Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 1

My interests in the autoharp and Irish traditional music (ITM) should be apparent from the topics of the most recent dozen or so posts on this blog. I’ve approached them separately as a musicologist specializing in the history of musical instruments. This post marks a shift toward their intersection in performance from the perspective of a musician whose journey started on the autoharp seventy years ago and found his way more deeply into Celtic music a decade later via the Great Highland bagpipes. I’ve since become comfortably conversant with the Irish idiom on the tin whistle and would like to be able to say the same about melodic performance on the autoharp.

Irish dance tunes and airs figure prominently in its repertoire, not least in the US (where some of those tunes also have their roots), but the autoharp does not have an established position among the instruments normally associated with ITM in its home country. The list of those that are has, however, been less static than might be imagined. Some current fixtures became so relatively recently and others have relinquished their positions.

One particularly relevant example of an erstwhile participant is the autoharp’s cousin, the hammered dulcimer. Its heyday extended through the 1960s and its most prominent exponent at that time, John Rea, was still recording in the late seventies. He appears in an interview from an unknown date and plays O’Dwyer’s Hornpipe here.

At about same time, the tenor banjo and guitar that had previously been in the periphery began to be encountered with increasing frequency in such things as trad sessions at pubs. The Greek bouzouki, a total outsider, also found its way into the thick of things. Andy Irvine discusses its naturalization in this video. He names Johnny Moynihan as the primary agent, who summarizes his own perception of the upshot here.

The first documented appearance of the autoharp in a traditional Irish context that I’ve located so far was at the National Festival of Traditional Irish Music and Song (Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann) in Kilrush, County Clare, in 1967. Several musicians with such instruments are seen gathering for the event here. One of them participates in a performance of The Mountains Of Pomeroy heard in the background of that scene and then brought into view (with a steadier clip here).

This film — Fléa Ceoil — received awards at several prestigious international film festivals. The concentrated scene with autoharps suggests that its director, Louis Marcus, (Oscar nominated for two subsequent productions) took particular notice of them. Photographs of him hint at a resemblance with the featured autoharper, perhaps sibling, which might explain the focus on that instrument. (Robert Monks was the cinematographer so it is not inconceivable that the director himself is seen playing it.)

It is probably safe to assume that the film introduced an appreciable portion of its audience to ITM. If so, the autoharp would have been a clear part of that experience regardless of the performer’s identity or those of the others seen with the instrument. The one shown in actual performance is the well-known 12-bar Rosen model (so called for the large rose decal) made in East Germany and readily available in most European countries.

The tune is played in D major as heard on the poorly synchronized soundtrack and seen on the mandolin fretboard. The corresponding autoharp chord bars are not in the factory positions. Their labels have also been removed, corroborating a reconfiguration. The cloth cover over the hitch pins is another non-standard detail.

The instrument is held against the player’s chest, cradled in the left arm. This position had become customary in the US. However, the strings are plucked between the bar housing and the lower string support, which was the initial practice. That plucking point remains characteristic of autoharp playing in some other European countries (exemplified here). The hybrid position seen in the film therefore suggests that the player was not influenced solely by US practice.

In any case, the thought that apparently went into setting up this autoharp, and the player’s intent facial expression (this post’s banner image), indicate that it is being taken quite seriously. If the playing technique was informed by observing other players, the question about where they were located becomes all the more interesting.

The film shows nothing of how the other autoharpers at the fleadh held or used them, nor how far they had traveled (possibly excepting the one wearing a jacket with a hand-embroidered “Birmingham GB”). However, the consistent appearance of the Rosen model hints at all being European, if not Irish. Visitors from the US, would be expected to have Oscar Schmidt models and, if shown using them, plucked the strings between the bar housing and the tuning pins.

It is reasonable to assume that the depicted performer had seen or heard recordings of the instrument used melodically. Regardless of whether he was also able to play melody, the film does not show him doing so in the group setting. Nonetheless, he is clearly a non-casual participant and unlikely to have been making a debut appearance as an accompanist.

In 1972, the Irish fiddler Kevin Burke recorded the album Sweeney’s Dream in the US. At the suggestion of the producer, it was backed by a local group of what the liner notes call “old-timey musicians.” The richly ornamented performance of a set beginning with Tuttle’s Reel is accompanied by Henry Saposnik on the autoharp in the basic manner filmed at the fleadh, without in any way harnessing that instrument’s melodic potential (with which he would doubtless have been familiar).

The autoharp fills the same role on several tracks of the album An Buachaill Dreoite, recorded in Drogheda, Co. Clare, in 1992 by the Irish fiddler Joe Ryan. The reel Trip to Durrow provides another good illustration of the intricacy of idiomatic Irish ornamentation. The suitability of the autoharp as a backing instrument, yet again serving that function only, is demonstrated by Ryan’s compatriot Jim MacArdle.

In the following year, the American autoharper Karen Mueller released the album Clarity. This also juxtaposes Irish and American tradition but puts the autoharp center stage and showcases its melodic facility. It is the first recording I know of that brings the instrument together with the uilleann pipes. This is best heard in the set Blarney Pilgrim — Humours of Ennsitymon, which Karen also plays solo in a live concert, online here.

Kevin considers the question, “How could an American fiddler sound more like an Irish fiddler?” in a tutorial video. The aspects of the Irish musical idiom he examines would be largely relevant to a transformed wording of the underlying question as, “How could an autoharper who plays Irish tunes American style sound more like an Irish musician?”

One of the key differentiating factors is the way tunes are ornamented in the respective traditions. Melodic embellishment is common to both but elaborate decorative grace noting is a far more prominent attribute of Irish performance. Conversely, American-style autoharp playing includes an array of techniques intended to “fill” the sound beyond the melody in a manner that a listener attuned to Irish-style melodic rendition might regard as offsetting its clarity.

This can be exacerbated by the extensive chordal support that is ubiquitous in autoharp playing but not similarly characteristic of instrumental performance in ITM. There the stand-alone melody is the musical focus. Its regular harmonic accompaniment, as well as counter-melodic embroidering, are surprisingly recent additions.

Both can be forgone entirely in a performance without detrimental consequence. Instruments capable of both melodic playing or backing in a group setting normally keep to one or the other. They may alternate between them from set to set, or even tune to tune, but rarely engage in self accompaniment. Even in a solo context, the chordal underpinning that instruments such as the uilleann pipes and the button accordion can add to a melody is used more austerely than is customary with the autoharp.

One of the specifically Irish ornaments Kevin mentions — the “roll” — is perhaps the most iconic. It is an intricate device that will neither be familiar nor intuitive to an instrumentalist who hasn’t made an explicit effort at understanding and mastering it. It’s related to the “turn” in Western classical music but serves a significantly different purpose.

The execution of a roll varies depending on the preference of the performer and the technical resources of the instrument in hand. The resulting variation is extensive but there is still a characteristic difference between the way a roll is commonly executed on a fiddle and, say, a tin whistle. The ornament is not regularly employed on fretted instruments or the button accordion even if its viability can be demonstrated on both and some players do use it fluidly. The adaptability of the roll to the autoharp is discussed in Part 2 of this post.

Subscribe to this discussion
Notify me by email about
This will be displayed with your comment
This will not be displayed with your comment
Clicking the name displayed with your comment will redirect to this address

Inline Feedback
View all comments