Daily Archives: February 7, 2008

Brian Boru’s March — Performance Hints for Harpers

Not from me, goodness knows. From a very interesting site with info on Celtic tunes.

It was in the repertoire of the man whom O’Neill calls the “last of the great Irish harpers,” Patrick Byrne (c. 1784-1863). O’Neill never heard Byrne play, but an account of a Byrne concert which appeared in The Emerald of New York in 1870 caught his eye. Byrne played for an assemblage in the household of a Dublin gentleman in 1860, and O’Neill quotes from the article:

Byrne’s command of the harp was complete, the writer tells us. His
touch was singularly delicate yet equally firm. He could make the
strings whisper like the sigh of the rising wind on a summer eve,
or clang with a martial fierceness that made your pulses beat quicker.
After quaffing a generous tumbler of punch, he would say, “Now,
ladies and gentlemen, I am going to play you the celebrated march
of the great King Brian to the field of Clontarf, when he gave the
Danes such a drubbing. The Irish army is far off, but if you listen
Attentively you will hear the faint sound of their music.” Then his
fingers would wander over the upper range of strings with so delicate
a touch that you might fancy it was fairy music heard from a distance.
Anything more fine, more soft and delicate than this performance, it is
impossible to conceive. “They are coming nearer!” And the sound
increased in volume. “Now here they are!” And the music rolled
loud and full. Thus the march went on; the fingers of the minstrel’s
right hand wandering farther down the bass range. You find it hard
to keep your feet quiet, and feel inclined to take part in the march
music assumes a merry, lightsome character, as if it were played for
dancers. “Rejoicing for the victory!” But this abruptly ceases; there
is another shriek and dischord, jangling and confusion in the upper
bass stings. The harper explains as usual, “They have found the old
King murdered in his tent.” Then the air becomes much slower and
singularly plaintive. “Mourning for Brian’s death.” There is a firmer
and louder touch now, with occasional plaintive effects with the left
hand. “They are marching now with the brave old King’s body to
Drogheda.” The music now assumes a slow and steady tone, the tone
is lowered, and grows momentarily louder and louder, till finally it
dies away…And all these marvellous effects are produced upon what
is used as a simple dance tune in the south of Ireland (pgs. 81-82).

If you know the tune, you can almost hear how it could be done.


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