October 01, 2010

John Dowland for Harp

It seems that during the medieval and renaissance periods, there was a good deal of crossover between the lute and the harp.  Lute/harp was a popular duet pairing, and a piece published in 1546 (Alonso Mudarra's "Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico") draws a comparison between the harp and, in this case, the vihuela (a more guitar-like relative of the lute).

Given this, it seems that early lute repertoire would be a very reasonable place to look to fill the gaping void that is our collection of early harp music (it just hasn't survived, folks, and that sucks).  So I've embarked on a new project (yeah, I'm still working on those other ones, they're going fine).  I've just started transcribing a collection of John Dowland's lute pieces for harp.  It's the Folger manuscript, and according to the Folger library it was recorded by Dowland himself between the years 1594 and 1600, which makes it oh-so-suitable for the SCA.

I'm arranging it for lap-harp, of course.  My harp has 22 strings and no levers - harps in Dowland's period had up to 26 strings and no levers, so my transcriptions will be faithful to what a harp-playing contemporary of Dowland's would have played in those respects, at least.  I'm tackling "Frog Galliard" first, and this one I'm practicing up while I transcribe it (although I'll play through all of them to make sure they work, I'll only practice up the best ones - there are 61 pieces in the MS!).  Here's David Taylor playing it on the archlute:

I'm so pleased with this music so far - it's so much fun to play!  I think this collection of transcriptions, if it keeps going well, could be a valuable contribution to the small-harp repretoire out there.  There's not much out there for small harps (particularly without levers), and what there is frankly is not that technically challenging.  The songs in the Folger MS range from fairly simple to blisteringly difficult with many many levels in between.  And there's a duet!  This will give more advanced players something to keep them interested, beginning players something to work through as they progress and damnit, it'll show the world that serious classical music can be played on the small harp!  It was in period!  Why the hell aren't we doing it anymore???