CD A0134: Music from the Robert ap Huw Manuscript

Music from the Robert ap Huw Manuscript, Vol. 1
Paul Dooley

CD Cover: Music from the Robert ap Huw Manuscript, Vol. 1 by Paul DooleyPaul Dooley, one of the leading exponents of the Irish harp in its historical form and style - playing a 34 brass wire-strung harp, with a frame of cherry and soundbox made from of one piece of willow and plucking the strings with the fingernails. Having pioneered the playing of Irish dance music (Rip the Calico CD) during the early part of his performing career, more recently he has spent many years working on the Robert ap Huw Manuscript, the oldest collection of harp music in existence. 

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Track Listing & Audio Samples

  Six pieces from the oldest collection of harp music in existence played on the metal-strung harp by Paul Dooley, one of Ireland 's most accomplished harpers.  

Around the year 1613, Robert ap Huw, a young harper from Anglesey, copied transcriptions of the ancient harp music of  Wales. The strange tablature he reproduced has puzzled scholars for centuries. Some have said this music is of the kind Gruffudd ap Cynan brought with him from Ireland c. 1100, when he reclaimed his ancestral  throne of Gwynedd.



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Sleeve Notes

In the Middle Ages, a rich musical tradition thrived across Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Players of the harp and other stringed instruments supplied accompaniment to bardic poetry and also practised the art of purely instrumental music. This was the music of kings, chieftains and noblemen, an ancient classical tradition regulated by strict custom and convention, involving rigorous training and examination. Those who achieved the status of master of their craft were held in high esteem and enjoyed many privileges.

Ireland had been central to the tradition, yet it is from Wales alone that detailed records survive. These records  (dating from c. 1496 onwards) constitute one of the greatest challenges in the history of music. For at least 250 years, scholars have had to struggle to make sense of those records, because the musical tradition vanished everywhere along with the suppression of classical native culture in the 16th and 17th centuries. A bewildering array of exotic, unfamiliar musical terms and principles which were the foundation of a vast repertoire of music now lost are described in manuscripts. Over  300  compositions, most of them of great length and complexity, were catalogued. It is possible to date a few of the named composers to a period ranging from c. 1320 to c. 1485. Some of the many unattributed pieces appear to be older as their titles have reference to earlier times, as far back as the 11th century, beyond which date the references seem to become mythological. This was the high art music known in Wales as cerdd dant, 'the music of strings'.

After the loss of Welsh independence at the end of the 13th century, the  Welsh aristocracy were able to continue supporting these ancient style of string music and syllabic verse. At times, even the  English monarchs were patrons, but tragically, towards the end of her reign,  Elizabeth 1 must have come to view the harp as a symbol of resistance. In 1603 she sent the infamous, blunt instruction to Lord  Barrymore in  Ireland : " hang the harpers wherever found " ! In this climate of fear and uncertainty, patronage for the bardic institutions in Wales too, seems to have ground to a halt, finally ending a tradition that stretched back to the pre -Christian origins of bardism. Only echoes of this ancient system of music-making remain in today 's music.  

By the middle of the 16th century, Welsh harpers had devised their own sophisticated musical notation in an effort to capture and preserve all the details of their art, perhaps with an awareness that it was already threatened with extinction. Many pieces were recorded but all of the original transcripts have been lost.

Miraculously, one manuscript of actual written music has survived. The Robert ap  Huw  Manuscript (British  Library  Additional  MS 14905) contains some 71 pages of Welsh harp music drawn from the repertoire of cerdd dant. The material was copied c.1613 by  Robert ap Huw from various sources, including a book by  William Penllyn, a master harper of the mid 16th century. The music is written in a unique tablature ( with notes and strings represented by letters ). This is the oldest collection of harp music in existence and by far the oldest to contain both bass and treble parts.

As well as various instructions on how to interpret the tablature, the manuscript includes a list of   'Twenty Four Measures of Cerdd  dant '. Measures were patterns of chord changes which formed the structural basis of the metre and harmony of a piece. Different chord types could be written as '1's and '0's. For instance, the measure named coraldan was written in shorthand as 111010010001.  Remarkably complex pieces were built up using variation techniques in the treble, above long repeating chord cycles in the bass. The resulting music was completely different from any other medieval music, and yet, although the system of harmony used does not coincide with any system that has developed since, the harmonies are almost instantly accessible to modern ears.

Bronze plaque on the shrine of St. Mogue c. 1100

According to Welsh tradition, these  'Twenty - Four Measures of  Cerdd  Dant ' were settled at a council of  Welsh and  Norse- Irish musicians held at  Glendalough in  Ireland, in the presence of  Muirchertach  Ua  Briain, High  King of  Ireland (1091 to 1119).

There are also several accounts that a similar meeting was held at  Caerwys in  Wales, by  Muirchertach 's ally, Gruffudd ap  Cynan, ruler of  Gwynedd. In tradition, this meeting, or eisteddfod, was the origin of the set of rules governing the art and conduct of poets and musicians known as the  Statue of  Gruffudd ap  Cynan. The statue lists all the requirements for the gradual progression of the apprentice musician to the level of pencerdd or master musician, ensuring precision in composition and the enduring conservation of each piece through accurate performance and teaching. Several versions of the Statue are extant, dating from the 16th century. One of the earliest was drawn up for another eisteddfod at Caerwys, commissioned by Henry VIII in 1523.

Gruffudd, son of  Cynan ap lago, King of  North  Wales, had grown up in exile at the court of his grandfather, Olaf Sihtricson, Norse  King of  Dublin. In the latter part of the 11th century, Gruffudd raised an army and sailed many times from Ireland, fighting many battles before eventually reclaiming the throne of  Gwynedd. By the early 1100s, he had regained much of his father's territory. Gruffudd's reign and that of his son, Owain were relatively peaceful times, allowing music and poetry to flourish.  This period is seen by some as the " golden Age" of the arts in Wales.

The Annals of Ireland record Gruffudd's death under the year 1137 and mention that he brought with him from Ireland performers and various stringed instruments:
lyras, tympanas, cruttas and cytharas.

David  Powel, a 16th century  Welsh historian, wrote: " There are three sorts of minstrels in  Wales; the first sort named  Beirdh, which are makers of songs and odes of sundrie measures, ... The second sort of these are plaiers upon instruments, chiefly the Harp and  Crowth, whose musike for the most part came to  Wales with the said  Griffyth ap  Conan, who begin on the one side an Irishman by his mother and his grandmother, and also borne in  Ireland, brought over with him out of that countrie divers cunning musicians into  Wales, who derived in a manner all the instrumental musike that is now there used, as appeareth as well by the books written of the same, as also by the names of the tunes and measures used amongst them to this daie. The third sort, called  Atcaneaid, are those which do sing to the instrument plaied by another, and these be in use to this daie."

Dolwyddelan castle, Gwynedd,  North  Wales

St. Kevin's  Kichen, Monastic city of  Glendalough,  Co. Wicklow,  Ireland

A factual basis for these traditions of musical links between  Ireland and  Wales is suggested by the famous passage on  Irish instrumental music written in 1188 by the very well-informed  Welsh writer,  Giraldus de  Barri:

" The attention of this people to musical instruments, I find worthy of commendation, in which their skill is beyond comparison superior to that of any nation I have seen ... It is wonderful how, in such precipitate rapidly of the fingers, the musical proportions are preserved, and by their art faultless throughout: in the midst of their complicated modulations, and most intricate arrangements of notes, by a rapidity so sweet, a regularity so irregular, a concord so discordant, the melody is rendered harmonious...that all may be perfected in the sweetness of delicious sounds. They enter upon, and again leave, their modulations with so much subtlety; and the tinklings of the small strings sport with so much freedom under the deep notes of the bass, delight with so much delicacy, soothe so softly, that the excellence of their art seems to lie in concealing it.... 

It is to be observed, however, that Scotland and Wales, the latter in order to disseminate the art, the former in consequence of intercourse and affinity, strive with rival skill to emulate Ireland in music ...."

Giraldus later repeated much of the same passage to describe instrumental music in  ales.  Considering the strong ties between Ireland and Wales in his time, along with the highly conservative nature of the Welsh tradition during the centuries that followed, it ought to be that the music  Giraldus was so taken with was very closely related to that copied by Robert ap  Huw some 420 years later. So it is that the manuscript provides us with a unique window onto an ancient form of music, one that seems to have once dominated the Celtic world, if not beyond.

The Trinity College Harp c.1400THE  HARP

The harp played on this recording is a low-headed meatal-strung harp,a type once common throughout  Britain and  Ireland. The harp is strung with brass and bronze wire and the soundbox is carved out of one solid piece of willow. Its design is based on the Trinity  College  Harp (also known as the Brian Boru Harp), the oldest surviving  Irish harp.

PROFIAD Y  BOTWM    (Profiad of the Button or the Boss)

The profiad pieces, or preludes, are structured very differently from the other pieces in the manuscript.
Each prelude begins with a quite freely structured introduction, often featuring extravagant chords. In time this leads into a strikingly dignified set piece which is common to all the preludes.
Both the introduction and the set piece are played here.

GOSTEG DAFYDD  ATHRO  (Gosteg of Dafydd the Master)

This is one of a small group of straightforward pieces that may have been used to provide a background to feasting, perhaps to accompany the ceremonial involved in formal banqueting such as the entering and seating of the guests and the setting of table.

Its simple structure gives the listener of today a good introduction to one of the many measures of cerdd dant. Here the measure is corffiniwr, essentially a pattern of chord-changes which used to be written 11001011 11001011.

The Dafydd  Athro of the title is listen in the tradition genealogy of harpers in a position that would suggest he flourished around the mid 14th century.

CANIAD Y  GWYN  BIBYDD  (Caniad of the Grey-or Fair-Haired Piper)

This fairly short piece is unusual in that it refers to piping. It may be best understood as a good-humoured sketch of how harpers viewed the music of pipers. It certainly is a very light and lively piece, with a drone throughout.

CANIAD  LLYWELYN  DELYNIOR  (Caniad of Llywelyn the Harper)

The last in the manuscript, this complex piece may have been designed as soothing music (suaintrai in Irish). There are many references to the practice of Celtic Kings and chieftains having their harper play them to sleep in the bedchamber. Music is sweetest in the dark, explains an early Irish text.

PROFIAD YR  EOS  (Profiad of the Nightingale)

Yr eos, the nightingale, was an epithet that was applied to particularly respected performers. Unlike Profiad y Botwm, this dramatic prelude has a restless, almost desperate flavour, taking us into a strange and unfamiliar musical landscape. Just the introduction is played here.

CANIAD  MARWNAD  IFAN APY GOF  (Lament for Ifan ab y Gof)

This class of piece, the 'death-playing ' or lament, was composed in honour of the deceased, probably not for the funeral but for the memorial service that was traditionally held a month later.

Ifan, a member of one of the most prominent musical families of his time, was a highly respected harper and composer. This piece is one of the two laments for him listed in early manuscripts, where one is attributed to his son Llywelyn and the other to Dafydd Athro.

Following an extensive first part in the keening, lamenting style, in which even the tolling of church-bells seems to be imitated, the piece does not leave us in sorrow but moves forward into celebration.

I had my first encounter with mysterious music in the early 70's when I heard an arrangement of some of it by Arnold Dolmetsch on Alan Stivell 's record  "Renaissance of the Celtic Harp ".

The album was a huge influence on my starting to play the harp. But it was much later that the Robert ap Huw manuscript became irresistible to me. In 1994 in Wales I met the harper and dedicated researcher, Peter Greenhill. He had been working on the music for over twenty years, building on all the latest research until practical solutions to all its puzzles had been found.

What emerged were a small number of clear and consistent principles which, for the first time, make musical sense of the entire manuscript. The results were fascinating and I just had to start playing the music.

Although we can never be certain about the finer points of expression in written music, even with this ancient manuscript, there are many clues to be found if one is prepared to be patient.
I spent six weeks on the island of Inis Oirr, off the west coast of Ireland, recording these pieces, playing them over and over, looking again and again at the tablature. I tried to get inside the minds of the harpers who played this unique music so long ago, and of those who translated this dying art form onto paper with line after line of strange symbols and letters. The experience was amazing.

I let the music speak for itself...

Paul Dooley

For more on the interpretation, go to : /aphuw - pages


My thanks to:

Fiona, Paddy & Jimin for putting up with me through all this. Val Blance, artistic director at Aras Eanna, for all the tea and moral support,and most of all, Peter Greenhill for all his help and for sharing his years of experience with the music.     

Digital Photography by Fiona O' Dwyer
Recorded at Aras Eanna, Inis Oirr, Co. Galway
Audio mastering by Rainer Gembalczyk at Sienna Digital, CA, USA
Production & Cover design by Callura Sound, Ennistymon, Co. Clare

All Titles arr. Peter Greenhill (MCPS)
© Paul Dooley 2004

The Robert ap Huw Manuscript (Lb1 Add. MS 14905) is reproduced by permission of the British Library. Translations from Giraldus de Barri 's Topographica Hiberniae and David Powel 's Historie of Cambria courtesy of Walton 's Publishing, Dublin. Dolwyddelan Castle photographed by Steve Crampton, ElectronicPictures. The Trinity College Harp, photographed by Declan Corrigan is reproduced by kind permission of the Board Trinity College Dublin. The Shrine of St. Mogue is reproduced by kind permission of The National Museum of Ireland.

Album Information

Title: Music from the Robert ap Huw Manuscript, Vol. 1
Artist: Paul Dooley
Instruments: Solo Harp (wire strung)
Genre: Ancient Music
Format: CD
Our Ref: A0134
Label: Paul Dooley
Year: 2004
Origin: EU