by Alasdair Codona
The harp and lyre have a very long lineage in Europe. So does song composed in syllabic
and stressed metres. If viewed as a conservative part of the European musical tradition,
the music of the Gaelic harp is likely enough to reflect not only Gaelic features but
something of the common European musical heritage as well.
The wealth of different styles of harmonisation which we hear today has perhaps made it
confusing for the modern Gael to ascertain the harmonic rules behind Gaelic melody.
Many Gaelic musicians feel that it is impossible to learn anything about what Gaelic
harmony was like with any surety.
This series of articles explores the evidence for the harmonisation techniques used by
Gaelic harpers. In the notations of Edward Bunting, partial traces exist of these often
para-melodic harmonisations which can be related in part to styles evidenced in other Irish
and Scottish musical manuscripts, examples here being notations of the Fairy Queen and
The primary evidence for Gaelic harmony is not in Bunting's published volumes of
keyboard settings but in his earliest jottings and notations in manuscript form, which are
held by Queen's University in Belfast. There one occasionally finds not only melodies but
extra features that do not belong in the normal Gaelic scheme of things: the odd note for a
bass. These are the notes that the harpers played and in some cases they give away a
clear tonality or harmony. Sometimes Bunting even notates chords.
Each article here focuses on an individual piece of music. The first pieces were chosen to
demonstrate that there were some common musical threads in Scotland and Ireland
between at least the end of the 16th century and the 18th century. This vouches for a level
of genuineness in those of Bunting's early notations which display the same
characteristics and supports the view that, despite being a tamperer and inclined to
misrepresent his material, he was by no means a wholesale fake, having had the harpers,
their knowledge, language, instruments and music at his disposal.
The author is a founder member of the Yahoo group clàirseach and readers are welcome
to join the group to discuss any of the points raised in these articles.