Barmouth, Cors y Gedol Arms, 1798
“…You are aware,…that the telyn, or Welsh harp, is very superior to the one common in England having three sets of strings, the middle set comprising of flats and sharps”.
(Rev. Richard Warner –‘A Second Walk through Wales in August and September 1798’)
“To perform on the Welsh harp is by no means easy, it has three rows of strings, the innermost are semitones which must be dexterously struck without sounding the outer cords. The French invention of the pedal has removed this difficulty but the Welsh harp is the only one used amid these mountains.
(Thomas Stuart Trail –‘Notes taken a Tour of Wales in 1807’)
“At the hotel I was much pleased with a blind harper playing his sweet Welsh airs. To me these unpolished instruments are far more delightful than the harp under all the refinements of modern fashion”.
(Anne Plumptre – ‘Narrative of a Residence in Ireland during the summer of 1814 and that of 1815’)
‘The harp now in common use, and which is to be met with at almost all the principal inns in North Wales, is the triple harp…”
(W.R. Bingley –‘Excursions in the year 1838’)
As the name suggests (and some of the historical quotes above) this harp has three rows of strings – very different from the smaller so called ‘Celtic’ folk harp and the large orchestral harp, both of which only have a single row of strings. The two outer rows of the triple harp are tuned to the diatonic scale and the inner row to the accidentals, making the instrument completely chromatic. It has no pedals or mechanism whatsoever. Sound effects peculiar to the instrument can be produced by playing the two outer rows in swift succession, a sound which is unobtainable on any harp with a just a single row of strings.
“Yet my old country Triple harp with all its imperfections, possesses one advantage, and that is the unique UNISONS. Who has ever heard some of the old Welsh airs with variations, and not been delighted with the effect of the unisons?”
(John Parry ‘Bardd Alaw’ – Welsh Harper, Volume 1, 1848)
The concept of building a harp with three rows of strings came from the Italians so as to cope with the new type of music which was developing during the 16th century. Thus the first triple harp was played in Italy in the early 1600’s. This harp was a low headed instrument with about seventy five strings and it eventually found its way to the courts of France and England.
In London, at that time, there were harpers and a few harp makers from Wales who adopted the harp with three rows of strings and adapted it for the Welsh style of harp playing. These harps were designed to rest on the left shoulder which was the Welsh custom – on the Continent the harp was played on the right shoulder, which of course, is the ‘classical’ way and so it continues to the present day. The number of strings was increased to around a hundred and the height was also increased.
In time the triple harp disappeared from the Continental stage, but here in Wales its use continued and became part of our tradition. By the middle of the 18th century it was known as the ‘Welsh Harp’. It was popular with the Welsh gentry as well as the peasants and it’s characteristics sound was heard in mansions, humble cottages, taverns and inns, at fairs, dances, eisteddfodau, festivals, weddings and other celebrations. However the instrument was much despised by the straight laced Methodists of the period!
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many triple harps were built in Wales. Two of the most famous harp makers were John Richards (1711-1789) of Llanrwst in North Wales and Bassett Jones (1809-1869) of Cardiff.
By the close of the Victorian era, to all intents and purposes, the pedal harp (or the ‘English harp’ as it was called by some in those days) had ousted the triple harp from its position as the harp of the nation. By 1900 very few harpers could play the instrument and fewer still were able to build them.
Many in Wales looked upon the old Welsh triple harp as a relic of the past. It was time to adopt the more refined and fashionable pedal harp. Establishments such as the National Eisteddfod of Wales played a significant part in facilitating this belief.
“With regard to Welsh national music, I refer more particularly to playing the Welsh three stringed or triple harp, and to ‘penillion singing’. Alas the ‘telyn’ of Cambria, the harp with three rows of strings is becoming rarer and rarer, and I much fear if the eisteddfod does not offer more prizes for playing on the Welsh harp, it will soon be come a relic of the past”.
(An exract from Lord Mostyn’s speech at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Caernarfon 1894)
One important figure during the 19th century who was a devout supporter of the traditional triple harp of Wales was Augusta Hall, ‘Lady Llanofer’(1802-1896). During the 20 th century the famous harpist Nansi Richards, ‘Telynores Maldwyn (1888-1979) was chiefly responsible for the continuation of the triple harp’s unbroken tradition as a folk instrument in Wales by passing on to a number of her pupils the old art of playing this wonderful harp.