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Welsh music history


Vol. 3, 1999

The Robert ap Huw manuscript and the canon of sixteenth-century Welsh harp music

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The Robert ap Huw Manuscript
and the Canon of Sixteenth-Century
Welsh Harp Music
The famous book of harp music (Lbl MS Add. 14905), copied by
Robert ap Huw in the early seventeenth century, is one of only two
extant sources containing notated pieces belonging to the unique
Welsh musical tradition of cerdd dant (literally 'the art of the
string').1 The manuscript includes thirty-two notated items belonging
to four different compositional types; additionally, a list of almost
one hundred pieces at the back of the book, also in Robert ap Huw's
hand, provides evidence of five more types of composition. Taken
together, they appear to provide a comprehensive representation of
the types of music played on the harp in late medieval Wales. By
comparison with the contents and ordering of many contemporary
British lute, keyboard and ensemble sources, Robert ap Huw seems to
have drawn on a repertory which is unique and very different in both
aesthetic and technique. Furthermore, he appears to have employed a
deliberate strategy in selecting the contents of the book, a purpose
which accords with his additional inventories. These inventories
establish that he also wrote out at least one other manuscript. The
harp repertory evident and implicit in Robert's surviving book has a
close parallel in the repertory for crwth, an instrument whose status
was almost equal to that of the harp among the skilled craftsmen-
musicians and their Welsh patrons.
Robert's exact motivation for copying this and other books of
harp music may never be established. However, the need to write
down an orally-transmitted Welsh repertory known to have been in
decline from at least the end of the fifteenth century may have been a
strong factor, whether for didactic or pedagogical purposes or for
purposes of preservation. By 1620, both cerdd dant and the related
poetic craft of cerdd dafod ('the art of the tongue') had become
subservient to imported English fashions. Each art was to an extent
secretive and protected: requirements for craftsmen wishing to enter
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