Ancient music explained

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Last Thursday evening the Swallow Theatre played host to Simon Chadwick, an expert on early music for the clarsach.

His training was in physics and archaeology, and it was the latter which led him into an exploration of the music for the harp. He has had a replica made of the medieval “Queen Mary” harp, which is on display in the National Museum in Edinburgh, and used that instrument to demonstrate his talk on Music of the Old Gaelic World.

Simon made the focus of the evening the development of harp music from very early Celtic times up to the medieval music, and on into the early 19th century. We were wonderfully entertained and mesmerised throughout the evening by the playing of the harp which, despite its small size, managed to fill the theatre with a clear and beautiful sound.

The place of the harp in early society was explained, with its importance in wealthy households being almost on a par with the poets and songwriters. Harpists were often employed by one patron, and sometimes the position was hereditary. As the tradition was primarily aurally passed on from generation to generation there is no extant written music from very early times, and what we have today is taken from collections made by people such as Daniel Dow who, in 1776 published his Collection of Ancient Scots Music, having toured around collecting tunes from elderly harpists around Scotland. Another source is the fragments of music found in books such as lute books, which often contained written copies of music learnt from aural sources.

All the music we heard was based on the lament, and we heard examples from the 15th ( the Battle of Hara Law) through the 16th century (Da Mihi Manum by Ruaidhri Dall O Cathain 1570 – 1650), King James’ March to Ireland which commemorated the Jacobite wars in Ireland, and Cumba Iarla Wigton – Lament for the Earl of Wigtown c1613.

We heard that by the late 18th century the popularity of the harp was giving way to the pipes and the violin, but despite that fact the tunes played on the harp continued to be played by other instruments, and indeed we still hear many of the old Gaelic tunes played today, albeit often in a different form, but nevertheless based on those ancient tunes.

The next event at the Swallow is on May 18th, and is a welcome return of Dominic Goodwin who presents his one man show looking at the lives of some of the great entertainers including Alastair Sim, Peter Ustinov, Joyce Grenfel l and others . Those who have seen Dominic before know that a treat is in store.