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Tiny harp

Giraldus Cambrensis



One of the first writers to describe Irish music was the twelfth-century cleric Giraldus Cambrensis (which means "Gerald of Wales"). It's very interesting to scholars of this subject to have such an early source, but on the other hand, it would have been even more interesting if it were clear exactly what he meant by some of the things he said.

In general Giraldus was very critical of the Irish, saying that they were a bunch of idle louts who spent their time lazing about and growing their hair long, which makes him sound rather like a critic of the Sixties "counterculture". His positive comments on Irish music are the exception to his general attitude.

One item in his writings which is especially interesting is that he seems to be describing the first known use of harmony, and he says it is found mainly in Wales and northern England. It has always been a puzzle why European music went off in a harmonic direction while other music in other cultures did not, and how it all got started. Giraldus's statement is a valuable clue, but unfortunately a rather ambiguous one.

To mention what else is known on this subject (which is very little indeed), it appears that in the Scandinavian-influenced parts of Britain there existed a singing style called gymel, which is basically harmony in parallel thirds. A twelfth-century manuscript found in Uppsala, Sweden gives a hymn to St. Magnus, Nobilis ,humilis, in the Lydian mode and harmonized in parallel thirds. Since St. Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney (which was Norse at that period), it is generally assumed to have come from there. This would tend to confirm what Giraldus seems to be saying.

On the other hand, it seems to me that he may have been describing the type of heterophonic group singing that is still heard today in the singing of Gaelic psalms. In that case, each singer sings the same melody line at an individual tempo, and with individual and ornate ornamentation, but all start and end each line on the same note. In between, there are a number of independent melody lines in progress, but not what could be described as "harmony".

When Europe as a whole started in on harmony, they used organum which consists of parallel fourths or fifths, and generally avoided the use of thirds. So it's not obvious that the concept of organum grew out of gymel, which used only thirds. (In fact, with the Pythagorean tuning system that was in use at that time, thirds tend to be out of tune.)

However, the English appear to have been fond of thirds, and when the use of the third was adopted by the Burgundian school of composers a few centuries later, it seems to have been as a result of English influence, in part the faux-bourdon, which adds the interval of a third to parallel fourths, resulting in parallel first-inversion triads.

I've included a quotation from Joan Rimmer which I cited elsewhere, and also some material posted on rec.music.early by Margo Schulter, to whom I'm very grateful for doing all that work.


During the first millenium of the Christian era, western Europe knew nothing of harmony as we connote this term. All music, whether secualr or religious, was homophonic. Certainly the melody was often doubled at the octave by magadizing, which was an art known as symphonia, fully described by early theorists. When the fourth and fifth, and later the third, were admitted in a like manner, a decided advance was apparent, and this new artifice was named organum. Despite Arabic clues, it is not unlikely that the first prompting among Occidental peoples for this diversion, for such it must have been primarily, came from Britain, and one of the hints in this detection is the illusive passage in the Topographia Hibernica (c. 1185) of Giraldus Cambrensis. It deals with the harp-playing of the Irish and seems to point to the simultaneous use of fourths and fifths. Much clearer and more precise is the passage in the same writer's Itinerarium Cambriae, where he says that the Welsh "do not sing in unison like the people of other lands, but sing in different parts." He also observes that the people of North Britain, "beyond the Humber," use "a similar kind of harmony ... singing only in parts, one ... in the bass, the other ... in the treble." Giraldus hints that this novelty was due to Scandinavian influence, on which account some writers urge that Scandinavia was the point de départ of this novelty, to which proof they bring forward the 13th century Upsala manuscript which shows the use of parallel thirds throughout. Against this there is the earlier evidence of the 12th century Cornish manuscript in the Bodleian Library, whilst reference to the so-called Anonymous IV manuscript (c.1273-80), where the use of thirds is said to be used mostly in the "[Celtic] west of England," seems to strengthen the British claim.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 56-57



The Medieval Irish Harp

Irish feastIn 1183, Giraldus de Barri, the Welsh-born Norman ecclesiastic whose family was heavily involved in the conquest of Ireland, paid his first visit to that country. He returned in 1185 with the English Prince John to whom he had by then become tutor. His enthusiastic comments on music and harp-playing in Ireland, written in Latin which is difficult both to translate and to interpret, have often been quoted, but no completely satisfactory elucidation has yet been arrived at. If, however, Giraldus's text is studied in conjunction with what is known of twelfth-century musical practice and with what is known quite precisely and unequivocally about the nature of the Irish harp as a sound-maker, it becomes less enigmatic.

Giraldus went to Paris in 1167 and stayed there until 1172, studying the Latin poets, law, philosophy and theology. As a cleric, he must have been familiar with plainsong and, at least to some extent, with the practice of polyphony as it was used in the Church's liturgy. He must also have been familiar with the secular music which was played and sung in the households of feudal lords and in the capital cities of London and Paris. His literary and artistic standards were those of a cultivated western European ecclesiastic, not of an out-back Norman-Welshman.

In his Topographica Hiberniae, Giraldus berated the Irish as 'barbarians' for what he considered to be their lack of industry, their poor husbandry and disinterest in city life, their flowing beards and odd clothes, their love of leisure and liberty. He granted them splendour of physique and superlative skill in the practice of instrumental music. Whatever music Giraldus heard in Ireland, it did not seem to him barbarous and peculiar; he described it specifically as better executed and more agreeable than that generally heard in England. Whatever its musical idiom was, it seems to have been not far removed from that of Western Christendom, and if we examine Giraldus's words, it appears that he tried to be as explicit as possible in Latin, a language whose vocabulary was not geared to the expression of musical subtleties. His section on Irish instrumental music is worth quoting in full:


I find among these people commendable diligence only on musical instruments, on which they are incomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen. Their style is not, as on the British instruments to which we are accustomed, deliberate and solem but quick and lively; nevertheless the sound is smooth and pleasant.

It is remarkable that, with such rapid fingerwork, the musical rhythm is maintained and that, by unfailingly disciplined art, the integrity of the tune is fully preserved throughout the ornate rhythms and the profusely intricate polyphony—and with such smooth rapidity, such 'unequal equality', such 'discordant concord'. Whether the strings strike together a fourth or a fifth, [the players] nevertheless always start from B flat and return to the same, so that everything is rounded off in a pleasant general sonority. They introduce and leave rhythmic motifs so subtly, they play the tinkling sounds on the thinner strings above the sustained sound of the thicker string so freely, they take such secret delight and caress [the strings] so sensuously, that the greatest part of their art seems to lie in veiling it, as if 'That which is concealed is bettered—art revealed is art shamed'.

Thus it happens that those things which bring private and ineffable delight to people of subtle appreciation and sharp discernment, burden rather than delight the ears of those who, in spite of looking do not see and in spite of hearing do not understand; to unwilling listeners, fastidious things appear tedious and have a confused and disordered sound.

One must note that both Scotland and Wales, the latter by virtue of extension, the former by affinity and intercourse, depend on teaching to imitate and rival Ireland in musical practice. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments only, the cithara and the tympanum. Scotland uses three, the cithara, the tympanum and the chorus. Wales uses the cithara, tibiae and chorus. Also, they use strings made of brass not of leather. However, in the opinion of many, Scotland today not only equals Ireland, her mistress, but also by far outdoes and surpasses her in musical skill. Hence many people already look there as though to the source of the art.

Cithara was a harp. Tympanum possibly meant a bowed or beaten lyre, perhaps adopted from the Norsemen, for some forms of these still survive in Scandinavia. Tibiae were pipes, though Giraldus did not specify what kind. The description of musical performance obviously refers to harp-playing; on a lyre, whether plucked or bowed, there is no possibility of such intricacy. The Latin terms which Giraldus used cannot be put exactly into modern musical terminology for our conception and practice of music are greatly different from those of medieval people. His key words, however, are all to do with particular aspects of styles of polyphonic music as distinct from monophonic music such as plainsong and presumably much secular vocal music of that time.

While the first paragraph describes the general agreeableness of Irish performance, the second seems to describe the playing of florid elaborations in impeccable rhythm, proportion and clarity. And we may note here that is was precisely these qualities that Edward Bunting praised, six hundred years later, in Denis Hempson, last of the harpers in the traditional style. The word translated 'polyphony' is organa… the plural of organum, which denotes both a particular polyphonic technique—that of adding one florid part above a slow-moving tenor—and a piece composed in this technique. Explanatory translations of Giraldus's organa would be 'varieties of music in parts' or 'pieces of part music'. What is here translated as ornate rhythms is in the original crispatos modulos. The latter means literally 'measurement', cantus crispus is known early in the sixteenth century in England as a term for very florid polyphony in many parts, and its musical use is a metaphor taken from the primary meaning of crispus, which is curly or quivering. Irish harpers were, according to this account, incomparably skilled in contriving and playing two-part music with a complex and brilliant upper part, and Giraldus, having first described it in technical terms, reinforces this with a physical description—the tinkling of the high strings over the heavier sound of the bass strings.

The curious second sentence in the second paragraph has puzzled many scholars. The 'fourths and fifths' are exactly those intervals which generally occur at structural points between tenor and added upper part in written polyphony dating from the twelfth century. The 'starting and ending with B flat', however, is enigmatic.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
pp. 28-31


The following material was posted to rec.music.early by Margo Schulter, and is archived here with her permission. She adds:


harperGiraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald de Barri (c. 1147-1220 according to Hughes, see below, but 1146-1243 according to a current Web site on Welsh history and culture kindly noted in a recent post by Patricia Yarrow), has given us two accounts of Celtic music. In his Descriptio Cambriae he describes the unique and marvellous ensemble singing of Wales, and in his Topographica Hibernica he expresses wonder at the art of Irish harp music.

In giving both the original Latin passages and a possible English translation, I am indebted to two modern sources. The Latin texts and one possible translation are available in Dom Anselm Hughes, "Music in Fixed Rhythms," in Dom Anselm Hughes, ed., New Oxford History of Music, v. 2: Early Medieval Music Up to 1300 (Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 311-404 at 315-317. (Note that this is the 1954 version, not the 1990 version of the same series and volume.)

Another translation is available in Percy M. Young, A History of British Music (Ernest Benn, Ltd, 1967), pp. 25-27, 36-37.

For those interested in performance practices, Young refers to another passage from Giraldus on music in Ireland where he "observes that the priests and sacrists of that country accompanied their hymn-singing with this instrument," see ibid. at p. 37, n. 2.


1. Giraldus on Welsh ensemble singing

In musico modulamine non uniformiter ut alibi, sed multipliciter multisque modis et modulis cantilenas emittunt, adeo ut in turba canentium, sic huic genti mos est, quot videas capita tot audias carmina, discriminaque vocum varia, in unam denique sub B mollis dulcedine blanda consonantiam et organicam convenientia melodiam. In their singing of music they do not sing uniformly [in unison?] as elsewhere, but in multiple manner, with many different voices and melodies. Thus in a crowd of singers, which is quite the custom for this nation, you will hear as many melodies as you see people, and a distinct variety of parts, finally coming together under the soft sweetness of B-flat in one consonance and "organized melody" [likely "organum, polyphony, apt harmony"].
In borealibus quoque majoris Britanniae partibus, trans Humbriam scilicet Eboracique finibus, Anglorum populi qui partes illas inhabitant simili canendo symphonica utuntur harmonia: binis tamen solummodo tonorum differentiis et vocum modulando varietatibus, una inferius submurmurante, altera vero superne demulcente pariter et delectante. Nec arte tamen sed usu longaevo et quasi in naturam mora diutina jam converso, haec vel illa sibi gens hanc specialitatem comparavit. Qui adeo apud utramque invaluit et altas jam radices posuit, ut nihil hic simpliciter, nihil nisi multipliciter ut apud priores, vel saltem dupliciter ut apud sequentes melice proferri consueverit; pueris etiam, quod magis admirandum, et fere infantibus, cum primum a fletibus in cantus erumpunt, eandem modulationem observantibus. Also in the northern parts of of Britain, that is, beyond the Humber and around York, the people who inhabit these parts use a similar kind of singing in symphonic harmony [i.e., based on the symphoniae or concords]: but with a variety of only two distinct melodies and parts, one murmuring below, the other equally soothing and charming the ear above. Yet in both nations this special style has been acquired not by studied art but by long usage, so that it has now become as it were a habit of second nature. And this has now become so strong in either nation, and taken such firm roots, that one never hears simple [unison?] singing, but either with many voices as in the former [Wales], or nevertheless at least two as in the latter [northern England]. And what is yet more marvellous: even children, and indeed infants, almost from when they first turn from tears to songs, follow the same fashion of singing.
Angli vero, quoniam non generaliter omnes sed boreales solum hujusmodi vocum utuntur modulationibus, credo quod a Dacis et Norwagiensibus qui partes illas insulae frequentius occupare ac diutius obtinere solebant, sicut loquendi affinitatem, sic et canendi proprietatem contraxerunt. Since the English do not generally use this manner of singing, but only the northerners, I believe that it is from the Danes and Norwegians, who often used to occupy these parts of the island and were wont to hold them for long periods of time, that the inhabitants have acquired likewise their affinities of speech and their special manner of singing.

Harping bard NOTE: While Giraldus makes it clear that he finds the Welsh and northern English styles of singing unique, some of the phrases he uses to describe apt ensemble music seem to occur almost as literary conventions in the description of Continental polyphony also. Thus one festive two-voice conductus, Annua gaudia from the 12th-century repertory of Santiago de Compostella, very possibly compiled in Northern France during the childhood years of Giraldus, has a refrain: Organa dulcia conveniencia sunt resonanda, roughly: "Let resound sweet and agreeable organa " [i.e. "organized" or polyphonic songs].

The term symphonica might be translated "harmoniously sounding together," and may refer either to the symphoniae or concordant intervals, such as the fourth and fifth, or more generally to the concord of tones or voices sounding pleasantly together.

For a thorough study of the different meanings which can attach to the term organum and allied forms in various contexts of ensemble and instrumental music, see Peter Williams, The Organ in Western Culture 750-1250 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music), (Cambridge University Press, 1993).


2. Giraldus on Irish and Welsh harp playing

Here I quote two short Latin passages of Giraldus on Irish harp playing from the Topographica Hibernica as given by Hughes, pp. 316 n. 2 and 317 n. 2, along with a more extended passage from the Descriptio Cambriae given only in translation by Young, pp. 36-37, which praises the harp-playing tradition of Wales while connecting it to that of Ireland. Here I use curly braces { } to indicate where part of the Young translation appears to parallel the first Latin passage in Hughes.


On Ireland

Seu diatessaron, seu diapente chordae concrepent, semper tamen a B molli incipiunt, et in idem redeunt, ut cuncta sub jocundae sonoritatis dulcedine compleantur. The chords sound together now a fourth or now a fifth, but they always begin from B-flat and return to the the same, so that all may be brought under the sweetness of a pleasant sonority.
Non enim in his, sicut in Britannicis quibus assueti sumus instrumentis, tarda et morosa est modulatio, verum velox et praeceps, suavis tamen et jocunda sonoritas. Not indeed among these [Irish] people, as among the British to whose instruments we are accustomed, is the melody slow and studied, but in truth swift and headlong, yet a sweet and pleasant sonority.

On Wales

Harper...In each family the art of playing on the harp is held preferable to any other learning. Their musical instruments charm and delight the ear with their sweetness, are borne along by such celerity and delicacy of modulation, producing such a consonance from the rapidity of seemingly discordant touches, that I shall briefly repeat what is set forth in our Irish Topography on the subject of the musical instruments of the three nations. It is astonishing that in so complex and rapid a movement of the fingers, the musical proportions can be preserved, and throughout the difficult modulations on their various instruments, the harmony is completed with such a sweet velocity, {as if the chords sounded together fourths or fifths. They always begin from B-flat, and return to the same, that the whole may be completed under the sweetness of a pleasing sound.} They enter into a movement, and conclude it in so delicate a manner and play the little notes so sportively under the blunter sounds of the bass strings, enlivening with wanton levity, or communicating a deeper internal sensation of pleasure, so that the perfection of their art appears in the concealment of it."

NOTE: The phrase "producing such a consonance from the rapidity of seemingly discordant touches" appears to sound an interesting variation in the description of instrumental music upon a favorite medieval definition of harmony or polyphony as a "concordant discord" of simultaneous tones or melodic lines. Two medieval synonyms for polyphony, the Greek-derived diaphonia and the Latinized equivalent discantus, both refer to a pleasing "sounding apart" or "singing apart" of distinct but harmonious tones or voices.


3. An open question: "the sweetness of B-flat"

One question raised by these passages relating to ensemble singing and harp music alike: just what does Giraldus mean by his references to "the sweetness of B-flat"? Young suggests that this could refer to the use of B-flat in an octave-species based on F or G, avoiding the tritone; at any rate, in the hexachord theory introduced by Guido d'Arezzo around 1130, the "soft" hexachord (as f-d') is distinguished by its use of Bb rather than B-natural (both notes being integral to Guido's system). Composed polyphonic pieces such as conductus from this same period around 1200 centering on F or G often feature the consistent use of Bb. Nevertheless, Hughes, ibid. pp. 316-317, wisely cautions that the meaning remains uncertain.



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