In ancient Irish lore, the Three Noble Strains were three styles of harping. They were drawn from the story of Boann, who gave birth to three sons. The eldest, Goltraiges, was born in great pain to her. The second, Gentraiges, was born with joy. The birth of the third, Suantres, caused her great fatigue. These boys grew up to become master harpers and their styles, or strains, were said to be derived from the manner of their birth: the goltrai (the strain of weeping), the geantrai (the strain of happiness), and the suantrai (the strain of sleep). It was these styles which Irish harpers were expected to master and invoke in their audiences.
The importance of the harp and lyre in ancient and medieval northern Europe cannot be overstated. The role of the harper, the bard, the scop, and the skald, was one of crucial importance. In these cultures, which were largely non-literate, these individuals took on the responsibility not merely of being entertainers, but also of the keepers of lore and history through their stories and songs. Instrumental music flourished alongside of this poetic and story-telling tradition, though frustratingly little of it remains from the medieval period, a time when these oral traditions were already on the wane.
This recording features music from several northern European traditions, played on the three principal types of early plucked instrument: the harp, the psaltery, and the lyre. Different regions favored different instruments, and there are many varieties of design and sound. It is possible that all three derive in one way or another from Classical Greek and Roman instruments, such as the lyre and kithara. Evidence for Greek-like lyres can be found in Germany from at least the 5th century; this instrument became hugely important in Viking Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England. The psaltery, and possibly the Finnish kantele derive from Middle Eastern instruments such as the qanun and zither, filtered through medieval Spain and possibly Byzantium. The more familiar triangular harp first appears in the Utrecht Psalter from the ninth century, though its exact origins are still debated.
The instruments were made of whatever local woods worked best, and were strung with gut or wire, producing a remarkable variety of tones. Very few of these early instruments survive, most often just as fragments (lyres were buried with important Germanic and Saxon nobles, for example). Though the famous “Brian Boru” harp in Trinity College Library, Dublin, is an exception, dating from the late 14th or early 15th century.
The pieces here are medieval, traditional, and modal improvisations that explore the sonorities and possibilities of each instrument within its context.