CD A0154: Queen of Harps

Queen of Harps by Ann Heymann

CD Cover: Queen of Harps by Ann HeymannAnn, from Minnesota, is recognised as the foremost exponent of the wire-strung harp in the world. The wire-strung harp, or clarsach, was the harp of the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland. Through her knowledge of traditional music from her Irish American family background, and her study of the surviving music and manuscripts, Ann has re-invented the techniques necessary to play this majestic instrument.

THE SCOTSMAN - ... demonstrates that in her command of the metal-strung harp, she really is in a league of her own.

JOHN OREGAN, ROCK N REEL ... an album to be treasured as much for its versatility as for its artistry.

DELYTH EVANS, TAPLAS - It's a stunningly beautiful collection of music...

Buy this album now    CD: £11.50 + p&p   

Track Listing & Audio Samples

1 Queen of Harps

Ann Heymann
2 Ex Te Lux Oritur 13th century hymn
3 Feachain Gleis / Scott's Lamentation Trad. / John Scott
4 Lamentation of Youths John Scott
5 Sir Thomas Brook's Pavan / Cormac's Alman
/ Lord Sheffield's Pavan
Cormac MacDermott
6 The First Irish Jig / Holyrood Measure Trad.
7 Hawk of Ballyshannon O'Carolan
8 Temple Hill Reel / Temple Hill Jigs Trad.
9 Lament for the harp Trad.


CD Notes & Credits

Sleeve Notes

"My immersion in the living traditional music and culture of Ireland and Scotland, and my study of early sources such as Bunting's legacy and the Welsh 16th century Robert Ap Huw MS, have both played strong roles in enabling me to issue this release of Gaelic harp music. But the instrument itself has been absolutely essential to the development of my approach and playing techniques. The very existence of Jay Witcher's historic Gaelic harp copies in the early 1970's allowed me to begin my work, and all of my efforts since then have been aimed at most effectively transmitting musical messages contained within the instrument-freeing the instrument's voice, as it were. Traditional 'limitations', such as extreme resonance resulting from using fingernails on brass wire strings tightly strung on a massive wooden frame use of the left hand in the treble and right hand in the bass; a diatonic gamut interrupted by two consecutive G notes; and a lack of accommodation for chromaticism and modulation, all have defined my medium".

The Instrument

Though its provenance remains uncertain, the harp in Gaelic regions was the pre-eminent musical instrument, played at ceremonial and auspicious occasions and surrounded by an ancient, intricate tradition of construction, tuning and performance. When the Gaelic social order was destroyed by the English throne, some harpers enjoyed a short-lived popularity with European aristocracy. In English governed areas harpers harpers travelled as itinerants from one aristocratic family to another, entering with praise poetry and music that sometimes recalled the old Gaelic style but more often reflected the contemporary Italian influence then sweeping the Continent. But even though the clairseach was compared favourably to the lute during that time, the rising tide of chromaticism in Western musical tradition was too strong for an instrument that could not successfully adapt, and the Gaelic harp eventually was swallowed by a sea of pianos.

Fortunately, before it disappeared entirely, concerned Belfast citizens organised a last harp festival and engaged the young organist Edward Bunting to transcribe the music played there for the purpose of collecting  "scarce" compositions "not to be found in any public collection". Bunting's festival work so inspired him that he and an employed Gaelic speaker spent the next fifteen years travelling the countryside and continuing to collect traditional music and song... Before he died Bunting published three volumes entitled 'Ancient Music of Ireland' but his intent in publication was more to sell books than to preserve the tradition. His written text in those volumes is priceless (especially that in his last volume issued in1840), but musical treasure we have minded from his surviving manuscripts in Queen's University Library, Belfast, rather than from his published piano arrangements.

The Music

1. Queen of Harps
Ego Sum Regina Cithararum ("I am the Queen of Harps"), an inscription on the 17th century Dalway/Fitzgerald harp, is the inspiration for this title track composition. The Gaelic harp has long carried a feminine image, from its feminine-gendered names croft and clairsearch to proverbial references as the harper's wife/woman to the instrument's position on the harper's left side.
As this monarch's humble servant, I see myself not so much as a composer as a translator. All four traditional forms here-air, slip, jig, jig and reel- are greatly shaped by the clairseach's characteristics. Its ringing resonance provides the ground tones that accompany the interplay of melody and ornamentation.

2. Ex Te Lux Oritur
This piece celebrates the marriage of Margaret, daughter of Scottish king Alexander III, to King Eric II of Norway in 1281. It has survived as a Latin hymn, but may also be a trouvere song or sequence and thus interpreted rhythmically. We like the way it lends itself to 9/8. Our thanks to John Purser for publishing Dr. Warwick Edwards' transcription in "Scotland's music2 (Mainstream Publishing, 1992).

3. Feachain Gleis- Scott's Lamentation
Edward Bunting's "Ancient Music of Ireland" (Dublin, 1848) contains this fragment of a tuning prelude collected from Dennis Hempson. Not an Irish speaker, Bunting used "Feaghan Geleash", a phonetic approximation. The phrase means "preliminary test or tuning trial" and was sometimes used by medieval Gaelic scribes to name the testing of their quill pen's trimming. The Scottish Gaelic 'deuchainn (dechain) ghleusta' has named a tuning prelude or trial for the bagpipes.

Hempson played Bunting only this short fragment, and even this he was reluctant to perform. He would rather have played any other air, as this awakened recollections of the days of his youth, of friends whom he had outlived, and of times long past, when the harpers were accustomed to play the ancient caoinans or lamentations, with their corresponding preludes. When pressed to play, not withstanding, his answer uniformly was "What's the use in doing so? No-one can understand it now, not even any of the harpers now living".

Could Hempson have been giving us an important and hitherto unnoticed clue to the use of the tuning preludes by associating them with ceremonial and ritualistic music such as "Scott's Lamentation", which he also played, stating that "nobody had asked for this tune 50 years past"? We use Hempson's statement as an excuse to fancifully combine the prelude with the composition of John Scott, a 16th century harper from Co. Westmeath, for Thomas Purcell, Baron of Loughmre.

I play these two pieces on my copy of Dennis Hempson's Downhill harp that I keep in Hempson's original tuning. These versions are not those published by Bunting for, though he claims his are "as performed by Hempson", they are not true to the versions in his earliest notebooks. My variations in "Scott's Lamentation" are reconstructed from markings in Bunting's earliest transcriptions as well as a familiarity with Hempson's techniques.   

4. Lamentation of Youths
Another lament composed by the above harper John Scott for a Baron of Galtrim named O'Hussey. We use Bunting's English title for the tune, although the Gaelic title he gives ("Cooee en Devenish" on the title page and "Cumbha an Deibhinis" in the index) has been interpreted as Cumha an De-Bhean Si ("Lament of the Fairy Goddess") by Donal O'Sullivan.Both this and the above lament consist of three parts, consistent with the fact that both vocal and instrumental laments appear to have been tripartite. We believe that this music reflected a basic Gaelic tripartite cosmology made up of "female", "male", and "spiritual/sacred" realms (see "Clairseach: the Lore of the Irish Harp" in "Eire-Ireland", vol. 26,3 (1991).

5. Sir Thomas Brook's Pavan/Cormac's Alman/Lord Sheffield's Pavan
Pavans and almans were stately dances popular at European courts during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. What makes these unique is that they were composed by an Irish harper named Cormac MacDemott from Co. Roscommon (?-1618) who was possibly employed at Queen Elizabeth's court, served Sir Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, and was also employed by King James VI.

My arrangement of these two pavans and an unnamed alman is a compilation from three parts (Cantus, Tenor, Bassus) surviving in partbooks housed at the Yale University Library (Filmer MS4). Our thanks to Sean Donnelly for all of his research and especially for bringing Comac MacDermott to our attention.

6. The First Irish Jig/ Holyrood Measure
The first tune is the earliest known Irish jig, found in "Choice New Songs" by Thomas d'Urfey (1684). The dance developed in England and spread to Scotland , France, Italy, and then to Ireland by the early 18th century.

The second piece, carrying the note "as dance by Prince Charles Edward at Holyrood", is from an old manuscript housed at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Although its original title is "Old Scottish Measure", the term "measure" usually signifies a dance in 4/4 time liberal use of dotted eighth notes (quavers).

7. The Hawk of Ballyshannon
I took this composition of Turloch O'Carolan from the Bunting MSS in Queen's University Library, Belfast. Bunting collected it from harper Arthur O'Neil and published it in his 1848 edition of "Ancient Music of Ireland".The music celebrates the marriage of Katherin O'More of Moyvalley, Co. Kildare, to Charles O'Donnell of Newport, Co. Mayo, and the title is Carolan's name for the bridegroom in the second verse.

Bunting reports that the 1792 Belfast harpers claimed the tune to be Rory Dall O'cathain's "Port Atholl", but there are two different tunes collected with that title. The one found in Daniel Dow's "Collection of Ancient Scots Music" (c.1778) and John Bowie's "Collection of Strathapey Reels and Country Dances" (c.1789) bear no relation, but the "Port Atholl" in James Oswald's "Caledonian Pocket Companion"(1753) does appear related, supporting the harpers' claim. however, Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird's "The Tree of Strings" (Kinmore Music,1992) contains an extensive examination of the term and form "port" that suggests a solely Scottish provenance. We foresee further Scottish /Irish rivalry over this issue! At any rate, Carolan is known both to have written words to existing music that later was taken to be his own composition (for example his first song "An tSid bheag agus an tSidh mhor" uses the folk tune "My Bonny Cuckoo") as well as to have written variations on existing Scottish pieces such as "Cock Up Your Beavers" and "When She Cam Ben".

8. Temple Hill Reel/ Temple Hill Jigs
The reel here is paired with a jig traditionally included by pipers and fiddlers in the long descriptive piece 'Allisdrum's March' that commemorates the 1647 death of Alasdair MacDonnell at the battle of Cnoc na nDos in Co. Cork. Ann has taken the liberty of combining three versions of the jig, whose Gaelic title is 'Cnocan an Teampaill'or 'Temple/ Church Hill',into the form of a single six part jig. The three were collected from (1)Mrs Murphy,Glen Collins, Ballydesmond, Co. Cork; (2) a manuscript of J.M. Buckley, Carriganes, Ballydesmond, Co. Cork, written in 1866 by William fitzgerald of Conrea, Ballydesmond -a fiddler who emigrated to America; (3) a manuscript of C. O'Floinn of Castleisland, Co. Kerry, probably written around 1887; and published on "Ceol", vol.3, #3 (1969).

Jigs and reels were not part of the Gaelic harp's repertoire, but today they have become such an integral part of traditional Irish music that they simply must be addressed by contemporary harpers. Ann has developed a "coupled hands" approach to performing dance music that accents the strong beats effectively and naturally while allowing the melody to be varied and ornamented, all while being played at acceptable tempos. Ann finds no need to create an "accompaniment" for the melody with this approach.

She especially enjoys the incidental association these tunes have both with the "Bas Alastruim / MacAllistruim's March" track she recorded in 1983 with Alison Kinnaird on "The Harper's Land"(Temple Records COMD2012),and the name of this recording label based in Temple, Midlothian, Scotland.

9. Chumbh Craoibh Na Teidbh, #2 (Lament For The Harp)
First a couple of terms need to be defined-

"Piobaireachd" is the learned, elite and aristocratic music of the Highland bagpipe. It was also known as 'ceol mor' meaning 'big music', while all other pipe music was categorised as either 'ceol beag'(small music) or 'ceol meadhonach' (middle music').

"Canntaireachd" is the system of teaching "piobaireachd" through singing. The chanter's nine notes were indicated by vowel-based vocables such as "ah", "ee", etct; pre melody note ornaments were given as consonants or consonant combinations ("h-","d-", "dr-", ect); while the stylised post-melody note 2ripples" that give "piobaireachd its identity were signified by syllables or syllable combinations such as "bah-re", "dah-rid", "ban-dre", etc.

My arrangement of this piece is from the Piobaireachd Society transcription of the version in the Colin Campbell MS, a late 18th century manuscript that is the first to use canntaireachd notation. The title translates as "Lament for the Tree of Strings"(poetically signifying the harp). However, the Society did not use this title because another tune of the same name (but translated "Lament for the Harp Tree") was better known to pipers. They chose instead to give it the name used on the later Angus Mackay MSS: "MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart's Lament". Unfortunately, in the same book the Society published another tune with this name, so they called the lesser known "Harp Tree" piece "MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart's Lament, #2".

The case gets even more complex because the Society also took its transcription of Kinlochmoidart, #1, from Angus Mackay's MS, where it is called "MacDonald of Kinlochmoidart's  Salute"! They chose to use "Lament" in their title rather than "Salute" because "According to Alexander Cameron the tune is a lament and should be played as such. Kinlochmoidart's Lament is the name by which it generally goes, and under which it has been published by W. Ross and David Glen".

With all of this confusion and transformation of titles, we decided to join in the fun and use yet another name to distinguish what is really a quite different musical interpretation of the lament. Incidentally, according to the Society, the title of the "Harp Tree,#1, piece in the Campbell MS is "MacLeod's lament, so apparently the  first appearance in print of the "Harp Tree" title associated with the more popular piece, is in the Angus Fraser MS, compiled in the first half of the 19th century.

'Ceol mor', as played on the bagpipe, is the ultimate expression of that instrument's unique characteristics. The Gaelic harp, with its long resonance, subtle harmonies, wide gamut and polyphonic capability produces a radically different music from that of the pipes, yet the two instruments share some unique 'piobaireachd' technology, and it has been suggested that the pipes adopted some harp repertoire during the harp's demise throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. If  'piobaireachd' is, indeed, a pipe interpretation and development of what was originally harp music, then I am merely reclaiming some of the harp's old repertoire. If this should lead to another "Tain Bo Cuailgne", then so be it!

For many years my repeated attempts at 'piobaireachd' on the wire-strung harp met with futility. Then, just as I began to feel comfortable with my approach, this piece caught my attention because its titles tied it both to the harp and to the MacDonalds, and an Ann Heymann (that's right!) married into the McShennog (Shannon) family, harpers to the MacDonalds, and inherited their harpers' land in 1731!

"Lament for the Harp", as written for the pipes, used an A mixolydian mode throughout, so I initially tried it with my harp tunes in the key of two sharps. When I didn't like the ringing harmonics in that mode, I decided to omit the drone and kept changing the tonal centre until, when the melody's A (major) tonality became C in the ground, the variations took on an A (minor) tonality and a peculiarly Gaelic harp music emerged!

I really should have known - the bagpipe scale centres round a A tonic and consists of roughly a D major (2 sharp) key signature. Bunting reports that the harpers rarely tuned to a D but rather focused on g, and their terminology for tuning F and F# leads us to believe that Gaelic harp tuning practice originally created principal mode of G mixolydian or "key" of C (no sharps or flats). Curiously enough, in this mode I was playing exactly the notes written in staff notation, because pipers don't put their two sharp key signature on the staff!

Why does it sound better this way on the harp? First of all, the pipes are anchored by a single drone but the harp's drone can move, allowing a different tonality within a piece. This new mode suggested a change of tonality between the ground and variations that the harp's moving drone could highlight, so by taking advantage of this, taking liberties with grace note values, playing corresponding octaves at will and allowing selected main and grace notes to ring out, I was able to create a virtually new piece- one in which the moving drone and tonal centres nicely encompassed the ideas of both is reflected in the sound of the tonal C (major) ground, while the eulogy's 'lament' is heard in the tonal A (minor) variations.

Also, the 'doublings' as played by the pipes are merely slight variations on the 'singlings'. The harp, on the other hand, can give true 'doublings' in a different octave, and I selected the octave higher. Because of the greater difference in sound between the ground and variations, I decided to return to the ground after every doubling, even though it is usually played by pipers at only the beginning and end of a 'piobaireachd'.

Only the 'crunluath a mach' variation is altered from the actual fingerings used by pipers. In this movement I substituted the short running streams (struth mor0 described by Bunting and found in "Burn's March", "Fingal Airs", etc., yet the substitution remains consistent with using nine grace notes in the last variation and also with giving the E's greater emphasis. The 'crunluath a mach' on the harp is thus transformed from the most difficult and complex movement to one that is relitively easy and a wise choise at the end of a long and challenging piece. It gives a “watery”, tension-releasing, and soothing sound to the climax. A second alteration of the movement is that I play both a singling and doubling for it, while the 'crunluath a mach' generally is played in only its doubling form.

This is currently my favourite piece of music and the doubling of the 'crunluath' is my favourite variation. The form of this 'piobaireachd' is:
1. Ground
2. 1st variation and doubling
3. Ground
4. 2nd variation and doubling
5. Ground
6. Taorluath and doubling
7. Ground
8. Crulath and doubling
9. Ground
10. Crunluath a Mach and doubling
11. Ground

©Ann Heymann


Ann Heymann composed Queen of Harps
All other titles were arranged by Ann Heymann
All titles published by Kinmore Music

Ann Heymann plays three wire-strung harps built by Jay Witcher of Houlton, Maine USA.
Produced by Ann & Charlie Heymann
Cover photographs by Vance Gellart, pArts Gallery, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Graphics by Graham Oglivie 1994.


Album Information

Instruments: Solo harp,
Genre: Irish Traditional
Format: CD
Our Ref: A0154
Label: Temple Records
Year: 1994
Origin: EU

Artist Information & Contact Details

Photograph of Ann Heymann"I am the Queen of harps" - the title of this album, comes from the inscription on the side of a 17th century Irish instrument. It could equally well describe the playing of Ann Heymann on the wire-strung harp, the clarsach.

Ann is an outstanding musician who, self-taught, has re-invented the technique necessary to play the harp of the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland. Classical gut-strung harp technique is not relevant to this instrument. The application of an original mind, added to the deep knowledge of the academic and traditional background to the instrument and its repertoire has allowed her to produce music of unrivalled complexity and beauty. This is not "little music", though Ann demonstrates her versatility by including some tracks of sparkling reels and jigs, one of her own compositions, and an example of 17th century dance music which amply illustrates why the Irish harp enjoyed such favour at the Elizabethan court. The abiding impression is of "great music"- music which would have been heard and appreciated in the courts of Irish princes or Scottish chieftains by a sophisticated and cultured audience educated in the subtlety of musical form and ornamentation of the bardic traditions.

The clarity of the melodic line and its decoration, as well as the strong harmonic support, is produced by Ann's virtuosic stopping technique, which defines those strings which are left to ring, or silences those notes which would clash or muddy the harmonies. The result in the hands of an extraordinary player is a unique expression of the character of a majestic instrument- the Queen of Harps.

© Alison Kinnaird July 1994

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Queen of Harps The Harper's Land