Medieval Welsh Bardic Music: 

Interpreting the Robert ap Huw MS.

by Bill Taylor

I.  Introduction

The Robert ap Huw manuscript contains the earliest body of harp music from anywhere in Europe.  Its date of c. 1623 could imply that the style of the music might be Jacobean, especially as its compiler was a harpist employed at the court of James I.  But it is certainly not like any contemporary art music from late 16th century England or Western Europe.  Instead, this strange and beautiful music is a fragment of a vast lost repertoire known to the medieval Welsh bards, having been composed between the 14th and 16th centuries, transmitted orally, then written down in a unique tablature and later copied in the early 17th century.  Scarcely thirty tunes survive, yet they present many hours of performable music.  In contrast to the apologetic phrase "we’ll never know" of so many musicologists, we have seen a tremendous burst of research energy in the past decade, which has pushed forward a considerable amount of new information about the manuscript, so that we can better discuss the structure and technique of the music, as well as its context.

The manuscript itself has been the result of several hands.  The 18th-century Angelsey antiquarian Lewis Morris somehow acquired it, and added texts which both precede and follow Robert ap Huw’s original work, including the title page and a rough drawing of the silver trophy Mostyn harp, a typical harp found all over Renaissance Europe.  Various documents, including a table of contents, follow in both English and Welsh, concluding with a pointer "so for the manuscript", leading the reader straight to Robert ap Huw’s tablature beginning on p. 15.  Lewis Morris wrote several comments throughout the body of the manuscript, as did his brother Richard, who owned it after Lewis’s death.  Another contributor to the manuscript, at least in spirit, was the master harper Wiliam Penllyn, who graduated as as pencerdd athro/master harper at the Caerwys Eisteddfod of 1567 and was the composer of the section known as the clymau cytgerdd or the knots/ties of harmony, found on pp. 23-34.     

Dr. Sally Harper
has written about the variety of compositions in the manuscript as falling into four groups, including the gostegion, which are the musical equivalent of poetic forms which call for silence and demand a hearing; the caniadiau, which translates in modern Welsh as "songs" and may have originally been intended to accompany the voice; the profiadiau, literally "provings", perhaps being test pieces for competition; and the clymau cytgerdd, which appear to be tutorial pieces, giving models for composing new works based on the twenty-four measures of string music, whilst also encouraging students to recognise and remember each of the musical formulae by name and structure.

II.  Premise

In order to make sense of the manuscript as an historical musical document, I have been very careful to employ three principles that prevent modern elements from contaminating the interpretation:  reading from the original tablature, using period instruments, and using the appropriate playing technique on those instruments.

II.A.  Music

It goes without saying that any serious student needs to examine his or her subject in its original form.  No student of literature could ever hope to investigate the essence of a foreign poem by reading only translations; no art history student can make informed judgements of an artist’s technique from only viewing small black & white photographs of a painting.  Likewise, there is nothing to be gained by translating this tablature into modern notation.  We must remember that this music was originally transmitted by oral tradition.  Truly, no modern transcription exists, or will ever exist, that can accurately convey all the information of the original tablature.  Nonetheless, players nowadays regularly expect music to be presented in the language of modern classical notation, defined by key and time signatures, clearly laid out on five-line staves, divided into bars of equal duration, and further sub-divided into precise rhythmic units, and using a tonal palette of 12 equally-tempered pitches. 

Robert ap Huw’s tablature presents a challenge for those players looking for a clean modern edition.  First of all, we must get used to reading 17th-century handwriting.  Keys are indicated instead by various poetically-named harp tunings:  is gywair, the "lower tuning"; cras gywair, the "hoarse/ rough tuning", go gywair, the "sharp tuning", and so forth.  No chromatics are needed because a single-row diatonic harp was the original instrument used to play the music.  Time signatures are absent in the tablature, but the rhythm and tempo of the music is clearly implied by the physical limitations of the player’s technique in executing the musical gestures.  The harmonies are heightened by the Pythagorean tuning of the harp -- a further distancing from the modern sound world, as perfect fourths and fifths cleanly resolve against biting seconds, wide thirds and screaming tritones. 

II.B.  Instruments

Due to the relatively recent revival of historical harp playing, scholars have not insisted on hearing an ideal instrument play the music in the manuscript.  Past efforts have uniformly tried to represent the music in classical staff notation and have struggled to play it on a modern piano -- an instrument several hundred years in the future, from Robert ap Huw’s standpoint.

What would have been the ideal harp to play the music?  Largely due to the monumental work done by Peter Crossley-Holland, we now have a foundation for attributing and dating the compositions.  He has pointed out that the music itself was composed from the mid-14th century through to the 16th century but remained in the performers’ repertoire into the early 17th century.  As such, various sizes and styles of harps would have been used to play the music between the time the composers created the music and the time Robert ap Huw copied the manuscript, c. 1623.

There was never a single "Welsh" harp; rather, a succession of harps have been played in Wales from the Middle Ages through to the present day.  The classic Renaissance harp in Wales had brays, horsehair strings, bone tuning pins and a mare’s skin stretched over a carved soundbox.  Brays, or bray pins, are crooked wooden pegs which hold the strings into the soundbox and lightly touch the strings and cause them to buzz.  Descriptions of such instruments appear in many Welsh poems from the 15th and 16th centuries, soliciting the gift of a harp.  Images from wood carvings, stained glass windows and other sources point out the similarity of medieval Welsh harps to the Gemeine Harff/ordinary harp described by Michael Praetorius in his encyclopedia Syntagma Musicum of 1619.  Renaissance harps were still used in Wales long after they had been abandoned elsewhere.  James Talbot, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge (1689-1704), made extensive notes on many instruments in use towards the end of the 17th century.  "The proper Welch [sic] harp" and the "Welch [sic] or Bray Harp" referred to by some of his informants were in fact large European Renaissance harps, with either 31 (A’ to c’’’) or 34 (G’ to e’’’) strings [see Joan Rimmer, 'James Talbot's Manuscript: VI. Harps', The Galpin Society Journal, 16 (1963), 63-72].  This style of harp continued to be played in South Wales into the 19th century, as evidenced by the account given by the Rev. Thomas Price (Carnhuanawc) of his youthful music lessons c. 1815 with a teacher who played the bray harp.  

Brays are a constant feature of Renaissance harps in Wales, and reinforce the propsal that other European gut-strung harps buzzed as well for several hundred years, from the late Middle Ages until Baroque times.  There were words for these buzzing pegs in many languages across Europe:  harpions in French, Schnarrhaken in German, arpione in Italian, brays in English and gwrachïod in Welsh.  Many people today cite the brays as a means of giving more volume to the harps, which were indeed originally quiet, delicate instruments that usually accompanied one or two singers or a small ensemble.  It is true that the brays give the illusion of having more sound, but they actually produce a rich sustain that emphasises the harmonics of each string.  The circuit (or "precession") made by the string as it is plucked and repeatedly bumps into the nose of the bray pin produces a dipthong through its period of decay.  As the player manipulates the sustaining ring, specific strings are damped, similar to vocalised consonants, to articulate a melodic line or to set apart a musical gesture.

II.C.  Technique

In order to properly play the musical instructions given to us in the manuscript, it is necessary for the harp player to use fingernails.  This is in marked distinction to classical pedal harp and traditional harp technique as taught today in music schools world-wide, which predominently, with rare exceptions, requires the fingerpads.  Indeed nail technique was used by Welsh triple harp players well into the 20th century.  The late Nansi Richards played with her nails, as does her student Llio Rhydderch; few, if any other, players in Wales nowadays use nails.  While some classical and triple harp players experiment with short nails, it must be said that to play the music of the manuscript properly requires a generous nail length.  

References to harp playing using the nails frequently appear in medieval Welsh poetry.  A cywydd by Dafydd ap Gwilym (fl. 1340-70) "Dysgain ryw baradwgsgainc"/’I learnt a cainc from paradise’, refers to performing a cywydd glorifying God with ten fingernails on the harp. [Poem no. 91 in the listings of]

This playing style was commonplace for harps of all sizes across Europe, strung with either wire or gut, prior to the development of the pedal harp in the 18th century.  In the Geste of King Horn (1225), Young Horn is placed under the tuition of Athelbrus, the king’s steward, who is commanded to teach him the mysteries of hawking and hunting, to play upon the harp [lines 235-36],

    And tech him to harpe
    With his nayles sharpe      

Such a fingernail technique is clearly presented in the manuscript on p. 35, which gives a table of seventeen gestures indicating specific fingers which pluck, and others which damp certain strings whilst leaving others still sounding.  This ‘stopped style’ of playing was also used for playing wire-strung harps in Ireland and Scotland prior to the 19th century.  A table of Graces Performed by the Treble or Left Hand found in Edward Bunting’s 1840 edition of A Collection of The Ancient Music of Ireland presents a strikingly similar set of harp gestures to the Welsh ones, and validates not only a Welsh-Irish cultural connection but also a possibility of a pan-European nail harp technique, applied equally to gut and wire strings.

The figures in the table on p. 35 give the building blocks or vocabulary of the compositions.  All the figures require the fingernails to properly execute them, but several in particular make the use of nails essential.  The simplest figure is called kefn ewin/back of nail, and is a highly unorthodox gesture for a pedal harpist.  This motion is employed in the figure tafliad y bys/fling the finger, krychu y fawd/wrinkle the thumb and ysgwyd y bys/shake the finger, performed by either the index, middle or ring fingers.  Other figures, notably plethiad y wanhynen/bee’s plait, would be quite impossible without fingernails.  

III.  Reading the Tablature and Interpreting the Figures

The manuscript is written in a unique harp tablature, indicating treble and bass, which strings should be played and the manner and fingers to do this.  Fortunately, the manuscript provides a guide for the technique needed to play the music.  Page 35, mentioned before, presents a list of musical figures, entitled gogwyddor i ddysgu y prikiad/the principles for learning the pricking (i.e. notation), describing different ways of striking a single string, ways of moving between adjacent strings and ways of playing various intervals. This page consists of three columns written by Robert ap Huw himself and an additional column of interpretation, written by Lewis Morris, along with his humble admission, "these modern notes are only my guesses".  In the left column are the names of the figures (in Welsh).  In the middle are examples of the figures using the tablature in the body of the manuscript.  The third column explains the figures using a staff notation and triangular note heads, which are sometimes black and sometimes white.  The direction of the stems and the black & white aspects of the heads all contribute to a unified technique, which exploits the subtle differences in weight between specific fingers, differences in the angle of the nails striking the strings and differences in the quality and duration of sustained buzzing allowed for each and every note.

I have written about my interpretation of the individual figures in "Robert ap Huw’s Harp Technique", within the publication Robert ap Huw Studies (Welsh Music History, vol. 3, 1995, Centre for Advanced Welsh Music Studies at the University of Bangor).  This work owes a tremendous debt of acknowledgement to Robert Evans in Cardiff for all the coaching I have received from him over the past fifteen years.  Whilst we feel entirely confident that we have achieved a consistently honest, justifiable, and above all musical interpretation of the manuscript, I should clarify that some of the patterns remain slightly ambiguous to us. 

One principle that appears to run through the technique is that strings which are struck by one finger tend to be stopped by another, as in the first figure of p. 35, taked y fawd/choke the thumb.  In this descending figure the string played by the index finger is stopped by the thumb.  By extension, the figure tagiad dwbl/double choke is achieved by playing two adjacent notes with the index and middle fingers, and then immediately stopping them with the thumb and index fingers.

IV.  Performance Questions

I have not read through all the pieces in the manuscript, and I must confess that I am occasionally confused at several that do not appear to sound "right" to my modern ears.  In many instances where I began to rehearse a new piece and reached such an unbearable dissonance that I had to stop, I would often phone Bob Evans to discuss the problem, and was frequently given the gentle admonition to try it again, and trust the music:  let my ear grow accustomed to the unexpected phrasing and harmony.  In several cases this has resulted in accepting angular phrases and difficult dissonances, including tritones, as we find in the opening phrase of Kaniad bach ar y go gower.

There are, unsurprisingly, several mistakes in the manuscript that we have discovered and there are undoubtedly more to be found.

Who is to say how this music should sound?  It’s true that "we’ll never know" exactly how it was played.  The music arrives as a broken tradition; nothing survives remotely like it.  And yet we certainly know how it could not have sounded.  Medieval Welsh musicians never played the piano or the pedal harp, let alone the so-called "Celtic harp".  Harps that were used in 15th century Wales did not have the mellow, sonorous tone of triple and pedal harps; they would have had either horsehair or low-tensioned gut strings and would certainly have been equipped with bray pins.  Players would have used their fingernails, whilst rigorously damping subsidiary notes.  We know that it could not have sounded like the Continental airs and dances that Edward Jones in the late 18th century pronounced as the genuine "musical relicks of the Welsh bards", and it could never have sounded like the harp music that accompanies the post-16th century canu penillion.  But by applying the principles of reading straight from the tablature, using replica instruments and using authentic fingernail technique, the modern player is well-equipped to interpret the music as the composers intended it. 
Site Last Updated - 14/04/2014