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Triple Harp

Triple Harp

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The triple harp, often referred to as the Welsh triple harp (Welsh
Welsh language
Welsh is a member of the Brythonic branch of the Celtic languages spoken natively in Wales, by some along the Welsh border in England, and in Y Wladfa...

: Telyn deires), is a type of harp
The harp is a multi-stringed instrument which has the plane of its strings positioned perpendicularly to the soundboard. Organologically, it is in the general category of chordophones and has its own sub category . All harps have a neck, resonator and strings...

 employing three rows of strings instead of the more common single row. The Welsh triple harp today is found mainly among players of traditional Welsh folk music.
Music of Wales
Wales has a strong and distinctive link with music. The country is traditionally referred to as "the land of song". This is a modern stereotype based on 19th century conceptions of Nonconformist choral music and 20th century male voice choirs, Eisteddfodau and arena singing, such as sporting...


The triple harp first originated in Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

, under the form of two rows of strings and later three, as the baroque harp (Italian
Italian language
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...

: Arpa Doppia). It appeared in the British Isles early in the 17th century. In 1629, the French harpist Jean le Flelle was appointed ‘musician for the harp’ at the King's court. Flelle played the Italian triple harp with gut strings.

The triple harp was quickly adopted by the Welsh
Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea to its west. It has a population of three million, and a total area of 20,779 km²...

 harpers living in London during the 17th century. It was so popular that by the beginning of the 18th century the triple harp was generally known as the "Welsh harp". Charles Evans was the first mentioned Welsh triple harpist. He was appointed harper to the court in 1660, where his official title was ‘His Majesty's harper for the Italian harp’. As late as the 1680s, Talbot was describing the triple harp as the English harp, and the Welsh harp he descrives appears to be a large, diatonic gothic-style harp, with bray pins.

A description of the Welsh triple harp is given by the harpist John Parry (Bardd Alaw)
John Parry (Bardd Alaw)
John Parry , commonly known by his bardic name "Bardd Alaw", was a Welsh harpist and composer.-Biography:Parry was born in Denbigh, in northern Wales, the son of a stonemason...

 (1776–1851) in the preface to the second volume of his collection, The Welsh Harper (London 1839):

The compass of the Triple Harp, in general, is about five octaves, or thirty-seven strings in the principal row, which is on the side played by the right hand, called the bass row. The middle row, which produces the flats and sharps, consists of thirty-four strings; and the treble, or left hand row, numbers twenty-seven strings. The outside rows are tuned in unison, and always in the diatonic scale, that is, in the regular and natural scale of tones and semitones, as a peal of eight bells is tuned. When it is necessary to change the key, for instance, from C to G, all the Fs in the outside rows are made sharp by raising them half a tone. Again, to change from C to F, every B in the outside rows is made flat, by lowering it a semitone. When an accidental sharp or flat is required, the performer inserts a finger between two of the outer strings, and finds it in the middle row. Many experiments have been made, with a view of obviating the necessity of tuning the instrument every time a change in the key occurred. Brass rings were fixed near the comb, but those rattled and jarred; in short, every attempt failed until the invention of the Pedals. …

The skill of harp making in Wales had all but been lost for some 60 years until John Weston Thomas
John Weston Thomas
John Weston Thomas revived the tradition of Welsh harp making. After spells in the merchant navy, and teaching carpentry, he began making harps, originally with the aid of old instruments and illustrations, as there was no existing harp maker to teach him...

 (MBE), a talented wood and metal worker, revised the craft, making celtic, chromatic and triple harps until his death in 1992. A memorial prize, "Tlws Coffa John Weston Thomas" was subsequently instigated at the National Eisteddfod, to encourage competition in the traditional folk style. He passed on his skills to three apprentices: Allan Shiers, Brian Blackmore and Alun Thomas, his son. Alun still makes triple and celtic harps in his workshop just outside of Fishguard. Brian Blackmore also makes triple harps, whilst Allan Shiers went on to make concert harps and found Telynau Teifi Harps in Llandysul, Ceredigion.

Playing techniques

Among the most important and characteristic playing techniques for the Welsh triple harp is that of unisons or "Split doubling". The effect of unisons is obtained by playing the same note on both the outside rows using the right and left hands in rapid succession. Thus a progression of e.g., C-D-F-E, is achieved by playing CC-DD-FF-EE.

Modern players

After the early 20th century, triple harps were almost completely abandoned in Wales
Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea to its west. It has a population of three million, and a total area of 20,779 km²...

 in favour of the modern pedal harp
Pedal harp
The pedal harp is a large and technically modern harp, designed primarily for classical music and played either solo, as part of chamber ensembles, as soloist with or as a section or member in an orchestra...

. Preservation of the instrument and the playing style has been attributed to Nansi Richards
Nansi Richards
Nansi Richards Jones of Penybontfawr, Oswestry, was a Welsh harpist, sometimes known as the “Queen of the Harp”....

 (1888–1979), who learnt to play from Gypsy harpists in the Bala area at the turn of the century.

Subsequently, Nansi Richards was the harp teacher of the brothers Dafydd and Gwyndaf Roberts. The brothers went on to become founder members of Wales' most prominent folk group, Ar Log
Ar Log
Ar Log are a well-established folk band in Wales who have performed since the 1970s. They perform both instrumental music and songs in Welsh. Their name in Welsh means For Hire....

. While both brothers are proficient triple harpists, it became customary in the Ar Log line-up for Dafydd to play triple harp (and flute), with Gwyndaf playing the knee harp and clarsach (and bass guitar).

Today's leading exponents of the triple harp include Robin Huw Bowen
Robin Huw Bowen
Robin Huw Bowen is a player of the Welsh Triple Harp, known in Welsh as Telyn Deires , and is recognised internationally as the leading exponent of the instrument...

, originally a classical harpist who was influenced by the music of Ar Log to the extent that he switched to the triple harp. Llio Rhydderch is also a key link to previous generations of Welsh folk harpists. A triple harp group called "Rhes Ganol" ("Middle Row") was formed in 2000. Alongside Robin Huw Bowen, other members of Rhes Ganol incuded Rhiain Bebb, Huw Roberts, Wynn Thomas and his son Steffan. Other triple harpists include the experienced performer and teacher Elonwy Wright, and Carwyn Tywyn, a long-standing street busker. The triple harp is also played by a minority of classical harpists in Wales, including Angharad Evans, Elinor Bennett
Elinor Bennett
Elinor Bennett is a Welsh harpist.Bennett was born in Llanidloes, Wales. As a harpist, she is one of the foremost performers in the world. She has recorded twelve solo albums, and is one of the organisers of the Wales International Harp Festival. She also runs an annual 'Harp College'...

, Meinir Heulyn and Eleri Darkins. Some non-Welsh players perform on the instrument, freeing it from total connection with the Welsh repertoire, which actually consists of 'art music' variations on Welsh tunes. These players notably include Cheryl-Ann Fulton, Frances Kelly Mike Parker, Robin Ward and Fiona Katie Roberts, who has worked with the BBC on some special projects including different designs for the harp and the design and manufacture of a quad harp.

See also

  • The harp in Wales
    Role of the harp in Welsh history
    The harp is the national instrument of Wales, with an unbroken line of harpers reaching back to at least the 11th century. Little is known of the origins of these early instruments, although small details such as poems are recorded, decrying the use of the new-fangled gut strings, as opposed to the...

  • The culture of Wales
    Culture of Wales
    Wales has a distinctive culture including its own language, customs, holidays and music.Wales is primarily represented by the symbol of the red Welsh Dragon, but other national emblems include the leek and daffodil. The Welsh words for leeks and daffodils Wales has a distinctive culture including...