There are few countries on earth as closely associated with a musical instrument as Ireland is with the harp. The harp was eminent in Ireland from pre-medieval times into the 18th century and its practitioners were greatly honored and respected. The harp was said to possess magical qualities and a great harper could supposedly make an audience laugh, cry, or even sleep at will. The harp, at least on flags, seals, coins, stamps, etc., is still an easily recognizable symbol of Ireland.
But the instrument that such great harpers as the 18th century composer Turlough O'Carolan played - the wire-strung harp called clairseach (pronounced KLAR-shuk) - died out because the planted aristocracy of 17th and 18th century Ireland wanted contemporary music played on instruments that could modulate from key to key. The clairseach was identified with an old Gaelic order that this class wanted to distance itself from. Modern harpers, including Derek Bell of "The Chieftains," play a gut-strung "neo-Irish" harp developed around 1800 with a technique borrowed from the orchestral pedal harp.
It is a real surprise, then, that the instrument most people (including the Irish) think of as dead or a mere curiosity is, in fact, alive and well thanks to the remarkable efforts of husband-and-wife team Ann and Charlie Heymann, who are known to many as the music duo "Clairseach".
Ann is the 1981 and 1982 Bun-Fleadh Harp Competition Grand Prize Winner, and her playing has earned unanimous praise throughout the U.S. and Europe over the past eight years. Talented multi-instrumentalists with three recordings to their credit, the Heymanns have been very successful here, first in Irish clubs and lounges, and now almost exclusively in college concerts. Their career is currently taking a more scholarly turn, and they hope to publish a tutor later this year entitled Secrets of the Gaelic Harp.
Originally from the Minneapolis area, Ann began her music career as a tin whistle player with a St. Paul ceilidh band in the early 1970's. She, like many young American musicians, had discovered traditional Irish music and was learning it from Martin McHugh of Co. Roscommon - one of the few Irish-born players available in the Twin Cities. In 1976 she married Charlie, who had a similar experience with Irish music in Chicago, and three years later they began performing as a duo.
Ann's interest in the clairseach began after friends introduced her to the book The Ancient Music of Ireland by Edward Bunting. A child prodigy on the church organ, Bunting had been hired to transcribe the music played in 1792 by attending harpers at what would become the last of the Irish harp festivals sponsored throughout the 17th and 18th centuries by Irish aristocrats trying to keep this once highly revered instrument alive. Bunting was so inspired by what he heard that he devoted the rest of his life to collecting music and information about the Gaelic harp before its last performer, Denis Hempson, died early in the 19th century.
Ann's mastery of the clairseach is all the more remarkable because her playing involves twice the work normally required to play a harp. The clairseach's brass strings are plucked with the fingernails, and they ring almost continually unless damped. Ann has been able to develop fingering techniques - some used by the old harpers - to damp each string at the desired time and prevent this sustain from sounding like "mush."
Ann's performances are only one contribution to the wire-strung harp's revival. Ann and Charlie now restrict their touring to two months or so per year and devote the rest of their time to extensive research that often takes them to Ireland to pore over original manuscripts and visit surviving instruments. They have already filled a great number of notebooks and have compiled a large collection of photographs in their travels. They have no plans to stop because, as Ann says, "a lifetime is necessary to track down each thread, and every answer leads to three more questions."
The Heymanns' goal of establishing the wire-strung harp as a respected instrument has obstacles. In Ireland a lack of interest persists because people think the knowledge needed to play it is lost. Ann, however, insists there is more information available on the Gaelic harp than on many of the medieval instruments played today. The Heymanns' lack of academic credentials is another hurdle. Yet they undoubtedly know more than anyone else about their field, and they are learning more all the time.
Seeing themselves less and less as entertainers and more as educators and promoters of Irish culture, the Heymanns describe themselves as specialists in the Gaelic harp and its music who want to see its musical potential realized. "I worry about the number of people who don't take this harp seriously," says Ann. "Too often it is used as a toy or stage prop - a novelty in someone's show." Ann doesn't see the Irish harp as limited to older Irish music either. She is currently using the harp to play her own compositions and would like to experiment with the music of tomorrow.
The Heymanns have plans for many future recordings, and they want to publish a book on the history and tradition of this most Irish of instruments.
-James Bohen, Irish American Cultural Institute