Bards and Harps

‘The Last Bard’
Frontispiece to Musical and Poetical Reliques of the Welsh Bards by Edward Jones (1784)

The traditional view of the inspired bard or divine singer is of one holding a harp. This image goes back to the Greek Orpheus whose words and music could charm the gods. He was given a golden lyre – a type of small hand-held harp – by Apollo who taught him how to make music with it. In the Brythonic tradition we might think in terms of Maponos and Taliesin, although Taliesin’s most often identified source of inspiration is the Cauldron of Ceridwen and although he says “I was the string in a harp” in one of his many metamorphoses in Cad Goddeu, references to him playing a harp are few. One such is the ‘Elegy for Uthr Pendragon’ where he tells us:

I’m a bard,
I’m a harpist,
I make music
   On a pipe
  On a crwth;

Seven score, or more
Could not match my skill,
My craft, my art …

Surviving references to musical intruments used by the early Welsh bards are not common, though Gerallt Cymro in his twelfth century Description of Wales said “the Welsh use three instruments: the harp, the pipe and the crwth”; but the professional court bards tended to be contemptuous of the ‘lesser’ bards and entertainers who played such intruments. Here, though, in spite of singing his own praises as the greatest of poets, in typical boasting style, the Taliesin figure is happy to sing his praises as a musician too. As for other bards, at least one text relates the issuing of “a harp, a crwth and pipes” by a king to his poets*, and Llywarch ap Llywelyn (Prydydd y Moch) praises his prince “ â thafod a thant” (with both tongue and [harp]string).

Earlier practices in the Ancient World and in pre-medieval heroic society in different parts of Europe highlight the harp, and the lyre, and sometimes an instrument like the crwth, as an accompaniment to recitation. A 15th century Latin text on the history of the viol and similar stringed instruments comments that, before the development of a raised bridge holding the strings separately away from the body of the instrument, the flat-bridged arrangement would have produced a drone sound rather than individual notes and was used “for the recitation of epics” adding that this was common “over the greater part of the world”.** Such instruments might be played with a bow on the reciters lap or held out in front, rather than on the shoulder as with a modern violin. This suggests that bards and cyfarwyddwyr (story-tellers) had a choice of a steady drone or the sounds of single plucked strings on the lyre or the small harp when reciting, in addition to any music they might also make in the intervals to recitations or to accompany songs. In Welsh, the modern word ‘telyn’ for harp had a wider earlier usage to include the lyre and similar instruments, so the distinction may not always be clear. Similarly the crwth, often seen as an earlier form of the violin, may have overlapped in form with the lyra and the lyre before distinct forms of these intruments and the terminology used to decribe them became fixed.

Of particular interest here is the terminology used between Wales and Ireland. In Ireland one word for a small ‘harp’ was ‘croth’ which seems to indicate a crwth rather than what we would think of as a harp. But the word ‘teillin’ was also used, although it is not the current usage, which, as well as sounding like Welsh ‘telyn’ apparently, according to the Irish scholar Eugene O’Curry, could also indicate the sound of a buzzing bee***. We need to distinguish here between the small harps, or other instruments, which a bard might hold while reciting, and the larger harps used for musical recitals. The fluidity of terminology between harp, lyre and crwth probably reflected the fluidity of form of instruments so described.

Then there is the matter of strings. Traditionally the strings were made from woven horse hair. But in the later medieval period gut strings began to be used and, especially with the larger harps, strings of metal. Such strings made it easier to play individual notes, as with the strings of the viol with an arched bridge noted above, and so to perform polyphonic music. They gave a clearer sound for each note but the horse-hair strings produced a softer sound which seems to have been more to the taste of the bards. The distinction between ‘telyn lledr’ (gut strings) and the ‘telyn rhawn’ (horse-hair strings) was made in one 15th century poem by Iolo Goch, complaining that the new-fangled strings of gut (or “dead sheep”!) are inferior to those of horse-hair and make a harsher sound:

Un delyn , ddiddan angerdd
Onid o rawn, gyfiawn gerdd

(‘a harp’s innate quality, its sweet tone/best from horse-hair, a well-made tune’ – ‘cerdd’ here can refer to either poetry or music).

In the same poem he reminisces about a past when there was time to ‘clera’ before the coming of the gut-stringed harp. To ‘clera’ was to go about as a minstrel, presumably singing and playing as well as reciting poetry. But as the professional bards were above such things, the clêr, or minstrels were a lesser grade of bard. But this strict grading does not seem to have survived the times of the independent Welsh princes and poetry in the later Middle Ages is more often associated with music and song as the bards travelled around the houses of the gentry to ply their craft and the difference between grades of bard disappears.

So Iolo Goch is not remembering back that far, but clearly the soft sweetness of a humming bee was more to the his taste than the sharp ringing of single notes. We might also think here of the drone sound of the flat-bridged viol used for recitation of epics noted above. Should we think also of the crwth, or croth/crotta related to the early Irish instrument so denoted? It seems anyway that there was a reversal of terminology between Wales and Ireland. What’s in a name if things so named are different? The crwth and the harp may well have developed separately from the lyre, as might the viol. Overlapping forms and names across Europe as new instruments were developed can make it difficult to pin down references to them in historical texts. But one scholar was prepared to declare that the crwth (‘crotta’) was certainly a Brythonic instrument***.

In addition to these considerations, the nature of bardic recitation and its relation to ‘song’ should be considered. The point of traditional bardic measures and verse forms is that they should be musical, and the bards were said to ‘sing’ rather than recite their verse. It is noteworthy that still today the modern Welsh word ‘canu’ can mean both ‘singing’ and ‘versifying’ and the related words ‘ynganu’ (‘recitation’) and ‘llafarganu’ (‘chant’, or literally ‘songspeech’) contain both the sense of speaking and of singing. So the voice made the music and was supported by the background sound of the strings. There could be music too, of course, as part of an evening’s entertainment. The chief bards at the courts of the Welsh princes may have thought themselves above such lighter forms of entertainment. But for Taliesin, even when his name was taken by one of these chief bards, though he thought himself seven score times their equal, the awen came through him in a multiplicity of forms in words, music and inspired song.


A poem containing conceits interacting with these deliberations appears on my Web Portal weblog HERE~>

*in The Black Book of Chirk (c.1200)

** J Tinctoris , quoted in Ian Woodfield The Early History of the Viol (Cambridge, 1984)

*** A O H Jarman ‘Telyn a Chrwth’ Llên Cymru 6 (1962) Discusses O’Curry’s remarks.
Jarman’s comment on the crwth:
“Nid rhaid amau nad oedd y crotta yn offeryn ‘Cymreig’ neu Frytanaidd”

Author: Greg Hill

Awenydd/Poet, Cultural Critic

One thought on “Bards and Harps”

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