Selections from "Art Music and the Irish Harp" from Irish Harping, 1900-2010

Article excerpt

ART-MUSIC style harping today remains a popular strand of Irish harping, although none of the three strands (art, traditional or early-Irish harping) are necessarily mutually exclusive. The posture changed from sitting beside the harp to resting the harp in between the knees, as is customary in concert harp playing. The art-music style is characterized by a literacy-based transmission and a unique repertoire. The art-music repertoire is fundamental to this style but, interestingly, for the harp it encompasses both new music for harp and music of the harper-composers. Essentially, it draws on art-music practices in terms of transmission and repertoire. This style of harping operates within the same systems as other art-music instruments as it is taught through music institutions (including the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama and the Royal Irish Academy of Music) and often students take the relevant grade examinations associated with these institutions. The main annual competition is the Feis Ceoil and syllabi for both this and the grade examination show a clear differentiation from the repertoire types associated with traditional-music style.

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Cairde na Cruite: 'Friends of the Harp'

The key event in the consolidation and development of the art-music style of Irish harping was the foundation of Cairde na Cruite in 1961, as this was the first concerted attempt to provide direction for harping in Ireland in the twentieth century. Moreover, the foundation of this society was spurred on not only by harpists, but also by cultural enthusiasts, some of whom desired to spread a love of the Irish language through song. The active harp teachers in the late 1950s and early 1960s had a very mixed musical orientation. Sheila Larchet Cuthbert was an important arranger of music for the Irish harp and was trained as a concert harpist by Tina Bonifacio in Liverpool. She was principal harpist with the Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestra. Larchet Cuthbert ... first began Irish harp with Mother Alphonsus O'Connor in Loreto Abbey, Rathfarnham. She was fully immersed in the literacy based approach to harping and entirely familiar with the inter-national concert harp repertory. Sisters Mairfn and Roisin Ni Sheaghdha, the former of whom was teacher to Mary O'Hara, taught traditional songs orally with harp accompaniment at Sion Hill. They were both renowned Irish scholars and had a strong interest in Irish culture. Another figure of importance was Caroline Townshend, who arranged Irish song airs for harp.

It is evident, therefore, that among the founding members of Cairde na Cruite were harpists steeped in both the oral- and literacy-based methods of harp playing, some of whom sang to harp accompaniment and others who played exclusively instrumental pieces on the Irish harp. This variety of stylistic orientations is important as it shows that apart from the popularity of the harp as accompaniment instrument, there is little evidence to indicate that a single harp style or approach existed at this time.

Indeed, while the society's aims have evolved over time, the central focus initially was to promote the harp and to publish harp music. Today, Cairde na Cruite is still involved in the promotion of the harp and the publication of harp music; it aims to integrate the harp into mainstream Irish traditional music, to facilitate the provision of teachers and to introduce 'a wider audience base to the ancient courtly harping tradition through information giving, recording and performance of the music'. (1) From the outset, Cairde na Cruite attempted to promote the harp in public by organizing concerts to showcase harp music, an activity in which they still regularly engage. The following newspaper clipping gives an interesting review of their second concert:

Irish Harp Recital

Founded a short time ago with the object of restoring the Irish harp to a place of honour, and to make more widely known and appreciate what survives of the heritage of the Irish harp, Cairde na Cruite (Friends of the Harp) presented their second concert in the Royal Hibernian Hotel, Dawson street, Dublin last night. …