The medieval harp (3/3): performance practice

Psalter, England, c. 1225 (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, MS G.25, folio 3v).

This is the third of three articles about the medieval harp. Having outlined harp history from the earliest evidence in Egypt to the end of the medieval period in the first article, and used medieval art and written witnesses to illustrate harp symbolism in the second, this final piece lays out the evidence for questions of harp performance.  

The basis of this article is a description by the author Thomas of the playing of a harper-hero named Horn, written c. 1170, combined with other sources to built up a picture of medieval harp practice. This includes: harp tuning as a performance; the training of musicians; the various ways in which medieval harps were tuned and the musical reasons for these tunings; harp repertoire; preludes and postludes; and medieval methods of polyphonic accompaniment.

Each of these three articles begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to the historically attested performance principles set out in this article. This article begins with La quinte estampie RealThe fifth Royal estampie.   

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The medieval harp (2/3): harp symbolism

In the middle ages, musical instruments were not just important for the music they produced, but for what they symbolised. Using medieval art and the testimonies of medieval writers, this article describes the harp as the foremost symbolic instrument: an emblem of King David, Old Testament monarch and reputed writer of the Psalms; the harp as a representation of cosmic consonance, bringing harmony between heaven and earth; and the harp’s gut strings and wooden frame as a symbol of Christ on the cross.

This is the second of three articles about the medieval harp. The first describes harp development from ancient Egypt to the end of the medieval period; and the third seeks out evidence for medieval performance practice.

Each article begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to historically attested performance principles. This article begins with La Seste estampie RealThe Sixth Royal estampie.

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The medieval harp (1/3): origins and development

This article, the first of three about the medieval harp, sets out what we know about its earliest known development, looking at harp forms, decoration, stringing, and the problem of language in original sources. We see surviving instruments and manuscript illustrations from ancient Egypt to the middle ages – arched harps and angle harps, open harps and pillar harps – leading to the development of the bray harp and the Irish/Scottish cláirseach/clarsach of the early renaissance.

This is followed by a second article about medieval harp symbolism and a third about medieval harp performance practice.

Each article begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to historically attested performance principles. This article begins with La quarte Estampie RoyalThe fourth Royal Estampie.

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Mirie it is while sumer ilast: decoding the earliest surviving secular song in English (revised and updated)

LaboursOfThe Months.January.1475Mirie it is while sumer ilast, dated to the first half of the 13th century, is the earliest surviving secular song that is both English and in the English language, preserved only by the good luck of being written on a piece of paper kept with an unrelated book. We have the music and a single verse. This may be a fragment, but its wonderful melody and poignant lyric embody in microcosm the medieval struggle to get through the winter, nature’s most cruel and barren season.

This article examines the original manuscript, showing that the now-standard version of the song performed by early music revival players is not a true representation of the text and music, but the music itself poses many problems of interpretation. We begin with a translation of the Middle English words into modern English, continuing with a short survey of the social background and a step by step reconstruction of the music. Originally published in February 2016, this is a completely revised account, with a reworked rendering of the melody and a new performance video of Mirie, arranged for voice and medieval harp.  Read more

Performing medieval music. Part 1/3: Instrumentation

Double recorder (then called a pipe or flute), gittern and three singers in Saint Martin is knighted by Simone Martini, 1312-18.

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the first of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

This first article discusses the use of instruments and instrument combinations in medieval music. The illustrations in two manuscripts are used as typical representative examples: the 13th century Iberian Cantigas de Santa Maria and the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter. The second article gives practical methods for making arrangements of medieval monophonic music according to historical principles, with an example to illustrate each method; and the third article discusses questions of style, including the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) music of the troubadours, ornamentation, and the medieval voice. Read more

The trees they do grow high: a ballad of medieval arranged marriage?

The trees they do grow high is a traditional ballad about an arranged child marriage, also known as The trees they grow so high, My bonny lad is young but he’s growing, Long a-Growing, Daily Growing, Still Growing, The Bonny Boy, The Young Laird of Craigstoun, and Lady Mary Ann. The song was very popular in the oral tradition in Scotland, England, Ireland, and the USA from the 18th to the 20th century. Questions about its true age (medieval?), the basis of its story (describing an actual marriage?) and its original author (Robert Burns?) have attracted conjectural claims. This article investigates the shifting narrative of the story over its lifetime and sifts the repeated assertions from the substantiated evidence.

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The Lyke-Wake Dirge: the revival of an Elizabethan song of the afterlife

effigyThe Lyke-Wake Dirge, with its dark, mysterious imagery and its brooding melody, is known to singers of traditional songs through its resurrection in the repertoire of folk trio The Young Tradition in the 1960s, and its subsequent recording by The Pentangle and others. What many of its performers may not realise is that its history can be reliably traced to Elizabethan Yorkshire, with a hint from Geoffrey Chaucer that its origins may be earlier. This article uses direct testimony from the 16th and 17th century to explore its meaning, its perilous and punishing “Whinny-moor”, “Brig o’ Dread”, and “Purgatory fire”; and discovers the surprising origin of its doleful dorian melody.

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