Bird on a briar: interpreting medieval notation, with a HIP harp arrangement

bird14thcenturyPutting aside the notion of being historically authentic but embracing the idea of being historically informed, the aim is to arrive at a performable and historically justifiable arrangement of the problematic song, bryd one brere, from c. 1290–1320. This is the oldest surviving secular love song in the English language and so it is early music gold-dust, but it does have some severe holes: it is for two voices, but one voice is missing; and some of the roughly-written notation is difficult to decipher. What follows is not the only possible musical solution; but on this journey I’ll take you through the process step by step, so you can decide for yourself if you’re convinced. I’ll also delve a little into the background of the song, arguing that it is clearly influenced by the courtly love tradition of the troubadours and trouvères. The article starts with a video performance on voice and medieval harp.

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The bray harp: getting a buzz from early music

A donkey plays bray harp while a goat sings, from the Hunterian or York Psalter, 1170.
A donkey plays harp while a goat sings, from the Hunterian or York Psalter, 1170.

The bray harp is not a sound modern ears are used to, and even most early music groups with harps don’t use the period instrument – yet it was the standard European harp of the late medieval, renaissance and early baroque periods, from the 15th century to the 1630s, and still used until the late 18th century in some places. The bray harp gets its name from the L shaped wooden pins at the base of the strings, positioned so the strings buzz against them as they vibrate: the effect was said to sound like a donkey’s bray. It’s an older idea than the bray harp, one shared by the oldest surviving stringed instruments, made four and a half thousand years ago.

This article traces the idea behind the bray harp, its origins and popular rise. We ask why there is so little surviving early harp music and try to come to a feasible historical answer; and along the way take in Pictish stones, illuminated Psalters, Geoffrey Chaucer, harp-playing angels, and an ape playing a rota, with a video of the harp being brayed.

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