For some years now, in my teaching and performance of historical Gaelic harp music, I have been holding up “Burns March” as the only extant notated ceòl mór from the Gaelic harp traditons of Scotland and Ireland.
I would like to canvass some opinions from piping and ceòl mór specialists here, on how far my claim can stand up, however.
Certainly, I have not come across any other notations that I think qualify as “genuine harp ceòl mór”. Some people point to the Angus Fraser manuscripts, but these are not harp notations, they are fiddle or piano settings, and they seem to be largely Angus’s own compositions. Some people point to tunes in Dow and other fiddle sources but of course these are fiddle settings, whether or not the melodies originated as harp tunes. And in fact that goes for pretty much anything that is suggested as possible harp pibroch – it is not harp music in its extant notated forms, and the connection with the harp tradition is just speculation; if it did originate as harp music, there is the strong probability that it has changed in the course of transmission from harp to fiddle or keyboard.
Burns March by contrast is definitively linked in to the old harp traditions. This is the primary source, written down by music collector Edward Bunting at speed in the field, as a live transcription of the playing of North-West Ulster harper Denis O’Hampsey in the 1790s:
Special Collections, Queens University Belfast, MS4/29 f14v-15r
Bunting has written it out twice, on the left page very sketchily, and then again on the right page more clearly. You can see the structure of the tune; the 2-bar “urlar”, followed by a series of figured variations, consisting of a mostly-stable series of head-notes, and with different “gestures” applied after each head note. On the right page, Bunting writes “DC” after each variation to indicate a repeat of the urlar.
Here’s a rather scrappy old video demonstration of this setting played on a copy of O’Hampsey’s harp:
A second, independent source for the tune is these two manuscript pages, notated again by Bunting from the South-east Ulster harper Patrick Quin in c.1800. Here Bunting attempts to catch something of Quin’s bass during the urlar, and he also makes a big mistake in his initial transcription of the way the hands interlock in the variation, and has to scribble it out. He notates two variations, the second seperately a couple of pages later in the notebook.
Special Collections, Queens University Belfast, MS4/33(1) f32r & f31r
Here’s a video demonstration of this setting of Burns March, played on a copy of Quin’s harp:
The harpers told Bunting that Burns March was one of the first four tunes traditionally taught to young harpers, and it seems to me that it was not part of the normal performing repertory of the harpers in the 18th century; it is very different in style and structure from all of the other music collected by Bunting, and I speculate that it may have been preserved by the harpers purely as one of the standard didactic teaching tunes.
One other thing of interest is the associated song, which reminds me very much of the songs attached to pibroch tunes. This song was collected by Bunting from Denis O’Hampsey in the 1790s; Bunting had no Irish so the song, originally in Irish, appears to have been translated by O’Hampsey into a metrical English translation.
Special Collections, Queens University Belfast, MS4/29 f23r
I am not seeing the song words as a particularly good fit for the harp instrumental set notated from O’Hampsey by Bunting, but the song does go well with the fiddle settings of Burns March. I think it is of more value in shining a little light on the way that a lyrical song is paired with a formalised geometric instrumental variation set to help preserve and transmit it within an oral tradition.
Bunting’s normal working method was to use these “live” field notations of what his harper informants actually played, as a basis for his own piano arrangements. I think the pencil X through the second notation of O’Hampsey’s performance is Bunting’s way of indicating to himself that he had transferred the tune into a piano notebook, and therefore that this field draft was now “superfluous” for his purposes. It seems that in the late 18th and early 19th century there was no market for, and perhaps even no concept of, presenting an “authentic” diplomatic transcription of the living tradition. Instead, the music had to be cast in contemporary commercial style suitable for bourgeois performance on the piano (just as we see in the published books of pibroch by Donald MacDonald and Angus MacKay). A lot of the criticisms of Bunting’s work, and a lot of commentary on the nature of the old Gaelic harp music, have in the past been based on reading only his printed notations. Here is the 1809 published piano arrangement of Burns March, combining variations from O’Hampsey and Quin, and adding piano harmonies:
Edward Bunting, A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland. Clementi, London, 1809
I think you can see that study of the field manuscripts is very necessary to get to the bottom of what the harpers were actually playing!
I am searching for versions of this tune in other sources. My current list of variant versions is at http://www.earlygaelicharp.info/tunes/burnsmarch including fiddle, pipe and vocal settings. Some of the these have sections that can be identified with the harpers’ urlar and variations, or with the chorus and verse of the song, but none of these other settings looks like ceòl mór at all. Only the harp settings from O’Hampsey and Quin make me think of pibroch, and make me wonder whether this really is a living fossil, carrying the almost entirely lost Gaelic harp ceòl mór traditions down late enough to be notated.
So, over to you. What do you think? Is this ceòl mór? I would welcome your input here into how these versions of this tune fit into the wider picture, and whether or not I am right to claim this as the only extant harp ceòl mor.
Thanks to Special Collections, Queens University Belfast, for permission to reproduce the manuscript pages.