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The Airs of Wales - Liner Notes



The Welsh triple harp I play on this album stands nearly six feet tall and encompasses five octaves. It's one of my favorite and most precious instruments, I call this harp "BJ" (after Bassett Jones, the most highly esteemed of the 19th-century triple-harp builders).   A brass plate on its neck proclaims, in Welsh: “Prize of Viscount Fielding, for excelling in the song ‘The Marsh of Rhuddlan with variations’ in the Royal Eisteddfod (Contest) Rhuddlan, September 26, 1850.  Made by Bassett Jones, Cardiff, Chief harp maker to her Majesty, the Queen Victoria.”  The triple harp is called triple because has three rows of strings, unlike most harps which have only a single row.  The outer two rows, one for the left hand and one for the right, can be tuned in whatever key is desired.  The inner row contains all the chromatic notes and can be accessed by either hand.  For example if the harp is tuned in the key of C major like all the white keys on a keyboard instrument) the inner row will have the sharps and flats like the black keys.


The brass plate was translated by Welsh harp maker, Robert Evans, who visited me in California and met BJ, some years after the release of the album.  He also promised to find out the identity of the harpist who had won BJ in 1850.  True to his word, he sent the following account from the Welsh Journal, The Star of Gomer, from November 1850: “To the best player on the triple-harp, of the tune Morfa Rhuddlan—Prize, a new triple-harp, value 10—Mr. Henry Greene, from Shrewsbury. This harpist played Merch Megan on his harp before the Empress of China.”  Surely Mr. Greene played the tune Merch Megan on his beautiful new prize harp, too. 


At the time we recorded the album Dan and I had no idea of this history.  We had not planned to put Merch Megan first, but the day we recorded it, unfamiliar ornaments and variations simply poured from my fingers resulting in a session that felt especially energized and spontaneous.  Perhaps the special quality and inspiration was BJ's  contribution that led to the selection of Merch Megan as the opening piece on the album and ultimately, to the discovery of its role in uncovering BJ's past. 



The Welsh Airs embody their country’s spirit in their beautiful melodies. They combine elements of traditional folk music with formal composition, and include an interesting mixture of baroque and classical forms and styles. They are frequently classified as folk music, although for the most part they are products of professional rather than folk musicians. Most of the Airs originated as instrumental tunes, but some of them have been set to both Welsh and English texts and have become well-known songs.


The preservation of this music is due in part to the late 18th-century infatuation with antiquity. The quest for ancient knowledge and lost customs led in Wales to the revival of Druidism and the poetry and music of the Welsh Bards. It is in this context that Edward Jones (1752-1824) published three volumes of Welsh poetry, history and music that constitute the major printed sources for the Welsh Airs:  Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards (London, 1784), the expanded second edition of this work (London, 1794), and The Bardic Museum (London, 1802). His historical accounts deal with antiquity from a rather romantic perspective; the Airs he collected, despite some hints of ancient origins, are in arrangements that are stylistically contemporary to his time. Most of the music from Jones’ volumes was reprinted by John Parry, Bardd Alaw (1776-1851) in The Welsh Harper (London, 1839). The material for this recording was drawn largely from Parry’s collection.



The four "flower" tunes on the album are distinctly different in character: Welcome the Bee is a cheerful minuet in major mode followed by The Blossom of the Honeysuckle, in a rich minor mode with a da capo return to the BeeThe Flowers of the West is a lively minor-mode tune in duple time. The Flowers of Festiniog, a stately, graceful classical- style piece, owes its title to a small village in the county of Merionydd; a description of the countryside, written in 1736 by Lord Lyttleton, appears below the music:  "The Vale below Ffestiniog is the most perfectly beautiful of all we had seen; from the height of this Village you have a view of the Sea. The hills are green, and well shaded with wood. There is a lovely rivulet, which winds through the bottom; on each side are meadows, and above, are corn-fields along the sides of the hills; at each end are high mountains which seemed placed there to guard this charming retreat against any invaders. With a Woman one loves, with the friend of one's heart, and a good study of Books, one might pass an age there and think it but a day."


The Marsh of Rhuddlan, with its elegiac theme and five beautifully- composed variations, is one of the gems of this collection. Jones includes the following note: "Morfa Rhuddlan, or the Red Marsh, on the banks of the CLWYD in FLINTSHIRE, was the scene of many Battles of the Welsh with the Saxons. At the memorable conflict in 795, the Welsh were unsuccessful and their Monarch CARADOC slain. It is unknown whether this celebrated Tune took its name from this or some later occasion. This plaintive style, so predominant in Welsh music, is well-adapted to melancholy subjects. Our Music probably received a pathetic tincture from our distresses under the oppression of the Saxons."


Two other tunes Jones considered to be in the "plaintive" style are David of the White Rock and Gruffydd's Delight. Gruffydd ap Cynan (1055-1137), a medieval prince of North Wales, is famous for his statutes which established the classes of poets and musician-bards, and rules and standards for their art. The piece, however, is distinctly baroque in character, and I have paired it with a more classical-style air, The Allurement of Love.


There is a famous Welsh legend concerning the origin of the air David of the White Rock, or The Dying Bard: "It is a general tradition in CAERNARVONSHIRE that a Bard of this name lying on his death bed called for his harp and performed this plaintive Tune, which he desired should be repeated at his Funeral. Ever since it has been called by his name, and that of CARREG WEN [White Stone], the house where he lived in that county, which still remains. Whether it was of higher antiquity, or was originally conceived by the dying Bard, is uncertain."


The majority of the Welsh Airs, including all the flower tunes, fall into a category Jones calls "pastoral." The sprightly Lambs-Fold Vale conjures up visions of the Welsh countryside with both virtuosic variations and sweetly serene sections. Two other airs which feature flashy, fun-to-play variations are The Minstrelsy of Chirk Castle and Meillionen, or Sir Watkin's Delight. Both of these airs have associations with particular mansions. Of these, Jones writes:  "Castell y Waun, or Chirk Castle, in Denhighshire, is the grand Mansion of the Middletons, and the most habitable Castle in Wales. It stands upon an eminence and commands a most beautiful, picturesque Country. When it was occupied by its ancient Barons it appears to have been a receptacle of Bards."


Sir Watkin's Delight was evidently once a certain lady's delight:  "There is an old mansion called Meillionen, near Beddgelert, in Caernarvonshire; and this tune was formerly called Conset Gwraig Meillionen, or The Delight of the Lady of Meillionen."


The well-known tune The Ash Grove appears in this collection in one of its many versions. It is followed by a Siciliano variation, and by The Enjoyment of Machno, another variation on this tune.


I have put together three short tunes, The Dimpled Cheek, Daffydd's Delight and Hunting the Hare in a mixed medley. 


Megan's Daughter is a delightful tune and a Welsh favorite. I have combined three versions: the simple air, a variation marked *amoroso*, and a version based on a model for a Welsh form of improvised singing known as Penillion.  Another Welsh favorite The Rising of the Lark, is played here with three variations.


The album concludes with the grand Welsh Ground plus twenty-two variations, based on the same popular, circle of fifths chord progression used by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) for his Canon in D

Produced and engineered by Daniel Drasin

Notes by Cheryl Ann Fulton

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