The Gaels' Honour: Early Music for Harp & Voice from Gaelic Scotland and Ireland

James Ruff, Tenor and Early Gaelic Harp

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Playing the wire-strung Clarsach, the traditional art-music instrument of the Gaels, prize-winning singer James Ruff performs Gaelic songs and harp music from the 16th to the 18th centuries. James presents his own settings of ancient airs from early manuscripts and publications as well as from oral tradition, modelled on existing fragments of historic clarsach playing. Savor an integral part of the courtly life of Scotland and Ireland…

The Gaels' Honour consists of courtly music and poetry that might have been heard in the 17th and 18th century Gaelic world – by the clan chiefs of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland and the earls of Ireland. Gaelic nobles were great patrons of the arts, and typically employed a Poet, a Harper, a Piper and a Fool. The wire harp in particular was the premier instrument of art music for the Gaelic peoples, always linked with poetry, first used by professional court harpers, then by traveling harpers after the fall of the Gaelic Order – in the late 17th century in Ireland, and the mid-18th century in Scotland. The wire harp passed out of fashion by about 1800, after some 1000 years of use.

Stemming from the Gaelic culture’s non-literate (as opposed to illiterate!) transmission of information, art and wisdom, much of the repertoire, poetry and technique for the Clarsach was passed on orally, with music and song poetry often recorded in manuscript form long after their composition. Thankfully due to the work of 19-year-old organist Edward Bunting, hired to write down the music was played by the wire harpers competing at the 1792 Belfast Harpers’ Meeting, we do have much repertoire for the Clarsach, both instrumental and song, as well as some idea about the tuning and elaborate ornamentation employed by these artists. Bunting largely recorded the melodies these harpers were playing, though in about ten pieces, he included either partial or complete harp bass material. It is in studying these remnants, as well as the Ports - old harp tunes found in 17th and 18th century Scottish lute manuscripts - that we are able to reconstruct what these harpers may have been playing. I have transcribed much of the repertoire I am playing here from manuscript or early publication, and have worked to arrange it as closely as possible in the style of the old Gaelic harpers.

James plays a 2016 Historical Harp Society of Ireland Student Mullaghmast harp, copied from the surviving 18th Century original in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, and made by David Kortier. All arrangements by James Ruff, except Carolan’s Favorite Jig, arranged by, Siobhán Armstrong.

Many thanks to Siobhán Armstrong, Sean Boyd, Kenna Campbell, Sr. Fionn, David Jones, Mary Ann Kennedy, Paris Mancini, Marian McCorkle and Drew Minter for their invaluable help in preparing and making this recording! A special thanks to Vassar College, whose Faculty Grants from the Louise Boyd Dale Fund provided for my first research trip to Scotland as well as this recording. Thank you all!

Produced by: Sean Boyd, Drew Minter, James Ruff

Engineered & Mixed by: Sean Boyd

Recorded at: Artfarm, Accord, NY

Photography: Paris Mancini

Graphic Design: Marian McCorkle

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