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A plucky instrument

A teen harpist discovers the Celtic harp

A teen harpist discovers the Celtic harp

March 24, 2009|By HALEY ECKEL / Pulse Correspondent

When people think of harps, they picture either a lyre-type instrument in the hands of a cupid or an enormous 47-stringed Baroque style harp. Others think of the harps of the ancient Celtic bards. So what's the difference?

I've always been interested in Celtic music, particularly in Celtic harping. Because I take classical harp lessons, I'd never had a chance to learn much about playing in the Celtic style. However, I recently participated in a workshop on Celtic harping.

Those who play the Celtic harp are called harpers, while those who play classical music are known as harpists. The workshop was an eye-opening experience. With more knowledge, I possess a greater respect for modern-day harpers.

The harp has been in British Isles since around the 10th century, according to "Celtic Harp History" by Alison Vardy ( www.alison vardy.com). The Irish in particular seem to have cultivated this instrument, and by the end of the Dark Ages, harping throughout Britain was one of the highest art forms, according to an article by Simon Chadwick titled "Celtic Harping History" ( www.earlygaelicharp.info). Harpers were held in great esteem.

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However, when the English occupied Ireland in the 17th century, harps and harpists alike were banned to prevent rising Irish nationalism. Harps were destroyed, and many harpers were killed. The tradition of Celtic harping was nearly extinct.

When an open harping competition was held in Belfast in the late 1700s, only 10 harpers attended. Luckily, someone was hired to take down the music, thus preserving what was left of Celtic harp music.

By this time, however, Baroque music became popular, and wire-strung harps were discarded as gut-strung pedal harps became popular because of their allowance for accidentals. Smaller gut-strung harps with frames similar to those of pedal harps were advertised as "Celtic" harps toward the end of the 19th century, Chadwick reported, and soon took the place of the few wire-strung harps that were left.

It was not until the middle of the 20th century that wire-strung harps began to be manufactured once again, and the Celtic harping traditions revived, according to Ann Heymann's article, "Strings of Gold" ( www.annheymann.com/gold.htm).

Today, the Celtic harp (also known as the cruit or clarsach) is nearly a different instrument from the classical harp. Gut-strung clarsachs usually have levers, while wire-strung harps do not. Originally, clarsachs were strung mostly with wire, though depended upon what was most readily available: in Wales, hair was often used, the Scots favored gut strings and the Irish used brass, gold or silver. Clarsachs are now strung with wire or gut.

I learned the techniques of the gut-strung clarsach at the workshop I attended. The finger-placing patterns are much different than a classical-style lever harp, and there are alternate terms for ornamentation techniques. Songs are classified under divisions that mirror their practical beginnings: jigs, marches, hornpipes and many others.

The Celtic harp is smaller than a classical lever harp, with smaller string diameter, greater string tension and a broader soundbox. When I compared the feeling of the Celtic harp to my own harp, I discovered that it was much lighter, and resonated more. I didn't need to pluck the strings as hard to produce good sound, which made it easier to play faster -- an essential element of any Celtic instrument. Celtic harps are almost a different instrument from the classical harp, and the technique of harping is open and free.

I am glad I had the experience to attend a workshop on Celtic harping. It was a wonderful experience. Though I continue to study classical harp, my eyes have been opened to the new possibilities of other ways to play my harp.

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