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 bagpipe. I’ve since become comfortably conversant with the Irish idiom on the tin whistle and would like to be able to say the same with regard to 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). However, the instrument does not have an established position among those normally associated with ITM in its home country. Some instruments that are now fixtures in that context became so more recently than might be imagined. Tenor banjos and guitars are regularly encountered in such things as trad sessions at pubs but both had been more or less in the periphery until the 1960s.

At about the same time, the Greek bouzouki found its way into the thick of things. Just as the broad popularity of the tenor banjo was triggered by lowering its tuning by a fourth, the Irish bouzouki can be seen as a lower-voiced cousin of the mandolin. 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.

It is intriguing to speculate about whether some comparable sequence of events might set the autoharp along a similar path. Its own close relative, the hammered dulcimer, had a niche in the native performance of ITM, leaving footsteps to be followed. The elder instrument’s 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.

The first documented appearance of the autoharp in a traditional Irish context was also in the sixties. It was filmed at a fleadh (traditional music festival) in a performance of The Mountains Of Pomeroy. A brief clip is included in a documentary produced by the Irish-language television channel TG4, seen here. The sequence showing the autoharp is split into two snippets spanning from 13’02” to 13’57”, cutting away from the video but with audio throughout. (The viewing app has independent language settings for the user interface and subtitles.)

Additional segments of this footage are included in another TG4 documentary, with the autoharp appearing at 6’36”. This production implies that the fleadh was in Armagh, which is not far from the epicenter of the hammered dulcimer in Co. Antrim. The audio and video are sometimes significantly out of sync and likely to have been recorded separately, with varying degrees of accuracy in their subsequent alignment. However, the mandolin player’s fingers move with the melody of The Mountains Of Pomeroy with minimal delay in the second of the snippets. To my eyes and ears, the same goes for the autoharp accompaniment, about which the following can also be noted.

The instrument is the well-known 12-bar Rosen model (so-called for the large rose decal) made in East Germany. The tune is played in D major as heard on the soundtrack and seen on the mandolin fretboard. The corresponding chord bars seen on the autoharp are not in their standard factory positions. The labels have also been removed from them, corroborating a reconfiguration. The tuning guide underneath the strings marks those for B with the German designation “H” rather than with the split “H/B” seen on models intended for the export market. Rosen autoharps were readily available in most European countries, possibly suggesting that this exemplar was initially intended for a German-speaking destination (or that the factory had simply run out of strips with the double marking). The cloth cover over the hitch pins is another non-standard detail.

The thought that apparently went into setting up this autoharp and the player’s intent facial expression (this post’s banner image) suggest that it is being taken quite seriously. It is held upright but the strings are picked between the bar housing and the lower string support. This indicates additional forethought in this individual playing technique, presumably informed by observing other players.

It is reasonable to expect that the 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. It may be less safe to posit that there were other Irish musicians who approached the autoharp similarly but the one at the fleadh was clearly being used by a non-casual participant. Had it been in the hands of, say, a touring visitor from the US, an Oscar Schmidt model would be expected.

In 1972, the Irish fiddler Kevin Burke recorded the album Sweeney’s Dream in the US 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 Hank Sapoznik 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 certainly 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 to its accompaniment is demonstrated by Ryan’s compatriot Jim MacArdle, who additionally specializes in American old-timey music.

Kevin Burke 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 that it examines would largely be relevant to a transformed wording of the underlying question as, “How could an autoharper who plays fiddle 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. One such device mentioned in the preceding video — the “roll” — is perhaps the most characteristic. It is an intricate extended ornament that will neither be familiar nor intuitive to an instrumentalist who hasn’t made an explicit effort at understanding and mastering it.

The practical consideration of how these ornaments might be played on an autoharp will be illustrated here with first phrase of the reel The Raveled Hank of Yarn. This is how it would typically be notated in a published compilation of Irish tunes.

Significant characteristic detail is left to be added by the performer, such as the rhythmic swing of the eighth notes and appropriate ornamentation. One of the applications of the latter is to separate notes repeated at the same pitch. This is frequently done with rolls, which are executed differently depending on the instrument and the individual preference of its player.

One form commonly encountered on wind instruments consists of a grace note usually called a “cut” played above the principal note, and a lower “tap” (aka tip, strike, or pat) played before the following one. Here is a segment of the preceding phrase ornamented in this manner.

The four-note sequence starting with the cut is either referred to simply as a roll or as a short roll. Where preceded by a third eighth note of the same pitch as the two principal notes, it is a long roll. The rhythmic emphasis imparted to either form depends on whether the pattern starts on or off the beat. The cut and tap are regarded as articulation rather than ornamentation and played so rapidly that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to hear their exact pitches.

This leaves players free to set the interval between a cut or tap and a principal note to what they as they see fit according to individual sense of what best suits the instrument in hand, which may itself impose technical constraints on the musical decision. Shannon Heaton demonstrates rolls on a flute in this video. As with all monophonic instruments, starting a note ends the one before it. Instruments that permit multiple notes to sound simultaneously, exemplified in the current ITM lineup by the harp, can require separate damping action to delineate a crisp roll with a cut and tap.

Problems with unwanted persistent sound can also be reduced by using what is called a “triplet” or “treble” instead of a roll. They are usually notated as classical triplets but are played as represented here.

The autoharp is among the instruments where executing a distinct roll with a cut and tap poses technical challenges. One obvious alternative would be the preferential use of triplets as, for example, on the tenor banjo and button accordion. The viability of a roll can be demonstrated on both and a few players do use them. Notwithstanding, most performance on these instruments sticks with triplets and trebles.

The question of whether the autoharp is best treated as belonging to the latter category or whether its repertoire of useful ornaments can successfully include both triplets and rolls (as on the harp or fiddle) will be considered further in Part 2.

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