The wire strung harp and the pedal harp / Emmanuel Rivera Angel

A guest blog from Colombian harper Emmanuel Rivera Angel.  Emmanuel is studying for an MA in Musiclogy and Performance in Maynooth University and spent time in ITMA researching and presenting this blog as part of his coursework.

Discovering the secrets of the Gaelic harp: a comparative performance of “The Butterfly”, arranged by Ann Heymann ; performed by Emmanuel Rivera Angel.

The time I have spent in the Irish Traditional Music Archive has unveiled many secrets of a musical tradition very new to me. I am a Colombian harpist classically trained on the pedal harp, and as my career interests brought me to Ireland, ITMA quickly became one of the places where I got to discover Irish harping.

It didn’t take long before I realized the way the harp is approached in Irish traditional music is very different to what I was used to; its orally transmitted tunes and techniques, its thousands of years history, the diverse and dynamic roles the instrument has had in the musical scene and as a symbol of the country - a vast universe with many ways to approach it. As I wondered how to take my first steps I found Ann Heymann’s book. 

Secrets of the Gaelic harp : a method for clairseach based on remnants of the Gaelic oral tradition : including the first tunes taught student harpers / by Ann Heymann.  Clairseach Publications, 1988

The title caught my eye immediately. The introduction explained how this was a method written in a time where there was not much for people who wanted to learn to play the instrument, and had no contact with the orally based community; a perfect fit! 

But before we advance further into the content of the book, let’s take a moment to clarify what the word clairseach in the title means.


Also called wire-strung, or ancient traditional, clairseach is the Irish word for harp, and in this case is used to name one of the oldest versions of the instrument, the one that you might associate with bards, and that holds many differences to its more contemporary versions.  

The image to the right side is an example of these harps; considerably smaller than the pedal harp to which I am used to, this instrument has strings made out of brass or other metal, and it’s played with long fingernails creating a very unique sonority that other versions of harps don’t have. The way you position the instrument is also different, inverted, so left shoulder is the one holding the instrument instead of the right, the left hand playing the higher notes and the right hand the lower…a perfect mirror to the technique I was taught!  

In comparison, you can see on the picture to the left the harp I tend to carry around; an electro-acoustic lever harp from the brand Harpsicle Harps. Differently from the wire-strung harp, this harp has nylon strings instead of metal, is played with the finger pads and is held on the right shoulder, which corresponds to a more modern way of performing the instrument.

Going back to Ann Heymann’s book, as I continued my reading I discovered that the author was presenting a method that placed muffling as the essential secret of the clairseach. Muffling is the technique to control the ringing of the strings, because if the harpist doesn’t stop the string that he played, it will reverberate indefinitely, which will provoke an undesired mixing of sounds. There are many techniques to do so, yet, the way proposed by this method was completely different, and as I tried to implement it I pretty much felt as if I was learning a different instrument. 

Page 19 from Ann Heymann's book, Secrets of the Gaelic Harp.  Reproduced with permission from Ann Heyman.

This page is included in the book as an instruction of this muffling technique, which basically consists of an overlapping notation written in red that guides which finger needs to stop a note in a specific moment. To do so, the numbers over each note tell you where should each finger be at all times, weather on a string or waiting to be placed. With this technical approach I embarked to learn “The Butterfly”, which is the second tune included in her book.

The Butterfly
3053 Bk 56
Page 56 from Ann Heymann's book, Secrets of the Gaelic Harp. Reproduced with permission from Ann Heyman.

While I was learning to play the tune in this manner I was surprised of how different it sounded, and so I recorded both the version taught on Heymann’s book and a version that did not include her indications, which serve as a little example of how harp playing can be so different between traditions, and how a simple tune can show this differences. I have included the original score from the method and a transcribed version that takes out the red notation, in order to follow along with the videos. 

The butterfly, air / Emmanuel Rivera, harp [wire-strung version]

The butterfly, air / Emmanuel Rivera, harp [pedal harp version]

After listening to the recordings I think you'll agree that a difference is clear, and certain words might come to mind for describing them. The pedal version might sound sweeter, or lyrical; the traditional one might sound brighter, more like a dance.

Concerning the traditional version, you might have noticed that my hands never leave the strings, and the fingers are always placed on the same place. Because an important aspect of Heymann’s muffling is that it is not a simply form of staccato in which each finger just muffles the string that just played. On the contrary, you can hear short and long notes, but to be able to do so you need a fixed position that allows enough stability for the fingers to muffle at the precise moment to control both melodic lines.

That is why in the video you will see fingers “in the air” waiting to be placed, and also fingers placed on the strings that are not playing for a while, because there are there to create stability. You can re-watch the video and see, for example, how the ring finger of the right hand stays there way longer than what is actually played.

With the pedal version you will see that my hands constantly leave the strings, that is because to certain extent letting the strings ring freely is natural, and that some mixing between the sounds is acceptable, which is clearly not permitted in the traditional version. You will see how my fingers play almost immediately after they are placed, and that the hand is constantly moving from one position to the other.

On the method Ann Heymann recognizes that this is not the way of playing this kind of tunes, that in the end it is her own personal way of documenting and teaching a harp tradition to which access was limited and difficult. Myself, I understand that this is but a glimpse of the Irish harping tradition, but, small an example as it is, it creates a valuable form of communication.

If I had seen the music of “The Butterfly” before I would have been sure that there were not many options on how to perform it, and that my way was the way. Yet, as I took my first baby-steps into the world of Irish harping Ann Heymann’s method helped me contextualize the complexity of its language, and its musical diversity.

So if you happen to be a harpist yourself, or a curious fan of Irish traditional music, I hope these sorts of experiments show the enjoyment of intercultural dialogue, and maybe just like it did for me, shed some light on your own musical questions.           

This blog was created in association the Department of Music at Maynooth University.  Students undertook a five week placement as part of their course and gained experience in digitsation, cataloguing and web publishing.