The ancient Gaelic harp traditions of Ireland and Scotland died out completely in the 19th century, and there is not a single thread that connects the last of the old harpers to anyone playing today. So what are the modern traditions in Ireland and Scotland, and how did they come about?
pedal harp from Wikimedia Commons
The most high status harp tradition in Ireland and Scotland today is the orchestral pedal harp, also known as concert harp. The instruments are large, often over six feet tall, and cost a lot to purchase, often well over ten thousand pounds. The playing style is highly technical and most players study for many years in formal music schools. It is used in orchestras and also for formal solo chamber music. Pedal harps were invented in Germany and France in the 18th century, and have a long heritage in Ireland and Scotland, being played widely from the early 19th century, as an essential part of a fashionable woman's abilities, and providing romantic nationalistic flavour at a time after the death of the old Gaelic harp traditions and before the invention of the new modern 'celtic' harp traditions. Specific technical features are the soft fibre strings (gut, and sometimes nylon or carbon-fibre), constructed soundbox with crossgrain spruce soundboard, and mechanical fretting devices controlled by foot pedals that temporarily fix individual strings (connected to all octave doubles) to be a semitone higher or lower than usual, to allow key changes and chromatic accidentals. The pedal harp is played with the pads of the fingers, using a right orientation (right hand treble and left hand bass), and the playing style emphasises its soft bright sound with lush, harmonically rich arpeggiated chords, glissandi, special effects, and harmonics.
neo-Irish harp from Wikimedia Commons
The most common harp tradition in Ireland and Scotland today is the neo-Irish harp or neo-clarsach, also called Irish harp, clarsach, lever harp, gut-strung harp, nylon-strung harp, folk harp, Celtic harp, or small harp. The invention and development of this instrument is covered in my 19th century history page. Suffice to say that this instrument and its playing tradition developed out of the orchestral pedal harp tradition in the 19th century, and because of its close connections with both romantic nationalism, and with mainstream modern Western music, it has an unshakeable dominance over the harp scene in Ireland and Sotland. Specific technical features are the soft fibre strings (nylon, CF or gut), slender constructed soundbox with crossgrain spruce soundboard, and mechanical fretting devices that temporarily fix individual strings to be a semitone higher than usual, to allow key changes and chromatic accidentals. The neo-Irish harp or neo-clarsach is played with the pads of the fingers, using a right orientation (right hand treble and left hand bass). Older playing styles emphasise its soft bright sound with arpeggiated chords under a melody; in the last couple of decades many vibrant playing styles based on jazz or contemporary music have developed.
Replica medieval Gaelic harp
The neglected cousin of these two is the early Gaelic harp (also called early clàrsach, early Irish harp, Gaelic harp, cláirseach). This was the high status instrument played in the royal courts, castles and great houses of Gaelic Scotland and Ireland from over 1000 years ago until it became completely extinct in the 19th century. Since the 1970s, there has been an early-music style revival of interest in this historical tradition, with a very few specialists studying the manuscript and printed notation and instructions, and applying it to accurate replicas of the museum instruments. Specific technical features are the metal wire strings (soft iron, brass, silver and gold), a substantial soundbox carved from a single block of timber, typically willow, and a strictly diatonic tuning regime with certain gaps and unisons to interrupt the sequence of notes. The early Gaelic harp is played with the fingernails, or with the very tips of the fingers, using a left orientation (left hand treble and right hand bass), and the playing style emphasises the extremely long resonance of the metal strings, especially in the bass, and highlights the drone effect of the unison strings, and the modal nature of the old music. Variation sets are extremely long and complex. Accompanying old Gaelic song is seen as an important function of the early Gaelic harp though work on this area is still slow. The early Gaelic harp is more used nowadays in Ireland than Scotland, and much of the work on it is done under the aegis of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland.
modern Scottish wire-strung harp
The wire-strung harp, also known as wire-strung clarsach or wire harp, is a curious hybrid tradition between the strict historical early Gaelic harp tradition and the modern neo-clarsach tradition. With antecedents going back to the late 19th century, and with people such as Arnold Dolmetsch (1930s) and Alan Stivell (1970s) working on it, the wire-strung harp has become relatively popular in Scotland especially in the last decade or so. Much of the work on this tradition is done under the aegis of the Wire Branch of the Clarsach Society. The only specific technical feature is the use of metal wire strings (usually brass or steel). Other technical features can vary widely, from copying elements of the early Gaelic harp tradition (one piece soundbox) to copying elements of the neo-clarsach tradition (constructed box with crossgrain soundboard, and semitone mechanisms). Fingernail techniques are usually used, though a right orientation (right hand treble, left hand bass) is by far the most common orientation. The gapped and unison stringing and tuning of the early Gaelic harp is not used. The playing style tends to concentrate on damping and manipulating the wire strings resonance with damping movements, though the overall style is usually melodic with simple or non-existent basses (many wire-strung harps are quite small and have only a tenor and treble range). Repertory tends to be taken from Victorian or older books, concentrating on Scots and Gaelic music though without any particular focus on the early clarsach repertory.
Of course there are overlaps and blurry areas between these categories; many pedal harp teachers use neo-Irish harp to start their students off; many wire-strung harp players nonetheless have a strong interest in aspects of the early Gaelic harp tradition; it is not uncommon to play both wire-strung harp and neo-clarsach.
Other historical harps played in Scotland and Ireland have so few exponents that they can barely be said to constitute traditions; they would include buzzing gothic bray harps, and chromatic Italian and Spanish baroque harps. Other contemporary traditions would include South American and Paraguayan harps, and other more exotic African and Asian harps - again with few if any exponents.