Writing on music for the British Druid Order's bardic course rekindled a long-standing love of medieval instruments and the enchanting sounds they create. I’ve written previously about my recreation of a ‘lost’ stringed instrument played in medieval Ireland and Wales called the timpan, or tiompan. Encouraged by that reconstruction turning out reasonably playable, thoughts turned to the type of harp that might have accompanied bardic performances of the tales that make up the Mabinogi, or recitals of the songs of Taliesin, in 12th century Wales.
Here we’re on more certain ground than with the timpan, which is variously suggested to have been a hand-drum, a bowed lyre, a strummed lyre, a hammered dulcimer, a banjo and (by me) a long-necked lute. Everyone agrees that the 12th century Welsh harp was a triangular instrument of a type recognisably the ancestor of the modern harp. Its most common form was the telyn rawn, ‘horse-hair harp.’ The word telyn may actually be Irish in origin, from Gaelic teilinn, ‘the buzzing of bees.’ The story goes that the ruler of Gwynedd, Gruffudd ap Cynan (circa 1055-1137), brought Irish harpers over to North Wales who disparagingly referred to Welsh harps as teilinn, ‘buzzing.’ Irish harps were commonly strung with brass not horse-hair. This in itself could account for the difference in sound noted by Gruffudd’s Irish harpers, but I wonder if Welsh makers might have fitted bray pins to their instruments. Bray pins are little flag-shaped pegs inserted into the soundboard next to strings in such a way that they can be moved to almost touch the strings, producing a distinct buzzing sound. As you’ll hear from this video, the sound of the bray harp is quite unlike the dulcet tones of modern harps:
Discussing telyn rawn with Ian Pittaway on his excellent early music blog led me to wonder if, rather than bray pins fitted to the soundboard, medieval Welsh harp-makers might have inserted or attached something to the instrument’s neck that produced a similar buzzing effect.
On the bray sound, Ian cites the very early example of the ‘bull-headed lyres’ of Ur, Sumerian instruments dating from around 2500 BCE, of which complete examples have been found. Their bray-like effect is produced by the strings vibrating against the upper part of the bridge, as in this video where a reconstructed instrument is played:
For those sufficiently interested, here’s a longer video in which historical musicologist, Richard Dumbrill, talks about the discovery, reconstruction, tuning and spiritual and cosmological significance of the lyres of Ur:
Also mentioned by Ian is an instrument that looks and sounds as though it’s ancestors were modelled on the lyres of Ur; the Ethiopian begena or bèguèna, whose extraordinary sound can be heard in this video:
This next video shows a begena being made as well as played:
The lack of a bridge is one of the key things that differentiates a harp from a lyre. On harps, the strings go directly into the soundbox without passing over a bridge. There is no evidence that the telyn rawn was anything other than a harp, in which case we can rule out a bridge. Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t something else on it that produced a sound similar to the lyres of Ur or the begena. Once I’ve completed my telyn rawn, I’ll try a few options to see what works best. One possibility, since the soundboard was traditionally made from horse hide, is that strips of rawhide could have been attached to the neck, perhaps to the tuning pegs, so as to vibrate against the strings.
It’ll take a while to get that far though. This is where I’ve got to to date:
Following medieval harp-makers, I’m using a single block of wood. In this case, it’s from a 600-year-old oak who fell a while ago in woodland owned by my friend, Elaine. Elaine’s partner, Garth, has been a cabinet-maker for about 70 years, has a generous nature and a well-stocked workshop. It’s largely down to his expertise that we managed to render a very rough-hewn lump of oak into what is now starting to look quite like a harp. If we were following ancient techniques, we’d have burnt out the hollow for the soundbox then finished it with hand tools. Lacking the time and unwilling to risk our sole piece of oak to fire, we used a circular saw supplemented by hand sawing and electric drills. We took a slice off the back and another off the base to be glued back on later. Not quite a single block technique then, but close-ish.
Yesterday, I finished drilling out the soundholes. On medieval harps, these were invariably down the sides of the instrument, not on the back as in modern harps. Noting that the sides of the soundbox are warping and cracking in places, I clamped everything together apart from the base to try and prevent any further warping that might damage the chances of gluing everything back together again.
There’s still a lot to do. The upper insides of the soundbox need reducing in thickness, the shoulders where the soundbox joins the neck need shaping, a forepillar needs making and jointing into place, as does a pin strip. I need to decide what kind of tuning pegs to use and drill and shape holes through the neck to hold them. The front of the soundbox will then be covered with a rawhide soundboard made from a Red Deer hide. I’ll then make the strings by twisting horse hairs together. Only after fitting them will I finally hear what it sounds like and be able start experimenting to produce the desired buzzing sound.
Meanwhile, here’s a video of Rhodri Davies playing a reconstructed telyn rawn without brays or other buzz-producing fittings.
Sounds great, and beautifully played, but lacks the buzzing quality of the Sumerian or Ethiopian instruments, or of later medieval bray harps. That this was a feature of Welsh harps in which bards took particular pride is suggested by Andrew Borde (c. 1490-1549), who wrote in The First Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge,
“If I have my harp I care for no more.
It is my treasure, I keep it in store;
For my harp is made of a good mare’s skin;
The strings be of horsehair, it maketh a good din.
My song, and my voice, and my harp doth agree,
Much like the buzzing of a humble bee.”
Now that’s what I’m after!