something to harp on

An interview by Tom Knapp,
March 1995

When it comes to the harp, Minnesota's Ann Heymann can out-Irish the Irish.

It's ironic, she admits, that the instrument so closely identified with Ireland -- it's pictured on Irish coins and Guinness bottles -- has been extinct in that country for centuries. "The harp that I play died out 200 years ago," she said. "Today they play a 'neo-Irish' harp that has little to do with the harp that became famous in Ireland."

Heymann, twice harp champion in Ireland and author of the harper's bible, Secrets of the Gaelic Harp, has been instrumental in resurrecting the "true" Irish harp. These days it's played professionally by only a handful of musicians. "Although we have great appreciation for all kinds of music around the world, harp music has been largely ignored," she complained. "When I started, there were no tapes, no teachers, no books on it, nothing. I just had to pluck the strings."

She and her musician partner/husband Charlie Heymann tour the country as Clairseach (pronounced "klarshuk"), the Irish word for harp. He plays a variety of instruments, including the cittern, button accordion, concertina and bodhran (Irish drum). "The instrument is the one with the message," she said during a recent telephone interview. "The instrument is the composer and the arranger. I am the tool, and I enable the instrument to speak."

Heymann has no Irish ancestry, but that doesn't limit her passion for Ireland's traditional music. "Here was music where all the necessary elements were in the melody," she said. "Harmony and rhythm are suggested in the melody ... rather than having the music subservient to a drum or bass pattern."

The harp was not a folk instrument, she noted. Harping was a sacred art form in Gaelic society, with its own mystique and symbolism. "In the folklore of the instrument, the harp had music for crying, music for laughing and music for sleeping," Heymann said. "The first was to play for people who were injured or in pain, women in labor or men injured on the battlefield. The second was music of vigor, music of life, dance music, war music. The music for sleeping was actually music for death."

The traditional harp (also called the wire-strung or Gaelic harp) is as different from the neo-Irish harp "as the piano is from the organ or as the electric guitar is from the acoustic guitar," she said. "They really have different styles, different sounds and different repertoires."

The Gaelic harp has brass wire strings and is played with the fingernails, she explained. Neo-Irish harps have gut or nylon strings and are played with the fingerpads. "Wire strings ring out for a long time," she said. "It's a bright metallic sound, said to sound like bells. And since I'm playing with my nails, I don't need the great hand motions. I'm closer to the strings."

Modern harpists play with the right hand high on the strings and the left hand low. The ancient harpers (as they were called then) and Heymann play with the left high and the right low. "In some ways it's harder," she said. "You don't have the chromatic capabilities. You use your hands in a different way. But once you learn to deal with those aspects of it, you don't need to play as many filler notes. You don't need to be playing those huge arpeggio chords all the time because the sound is already there. Because you are playing with your fingernails, you can play very rapid ornamentation."

The age of the harper ended with the death of the Celtic clan society. "It really started to die out when the old Gaelic chieftains lost their power and their land," Heymann said. "They no longer could support the system of poets and harpers that had been cultivated. It was highly developed and required great training. ... Harpers enjoyed a position in Gaelic society that was just under that of the doctors and priests."

Very little knowledge remains of the ancient style of harping. After the clan society fell, harpers who once had honored places in Irish and Scottish society became itinerant musicians traveling through Europe.

The rise of Romanticism in music, a style full of accidentals impossible to play on the wire-strung harp, brought the Italian harp into prominence. Soon, gut strings and pedals were in vogue and the old style of harping was lost. "I don't consider the limitations to be limitations," Heymann said. "I consider them qualities. These strong characteristics of the instrument help define the sound, the art, the music, much the same as black and white photography. If someone appreciates black and white photography, they don't see it as a detriment."

But the biggest problem facing modern harpers is learning how to play. "It's a very difficult, hard road because there are no teachers. That's something I hope to rectify," Heymann said. "Imagine if there were only four fiddlers in the world. Someone saw an instrument that looked like a fiddle, but no one knew how to use a bow and they were just teaching themselves. It would not sound like the instrument we have today."

Much of Heymann's ability was earned through research into the manuscripts of Edward Bunting, a Belfast organist who in 1792 began collecting the oral tradition of harp music. Even then, however, few true harpers were left.

She, for one, refuses to let it die. "Ireland deserves to have a wire-strung harp tradition," she said. "There is room for both harps."

[ by Tom Knapp ]