HISTORIC ESTIMATE OF IRISH MUSIC
THAT the ancient Irish cultivated the music of the voice and of instruments, is proved in every page of their history. To quote the language of Mooney, the historian: “Music mixed in every ceremonial. In their sun worship, the song of praise and thanksgiving was raised to the giver, in their opinion, of fruits, and regulator of the seasons. At funerals, the voice of lamentation was vented under the control of musical notation. In the battle, the harper bards led on the warrior hosts. At the festive board, and in the banquet hall, there also the voice of music stimulated the joyous passions. On all these occasions, the harper bards caught the most touching sounds of human sensations as `they rose, and copied them on their harpstrings. -These were, upon succeeding occasions, repeated musically to kindle in other hearts emotions similar to those which gave them birth. In this manner, a series of the rnost touching sounds was formed by the Irish bards into a code of melody which has lasted through innumerable ages.” The National Melodies of Europe sprang from her-bards and troubadours, and are highly expressive of the races they belong to, says Bayle Bernard, biog- rapher of Samuel Lover. In lrish airs, even the most wildly inspiring and jubi- lant, as well as the most intensely pathetic, a vein of peculiar plaintiveness pervades the structure-the result, no doubt, of the tragedies of history.
Ruskin has demonstrated that the art of a country is the direct expression of the mind of its people, and if this he true of the arts in general, it is pre- eminently true of music in particular; for of all the arts, the most direct, the most subtle, and by far the most expressive, is music.
The Music of Ireland was classed by Edward Bunting under three heads,- the very ancient; the ancient; and the modern. The first comprises all that is believed (to have existed before the Christian era, such as “The Lamentation of Deirdre Over the Sons of Usnach”; “The Children of Lirv; and the Chants to which Fenian poems ascribed to Oisin and Fergus were sung, like the “Battle of Erragan Mor,’, and the “Death Song of Oscar.” .
The second class includes compositions dating from that period until the days of O’Carolan; while the third class contains nothing of a date much older than the generation in which the great Blind Bard flourished. Little folk music can be traced to his muse; in fact, his compositions furnish no standard; for Irish music of that inimitable vein of tender expression which winds through the very old strain in every mood, major and minor, is too often sought for in vain.
Little music, if any, that can be identified as originating in the early centuries has come down to us, although allusions to the pre-eminence of Ireland in its cultivation and practice are by no means rare. In the life of St. Keiven, quoted by Mooney, it is stated that “the King of Munster, so early as A. D. 489, had the best band of harpers of any in his time, who accompanied their music with singing.” When Nivelles Abbey was established, at the close of the sixth century, under the auspices of King Pepin, Gertrude, his daughter, sent to Ireland for musicians and choristers to serve in it. A band of these Irish harpers and choristers came from thence, who imparted their music and rules to all the Franks, which were adopted by the court and the nation.” In like manner, Charlemagne, in the eighth century, appointed two Irishmen - C1ement Albanius and Dungin - preceptors for the two great Universities of Pavia and Paris, which he established. Testimony such as the above cannot be regarded lightly in upholding the claim of Ireland's renown among the nations over a thousand years ago.
Such was the celebrity ot the music of Ireland in the eleventh century that the Welsh, according to their own historians, received their improved musical System from the “Land of Song.”
About the year 1100, Gruffydth ap Conan, King of North Wales, “who being on the one side an Irishman, by his mother and grandmother, and also born in Ireland, brought over with him out of that eountrie divers cunning musicians into Wales, who,” the Welsh historian Powell asserts, in his History of Cambria, translated by Lloyd, edit. 1584, “devised in a manner all the instrumental musicke that now is 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.”
In this assertion Powell is corroborated by the learned Selden, an English jurist, who, in speaking of the We1sh, says: “Their mtisique for the most part came out of Ireland with Gruffydth ap Conan, prince of North Wa1es about King Stephen's time.” Another Welsh writer, Caradoe of Llancarvah, and Wynne, the historian, take the same view.
The result of the introduction of the “cunning musieians from Ireland was soon apparent. At a great feast given by Rhys ap Gruffydth, at Cardigah Castle.in 1176, and to which all the bards and poets of Wales were invited, the bards of North Wales, among whom it is natural to suppose were some of their Irish instruetors, proved their superiority and were awarded the prizes.
Johannes Brompton Abbot of Jereval, in Yorkshire, who wrote early in the last half of the twelfth century, and before the Norman invasion, states that the Irish had two kinds of harps - the one bold and rapid, the other soft and soothing; and although “the music was headlong and rapid, it was nevertheless sweet and pleasant, the modulations crisp, and the small notes intricate.” He further stated that the Irish taught in secret, and committed their lessons to memory.
No commentator on early Irish music is so universally quoted as Gerald Barry - Giraldus Cambrensis - Bishop of St. David's, in Wales. He had traveled, as the companion of Henry the Second, all over Europe, and had heard the best music of every country in the most refined society. With Prince John, he visited Ireland in 1186, and subsequently wrote an account of his observations, entitled Topographia Hibernica.
Concerning the development of music among the Irish, he says: “The attention of this people to musical instruments I find worthy of commendation; in which their skill is beyond all comparison superior to that of any nation I have seen; for in these the modulation is not slow and solemn, as in the instruments of Britain to which we are accustomed; but the sounds are rapid and precipitate, yet at the same time sweet and pleasing. It is wonderful how in such preeipitate rapidity of the fingers, the musical proportions are preserved, and by their art faultless throughout, in the midst of their complicated modulations, and most intricate arrangement of notes. By a rapidity so sweet, a regularity so irregular, a concord so diseordant, the melody is rendered harmonious and perfect.
Whether the chords of the diatesseron or diapente are struck together, yet they always begin in a soft mood, and end in the Same: that all may be perfected in the sweetness of delicious sounds, they enter on, and again leave their modulations with so much subtlety, and the tingling of the small string sport with so much freedom under the deep notes of the bass, delight with so much delicacy, and 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. In the opinion of many at this day. Scotland has not only equalled but even far excels her mistress Ireland in musical skill; wherefore they seek there also the fountain as it were of the art.”
The peculiarities of Irish music in rhythm and execution must have deeply impressed the distinguished Welsh prelate, for he admits it was superior to that of Wales. The latter “being of a grave and solemn nature, whereas that of the Irish was soft, lively and melodious, their fingers passing rapidly over the strings of the harp, preserving a true musical proportion, nor in any part injuring the art among the shakes of the notes, and a multiplicity of intricate musical sounds, such as soft and pleasant notes divided by just proportion into concords and discords, making a complete melody, all of which depended upon the power and variety of the sounds, and the lengths of the Irish vowels, and to which the WeIsh language is a stranger.”
Perhaps the circumstance that the Irish harps were strung with brass wire instead of thongs and even horse hair, as the custom was in Wales, may account in a measure for the “soft and pleasant notes” of the Irish instrument.
As Borde, the Welsh poet said in 1542:
“For my harp is made of good mares skin
The strynges be of horse-heare it maketh a good dyn.”
Speaking of the effects of music, Cambrensis has in the following passage recorded the extreme love of the Irish for the music of the harp. “The sweetness of music not only delights with its harmony, it has its advantages also. It not a little exhilarates dejected minds, it clears the clouded countenance and removes superciliousness and austerity. Harmony is a kind ot food to the mind. Whatever be our pursuit, music assists application and quickens genius; it gives courage to the brave and assists the devotion of the pious. Hence it is that the bishops, abbots, and holy men in Ireland, are used to have their harp about them, and piously amuse themselves with playing it. Music has a power to alter our very nature.” he continues, “hence the Irish, the Spanish, and some other nations, amidst their funeral wailings bring forth musical lamentations, either to increase or diminish their grief.”
Keenly appreciating the music and performance of the Irish harpers, Cambrensis says that “those very strains which afford deep and unspeakable mental delight to those who have skillfully penetrated into the mysteries of the art; fatigue rather than gratify the ears of others who seeing, do not perceive, and hearing, do not understand; and by whom the finest music is esteemed no better than a confused and disorderly noise, and will be heard with unwillingness and disgust.”
The widely divergent emotional attitude of men in modern times no less than in the days of Giraldus Cambrensis reminds us that Voltaire hated music with intensity, Willie Calvin and Knox denounced it as a bait held out by the evil one to lure the souls of the unwary.- even Goethe, German in heart and soul knew nothing of, and cared nothing for music. Again some there be like the young violin student described by a writer in the Musical Leader who never heard anything at a concert, but fiddle technic, and who used to figure out sympathetically on his coat sleeve every single passage and writhe in envy during every difficult one. Beauties of tone and melody did not exist for him. Every emotional appeal flew over his head. Music held nothing for him but finger twiddling.
But to return to the current of our subject from a digression pardonable perhaps under the circumstances: John DeFordun “ a canon of Aberdeen, the earliest Scotch historian,” who was sent over to Ireland at the end of the thirteenth century to collect materials for his Scotichronicon expressly states that “Ireland was the fountain of inusic, tin his tinie), whence it began to tlow into Scotland and Wales.”
From the pages of Dean Lynch’s Cambrensis Eversus we learn that Polydore Virgil, who lived in England in the first half of the sixteenth century paid a glowing tribute to the musical faculties of the Irish at that time. “The Irish practice music and are remarkably skilled in it,” he says. “Their performance both vocal and instrumental is exquisite, but so bold and impassioned that it is amazing how they can observe the rules of their art amidst such rapid evolutions of the fingers and vibrations of the voice, and yet they do observe them to perfection.”
About the same time we are told by john Major in his Greater Britain, published in 1521, that the Irish and the wild Scots were pre-eminent as performers on the harp. In his panegyric of James the First of Scotland, he styles that prince “another Orpheus who touches the harp more exquisitely than either the Highlanders or even the Irish, who were the most eminent harpers then known.” At a later date Count de Hoghenski, a musical authority testifies that “of all the people the Irish are esteemed the best performers.” Still more explicitly he continues, `They use the harp whose strings were of brass and not of animal gut; on this they make the most pleasing melody.”
Were further testimony needed on this score it has been furnished by Vincentio Gallilei, a noble Florentine in his Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music published in 1581. In this work he eulogises Irish harps and harpers, remarking that “the strings are generally of brass with a few steel for the highest notes.” In all historical comment on the Irish harp and its music which has come to our attention, there is but one dissenting voice and strangely enough the critic is a native born Irishman. In 1584 Richard Stanyhurst, whose ancestors for many generations resided in the vicinity of Dublin, records in a work entitled De Rebus in Hibemia Gestis, that “the harper uses no plectrum but scratches the chords with his crooked nails and never marks the flow of his pieces to musical rhythm, nor the accent and quantity of the notes, so that to the refined ears of an adept it comes almost as offensively as the grating of a saw.” It is gratifying to learn, however, that he encountered one harper named Crusius, or Cruise, who measured up to his ideal, and on whom he lavishes unlimited praise; but even so his strictures on the harpers of his day in general were not permitted to pass unquestioned by such able writers as Dean Lynch and Geoffrey Keating.
Barnaby Rich, an English gentleman, who visited Ireland in the reign of James the First and embodied his impressions of the country in A New Description of Ireland, says “they have harpers, and those are so reverenced among the Irish that in the time of rebellion they will forbear to hurt either their persons or their goods.”
From an essay on “The Ancient and Modern Manners of the Irish,” to be found in Camden's Britannia, published in 1580; written by J. Good, an English priest, who conducted a school at Limerick about the year 1566, we extract the following - his only reference to music: “They are particularly fond of music especially of the harp with brass strings which they strike harmoniously with their crooked nails.”
Pretorius, author of a work on Musical Instruments, published in 1619, says “The Irish Harp has rough thick brass strings, forty-three in number, and is beyond measure sweet in tone.”
Referring to the Irish harp in Sylva Sylvorum, published in 1627; years after the author’s death, Bacon declares “it maketh a more resounding sound than a Bandora, Opharion, or Cittern, which have likewise wire strings, and no instrument hath the sound so melting and prolonged as the Irish harp.” To the same general effect is the testimony of Thomas Fuller, author of the History of the Holy Warre, published in 1639. In his account of the crusade conducted by Godfrey de Boulogne in the last years of the eleventh century, he says: “Yea we might well think that all the concert of Christendom in this warre would have made no musick if the Irish harp had been wanting.” In Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy, the author mentions an unpublished History of Ireland written about the year 1636, reposing in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, from which he quotes the following: “The Irish are much addicted to musick generally, and you shall find but very few of their gentry either man or woman, but can play on the harp; also you shall not find a house of any account without one or two of those instruments and they always keep a harper to play for them at their meals, and all other times as often as they have a desire to recreate themselves or others which come to their houses therewith.”
M. de la Boullaye Le Gouz, who journeyed from Dublin to the principal cities and towns in Ireland in 1644 and whose description of the country has been translated by Crofton Croker, says of the people: “They are fond of the harp on which nearly all play as the English do on the fiddle, the French on the lute, the Italians on the guitar, the Spanish on the castanets, the Scotch on the bagpipe, the Swiss on the fife, the Germans on the trumpet, the Dutch on the tambourine, and the Turks on the flageolet.” After describing their weapons and their dexterity the French traveler adds, “they march to battle with the bagpipes, instead of fifes; but they have few drums.”
As to the ancient Irish music it is confessed to be original, and in what remains of it to this day there is found a wonderful softness and pleasing harmony, according to the learned Sylvester O'Halloran whose History of Ireland appeared in 1778. The Abbey of Benchoir got its name from the melody of its psalmists, and when in the next century the Abbey of Nivelles was founded, Gertrude, daughter of Pepin, sent to Ireland for doctors to instruct in church discipline, and for musicians and choristers for the church music.
Writing in 1779 on The Power of Music John Wesley said: “Generally, if not always, when a fine solo was sung; when the sound has been an echo to the sense; when the music has been extremely simple and inartificial ... the natural power of music to move the passions has appeared. This music was calculated for that end, and effectually answered it. Upon this ground it is that so many persons are affected by the Scotch or Irish airs. They are composed not according to art, but nature; they are simple in the highest degree. There is no harmony according to the present sense of the word therein; but there is much melody.”
In Walker's Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards, which came from the press in 1786, we read that “The Irish music is in some degree distinguished from the music of every other nation, by an insinuating sweetness which forces its way irresistihly to the heart, and there diffuses an ecstatic delight that thrills through every fiber of the frame, awakens sensibility and agitates or tranquilizes the soul. Whatever passion it may be intended to excite it never fails to effect its purpose. It is the voice of nature and will he heard. We speak of the music of the ancient Irish for music like language, the nearer we remount to its rise amongst men, the more it will be found to partake of a natural expression.” The same author adds: “The great Irish families even to the last century, entertained in their houses harpers who were the repositories of their best pieces of music. These remains which we consider as classics have obtained for Ireland the honorable title of A School for Music.”
That Ireland was the “School for Music” as well as for learning in its broadest sense, from which Scotland derived not at little of its earliest training is well attested by their own writers and historians, a few of whom have been already quoted.
In the pages of A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland comprising a series of letters to Dr. John Watkinson, in 1775, the author. Rev. Dr. Campbell, speaks with the confidence of an authority who is master of his subject.
It may be of interest to add that Dr. Campbell, who was rector of Galloon, in County Fermanagh, and chancellor of Clogher in County Tyrone, reckoned among his friends sueh notables as Burke, Johnson, Boswell and Goldsmith.
“From what has been now observed relative to the distinguished excellence of the Irish musicians, particularly in ancient times, compared with what has been proved in former letters, that Ireland was the old Scotia, it will not, I flatter myself, be difficult to trace the origin of what is now called Scots music.
“We have seen that there is proof positive from their own chronicles that the Welsh received their instruments from Ireland, let us now see whether there be not proof presumptive, the strongest which the nature of the thing is capable of, that the British Scots borrowed their music also from the same quarter.
“It is vain to say, as is generally said, that David Rizzio was author of the Scots music. There is an internal evidence against such a supposition; the wild and pastoral singularity of the Scots melodies is incompatible with the grave and learned compositions of Italy. And there is evidence still more strong. Rizzio was secretary and not musician to the Queen of Scotland. His father had been a musician by profession, but we do not find that he was one himself. That he might, however, have played, improved, and collected the Scots airs is very probable, but that a young dissipated Italian - busied in the intrigues of a court and attendance on a Queen so fair, and so condescending as Mary-could in a few years have disseminated such multifarious compositions through a nation which despised his manners, and hated his person is utterly incredible.
“Nor is it to be believed what is still more credible that James the First of Scotland was the author of the Scots tunes, though Buchanan does say that he excelled in music more than became a king.
“The honor then of inventing the Scots music must be given to this country the ancient Scotia so renowned for music in old times; from whence as we have incontrovertibly proved, the present Scotia derived her name, her extraction, her language, and her poetry.”
There can scarcely be a question that the melodies preserved in the Seottish Highlands such as those performed on the bagpipe, and rustic dance tunes, clan tunes and other Celtie melodies which continue to he sung to Gaelic poetry or words, in the affecting traditional way flow entirely in the Irish manner and had a common origin.
Contrasting conditions as he found them to exist in his Tour of Ireland and England in the year 1828 and 1829, “A German Prince” records that “the love of music in England is a mere matter of fashion. There is no nation in Europe which plays music better or understands it worse.” To which may be added a quotation from Gaskin's Varieties of Irish History of a later date: “Many old authors from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, speak in the highest terms of the music of Ireland. Ireland and Scotland far excel England in those compositions, for which she has been denied the gift of melodious utterance. Ireland and Scotland though less favored in other respects, teemed with the harmonious productions of bards who have left no other monument behind them - not even in most cases their names.”
Coming down to still more recent times, we have the opinion of the distinguished German traveler, Kohl. Who published a work on Ireland in 1844. Speaking ot his visit to the residence of a gentleman at Drogheda, he says: “The harp was brought in and a blind young harper advanced who was, I was told, one of the most accomplished harpers in the neighborhood; and in fact his music enraptured us all. The first piece he played was “Brian Boru's March.” The music of this march is wildly powerful, and at the same time melancholy.
It is at once the music of victory and of mourning. The rapid modulations and wild beauty of the airs was such that I think this march deserves fully to obtain a celebrity equal to that of the 'Marseillaise’ and the 'Ragotsky.' “The march of 'Brian Boru' was followed by an air called the `Fairy Queen,’ which I was told was a very old melody. Old or not I can testify that it is a charming piece of music, so tender, so fairy like and at the same time so wild and sweetly playful that it can represent nothing, but the dancing and singing of the elves and fairies by moonlight. I afterwards heard the piece on the pianoforte, but it did not sound half so soft and sweet as from the instrument of the blind young harper. Of all the fine arts music is the one of whose beauties it is most impossible to convey any adequate idea by criticism or description.”
In the foregoing pages ample historical evidence has been submitted, although much more might be produced to sustain Ireland’s claim to eminence among the most advanced nations in the knowledge and practice of music, from the earliest ages down to comparatively recent times, when the tragedies of her history paralyzed the progress of the arts for which she had been so long distinguished.