In the early 1800’s, it was the fashion for ladies in Anglo-Irish society to sing and play the harp for entertainment in the drawing-rooms of Dublin, London and the great country houses. John Egan was Ireland’s leading harp maker from 1804 to 1839, and he supplied ornate gilt harps to aristocratic ladies from his workshop on Dawson Street in Dublin. Today, most of these rare harps survive in museums and historic houses. For this first ever CD recorded on John Egan harps, I play his Portable Irish Harp, a model introduced in 1819. The pieces, from nineteenth century music collections, include Irish tunes for piano-forte and art music arranged specifically for the Portable Irish Harp. The recording re-creates the sounds of a Regency music room, with period arrangements played on harps from the time. Egan harps are admired primarily for their beauty and historical significance. It is hoped that the clear bright tones of these two Portable Irish Harps will further confirm John Egan’s skill as an accomplished harp maker.
EGAN’S PORTABLE IRISH HARP
Egan began his career producing the French style pedal harp, the common form of harp played at the turn of the nineteenth century in Dublin, London and on the continent. These large, gut strung harps had pedals linked to small discs on the neck, which fretted the strings for accidentals and key changes in the music. In Ireland, from ancient times, a quite different type of harp was played. The Irish harp or cláirseach was strung with wire strings in fixed tunings. Before 1800, travelling harpers played ancient Irish tunes for patrons in the great houses. By the late 1700’s, musical tastes were changing, with growing interest in European art music. As patronage waned, only a few players of the wire strung harp remained.
John Egan joined a movement to revive the ancient Irish harp tradition, and he made wire strung harps for students in sponsored schools of the Dublin Harp Society (1809) and the Belfast Harp Society (1819-1839). Egan, an inventor, created several models of harps, in different sizes, with a variety of mechanisms. He eventually designed a ‘new’ Irish harp, merging elements of the ancient Irish harp shape with pedal harp components. The result was a small harp, about three feet tall, with a bowed pillar and high ‘head’, but strung in gut, like pedal harps. The harps had either ring stops, like levers, on the neck, or ivory ditals on the pillar connected to discs on the neck, for changing keys.
In 1819, Egan announced in The Freeman’s Journal, to ‘the Nobility and the Musical World’ the ‘New Invented Portable Irish Harp’, an instrument that could play in multiple keys and possessed ‘great brilliancy’ and ‘sweetness of Tone’. Available in black, blue, green, or natural, the harps were embellished with sprays of golden shamrocks and patterns of swirling acanthus. The ‘portable’ harp was attractive to titled ladies who frequently travelled abroad to France and Italy. In 1821, George IV (1820-1830) granted Egan the royal warrant as ‘Harp Maker to the King’, and the model became the Royal Portable Irish Harp. The literary figures Thomas Moore and Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) both played the Egan Irish harp, as well as members of the royal family. Egan’s Portable Irish Harp is of lasting importance to Ireland’s harp tradition, for his small Irish harp was copied by succeeding generations of harp makers and is the model for today’s Celtic harp.
Edward Bunting’s collection of traditional Irish tunes for piano-forte was published in three volumes: A General Collection of Ancient Irish Music, 1796, 1809 and 1840. Bunting acquired many of the tunes from harp players performing (on cláirseach) at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792, continuing this important work of notating and preserving Irish music for several years. Most of the tunes from Bunting are described as ancient in origin, with ‘Author and date unknown’, although I also include pieces attributed to the seventeenth century composers Turlough O’Carolan, Thomas Conolan (Connellan) and Cornelius Lyons. Bunting was criticized for adding his own piano accompaniments to the harp melodies, but for this recording, many of his arrangements are playable on Egan’s Irish harp of the time. The stylistic features of trills and Alberti bass suit the harp’s timbre. An 1800’s harpist, just as today, would have played from piano books, adding arpeggiated harp chords. For the small range of the Portable Irish Harp, I occasionally transpose bass notes up an octave, and I add extra verses with variations to expand the pieces.
Charles Egan, John Egan’s son, was a harpist-composer and Professor of Harp to Princess Augusta (a sister of George IV). Egan’s harp books offer a mixture of Irish melodies and light European classics, and I include pieces from three of his published books. The Royal Harp Director, c.1827, presents Irish airs as well as the continental “Spanish Air” and “Waltz” from Weber’s new opera, Der Freischutz (1821). “Irish Air” is known as the melody for Thomas Moore’s popular song, “ ‘Tis the Last Rose of Summer” from Moore’s Irish Melodies (1808-1834). Egan’s own compositions, “Air” and “Love They Say Is Like a Flower”, are wonderfully sentimental and typical of the time, in the same vein as the novels of Jane Austen.
Two of Charles Egan’s harp books promote his father’s new invention: A New Series of Instructions Arranged Expressly for the Royal Portable Irish Harp, c.1822 and A Selection of Ancient Irish Melodies Arranged for J. Egans Newly Invented Royal Portable Irish Harp, c.1822. From the Instructions for the Royal Portable Harp, I play “Ancient Irish Melody”(“Fair Gentle Eily”) and a popular Italian song, “Sul Margine d’un Rio”. For the track, “The Young Man’s Dream”, I medley Egan’s harp solo with Bunting’s arrangement from his 1796 volume. In “Garry Owen”, Egan’s arrangement uses the bell-like harp technique of harmonics, and I add additional verses.
Robert Bruce Armstrong published definitive works on the history and music of the Irish and Scottish harps with Musical Instruments: The Irish and The Highland Harps, 1904. In his English and Irish Instruments, 1908, Armstrong includes a brief chapter on “Egan’s Portable Harp” with pieces to play on the instrument. Although the book is from the early twentieth century, the traditional Irish tunes arranged by R. Schroeder are in a nineteenth century style. “My Lodging” is better known as the tune for Moore’s “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms”, and “Ye Banks and Braes” is a Scottish song by Robert Burns.
The harps played are almost two hundred years old, so for low stress to the soundboards, they are lightly strung and tuned to a lower pitch (A=415). Both harps are tuned in E-flat major and have ring stops, and I play pieces in several different keys. The Royal Portable Harp, No. 1938, with 33 strings, is splendidly decorated with the royal coat of arms painted at the bottom of the soundboard. This harp has the gilt decoration of shamrocks (Ireland), roses (England) and thistles (Scotland), symbolizing the political union between England and Ireland, following the Act of Union of 1801. The other harp played is an earlier, slightly smaller Portable Irish Harp with 29 strings, and its decorative features include a sculpted gilt piece added to the column front and embossed shamrocks (molded plaster and gilded) on the head.
NANCY HURRELL is a harpist, arranger and harp historian, presenting concerts, workshops and lectures across the US, Canada and Great Britain. As a harp consultant at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she presents gallery talks and records soundfiles on harps in the collection. Nancy has lectured on Egan at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin (2008) and at the ‘First International Conference on Irish Music’ at the University of Durham in England (2010), and she was guest curator for the exhibition, “Dear Harp of My Country”, at the John J. Burns Library, Boston College (2010). She teaches at The Boston Conservatory and performs on early harps for concerts and at music festivals. Nancy has several solo and ensemble recordings and published books of arrangements for harp. www.HurrellHarp.com
Jonathan Hurrell, Recording Engineer
Darcy Kuronen, Curator of Musical Instruments, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Jennifer Goff, Curator of Furniture, Music & Science, National Museum of Ireland
The Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA)