During the late Renaissance, music had reached a point where instruments were beginning to develop, in order to facilitate new chromatic music. Although a double strung harp had existed in Spain and Italy for some time in answer to the increased chromaticism, they were notoriously difficult to play and the design did not lend itself to easy use of both diatonic and chromatic notes for many pieces. The solution came in the form of the Italian Triple Harp. With two outer rows of diatonic notes, and the centre row of chromatics, the harpist would simply tune to the key of the piece (or a convenient key) and play any extra chromatics by plucking the notes in the centre row.
This harp became enormously popular as an instrument for continuo during the baroque era and spread throughout Europe. The Italian Triple Harp was the harp used by composers of the time including Monteverdi and Handel.
Some time during the mid 17th century, the Triple Harp moved to Wales where the instrument found enormous popularity, particularly in North Wales. The Triple Harp by this point looked very different to the old Italian versions with their tall hollowed backs, and instead had larger staved backs, high scrolled pillars, and vertical grain soundboards. By the 18th Century, the Triple Harp had died out throughout Europe, with the exception of Wales. It was Wales that had nurtured the Triple Harp, given it a Welsh voice and made it very much their own. It was crowned the National Instrument of Wales and became an integral part of Welsh identity, with music played upon it, that was as recognisable as the Welsh Language itself. No other instrument could match the shimmering effect of the three rows, and the unique variation that gave new voice to Welsh airs. The Triple Harp had continued popularity for many decades, certainly helped along by the support of figures such as Lady Llanover, and was popular amongst the Welsh Romany Gypsy’s who created an incredible musical tradition in Wales, with many of the family being amongst the most prominent Triple Harpists in history. (More on that in my next blog!)
During this time the Triple Harp faced a number of challenges. The verticle grained soundboards and lighter stringing was quieter than the emerging cross grained Pedal Harps, and so new Triple Harps were made with a cross grained soundboard and higher tension. Triple Harps were also made for playing on the right shoulder (rather than the traditional left shoulder) in order to appeal to a wider range of harpists. However with the emergence and newfound popularity of the new Pedal Harp, the Welsh Triple Harp saw a decline in players, as many found the single row and pedal operated chromaticism easier when playing, and louder and easier to use in an orchestral context.
Although there was a dramatic decrease in players, so much so that by the early 20th century the instrument had almost died out, the instrument survived through the harpist Nanci Richards (who learnt from the Gypsy players in Bala) who passed on the Welsh Triple Harp tradition to some of the next generations of Triple Harpists. The Welsh Romany Tradition was survived through Eldra Jarman (the descendant of John Roberts – Telynor Cymru), who passed on the Welsh Romany Tradition to Robin Huw Bowen, and then to his pupils (including myself) in the Telynor Cymru Project 2016. Triple Harpists including Robin Huw Bowen, Llio Rhedderch and groups such as Rhes Ganol and Ar Log have inspired a revival for the instrument. Today the Welsh Triple Harp is making itself heard through a passionate number of Welsh Triple Harpists and harp makers who are making the traditional Welsh music and Welsh Romany Gypsy music heard once more. A new generation of players are being inspired to take up the tradition and keep the 300 year old unbroken aural traditions alive for a future generation of players. It is a history I am so incredibly proud to be a part of!
Gareth Swindail-Parry – 2019