Paul Dooley,
Music from the Robert
ap Huw Manuscript, Vol. I

(independent, 2004)

The first thing that listeners should know about this excellent CD is that it does not sound like most listeners' idea of Celtic music, even that of solo Celtic harp. One difference is that Paul Dooley plays a metal-strung harp that he built himself, smaller than a classical harp and lacking pedals.

A larger difference is that this is the oldest known written harp music. It comes from a manuscript that was copied by harper Robert ap Huw in 1613. He used a tablature that, according to Dooley, has only been understood in the last few decades. Dooley admits on the CD sleeve that he had to guess about the "finer points of expression," although these points must have varied among the harpers who originally played the music.

Welsh harp fell into disfavor, being thought by the English to encourage rebellion, so most early harp music is lost. What Dooley plays here is unusual to our ears. It sounds as much classical as Celtic, but with a simpler structure. Although much of the music of this time accompanied bardic poetry, the six pieces on this CD are instrumental. They range in length from a bit 2 to 21 minutes.

There are no glissandos here, which would not work well on a metal harp. The metal strings make the notes "ring" more, however, just as a folk guitar has more resonance than a gut-stringed classical one.

The pieces generally consist of repeated patterns played with one hand while the other hand plays a harmony accompaniment of a few notes. Although the structures are simple, the effect is quite beautiful. Some tunes are faster than others, but they are all stately and have the spirit of a slower-paced era. Few of the tunes will be recognizable, except to aficionados of Celtic harpists like Alan Stivell. Dooley writes in the very comprehensive CD booklet that a recording of Stivell introduced him to the Huw music.

The centerpiece track, "Caniad Llywelyn Delynior," is the longest. Dooley speculates that this piece may have been written as "suauntrai," soothing music played before sleep. Dooley works around a theme that he keeps returning to and repeating, for a compelling effect, like Celtic knotwork, which weaves back into itself.

The 10-minute "Caniad Marwnad Ifan ab y Gof" sounds more like a guitar work, using lower range strings and less counterpoint. This delicate, pensive piece is a lament for a harper and composer that moves from sadness to a quiet, positive conclusion.

Much more than just a historical document, this CD should be enjoyed by all lovers of Celtic music.

- Rambles
written by Dave Howell
published 28 May 2005

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