The national instrument of Wales

The harp is regarded as the national instrument of Wales. The harp has been used through the ages as an accompaniment to folk-singing and dancing and as a solo instrument.
Some manuscript sources provide information about the harp and its music around the medieval period in Wales. By the end of the 18th century, the triple harp – so called because it had three rows of strings – was widely known as the Welsh harp because of its popularity in Wales. Although generally thought to have been invented in Wales it was, in fact, a baroque instrument devised in Italy about 100 years earlier.

The harp is the only traditional instrument in Wales with an unbroken history up to the present day. It is also the instrument most often cited in Welsh literature through the ages.

The earlier harp was a small instrument – ‘telyn benglin’ (penglin = lap). It was also referred to as the ‘telyn farddol’ or bardic harp – an instrument similar to others throughout Europe. An example of this type of harp can be seen in a wood carving from the early 15th century, on the bed frame of the nobleman Sir Rhys ap Thomas of Dinefwr. The carving shows a harp player as part of a military campaign.

Twisted horse-hair was used to make the harp strings, and there are many references to the ‘telyn rawn’ (rhawn = horse-hair).  In all likelihood, metal strings were also used, as in Ireland. It is thought that the Welsh harp was rather different from the Irish equivalent: with a straighter pillar and lighter in construction. On some harps, small L-shaped wooden pegs held the strings to the soundboard, touching the strings and causing them to ‘buzz’. These pegs were called gwarchïod. Harps in Wales were usually made from wood (for the framework and pegs), animal skin (for wrapping the soundboard), bone (for making the tuning pegs), and horse-hair for the strings. According to description in poetry, a harp would typically have around 30 strings. The Welsh harp was always played on the left shoulder.

By the 14th century, the ‘telyn rawn’ or horse-hair-strung harp was losing ground to the ‘telyn ledr’ or leather-harp – a change bemoaned by the poets, as seen in a cywydd by Dafydd ap Gwilym.

We don’t really know what sort of music the early harpists would have played. The manuscript of Robert ap Huw (c.1580-1665) is the only clue

Elegant, ear-pricking and mesmerising, the harp is one of Wales’ national instruments. You will see performances from world class harpists, witness competitions open to players from around the world or take part in a two-day hands-on harpist course for  all ages and abilities. It is rounded off by a concert with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, Austrian harpist Monika Stadler, choristers and a harp ensemble.A rebirth in the making of celtic and triple harps came about in the mid-1960s by J.W. (John) Thomas of Gyaelod y Garth near Taffs Well. John Thomas died in 1992, but had passed on his skills to several apprentices. One of these apprentices, Allan Shiers founded Telynau Teifi Harps in 2004 in Liandysul, where Celtic and folk harps are still made.

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