrick Ball, Dominig Bouchaud, Robin Huw Bowen, Cécile Corbel, Paul Dooley, Loreena McKennitt, Áine Minogue, Joanna Newsom, Maire Ni Chathsaigh, Nansi Richards, Kim Robertson, Sileas (Patsy Seddon & Mary Macmaster), Savourna Stevenson, and Robin Williamson. (Despite the proponderence of women harpists today, it should be noted that in the past women harpers were rare, often dismissed and slandered as "loose-living" women. In the Dark Ages it was strictly against the law for women to harp.)
"O wake once more," Sir Walter Scott once commanded the ancient harps of Scotland. "If one heart throb higher at its sway, the wizard note has not been touch'd in vain. Then silent be no more! Enchantress, wake again!"
More than two hundred years later, the harps are awake, and still making their magic.
Art credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)