IN: Reviews

Old Songs from the Auld Sod


Siobhán Armstrong (file photo)
Siobhán Armstrong (file photo)

Most early music performances focus on a single, fairly narrow, slice of the historical past, the music of a distant century, or even decade, repertory for a particular kind of ensemble or instrument that flourished in that period and now exists primarily through historical and scholarly reconstruction. One concert in the Boston Early Music Festival, though, featured an instrument that remained current for some 800 years without changing its form or character, and the repertory heard here spanned a good part of that lengthy period.

The ancient Irish harp, which has become the symbol of the Irish nation and its culture, was the basis of musical performance by harpers who held a high status from before the year 1000 until the 19th century, when it was replaced by the neo-Irish harp, leaving the ancient form of the instrument, with wire strings among other differences, to specialists such as Siobhán Armstrong, the doyenne of  this repertory, who was joined on this occasion by the singer Áine Ní Dhroighneáin, making her American debut, for a performance of early Irish songs and harp music.

This late evening (11p.m.) performance at Emmanuel Church attracted a substantial and enthusiastic audience. Despite the size of the church’s sanctuary and the fairly delicate projection of the instrument, the acoustics were such that the sound was very clear and might well had evoked, in the minds of imaginative listeners, performances in Gaelic courts or great Irish houses of the past.

A certain part of the repertory is labeled “traditional,” some of it probably very old, and often improvised, so documentation only appeared when this largely oral tradition began to be transcribed about the very end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th.  Still, the chronological breadth was evident in musical style, since the very oldest melodies seem to reflect the kinds of melodic shaping found in the more elaborate types of plainsong, with free rhythmic flow, while the later numbers, and especially the songs, take on a regular metrical shape and stanzaic structure characteristic of music in the 17th and 18th centuries, when those later songs were composed. The musical effect was of passing through a half-dozen centuries in less than two hours.

Áine Ní Dhroighneáin (file photo)
Áine Ní Dhroighneáin (file photo)

Siobhán Armstrong has been the leading proponent of the ancient Irish harp for many years and has made previous visits to the United States. Her playing is always shapely and focused, drawing the listener in to this very refined repertory. Áine Ní Dhroighneáin (who pronounces her surname something like “Annie Nee chRYE-nan” with the “ch” aspirated as in “Bach”) has a clear, natural voice and superb diction, and she performs with the utter naturalness of a folk singer who puts the narrative texts across without attempting to dramatize them in a theatrical way, which would contradict their style and character, but simply to carry the tune and make the words utterly clear (as if that were so simple!).

This singular program brought a unique repertory and style to a performance of impeccable elegance and taste—very much worth the potential lack of sleep in this late night event.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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