Monday, 21 March 2016

The Robert ap Huw Manuscript, Welsh bardic music, and links to Irish Bardic Music

By Muirenn ingen Morgair

for Kingdom Arts and Sciences, Ealdormere, March 19, 2016.

Photo source: Medieval Mashup

The history of the man and the manuscript

Robert ap Huw lived from 1580 to 1665, and was a harp player born on the island of Anglesey. He is remembered for having illegally copied out a book of Welsh harp music which contained compositions dated to the high middle ages, and possibly before. The majority of this original corpus of cerdd dant harp music has since been lost, leaving a few traces in other manuscripts, but none so complete as what he ‘stole’.1

Robert ap Huw was brought up in the north­western area of Anglesey, an area where traditional Welsh culture was still strong. His grandfather was SiĆ“n Brwynog (1510­62), a highly renowned poet.2 In his 20’s Robert stayed and studied in the Shire of Merioneth, which lies in the north­west of Wales, south of Caernarfon, which was well­populated by traditional poets, harpers and teachers of Classical languages. It was also the heart of patronage for the traditional arts.3 By 1615, Robert had graduated as a pencerdd telyn (teacher in music) He eventually became a harpist at the court of James I (of the King James Bible fame, son of Mary, Queen of Scots).4

The traditional ways were dying, and the political and cultural systems were being replaced by a more homogenous English Tudor culture. By this time, the itinerant bards and poets had to get a license signed by justices of the peace to travel in any county other than their home on a county­by­county basis. All musical entertainers of any kind were classed as ‘minstrels’ under English law, and a minstrel without a license was a vagabond and beggar.5

This caused a significant chilling effect on the transmission of knowledge and the ability of young poets and musicians to acquire experience and patronage. The traditional scholars were frantically writing down the music, poetry, and traditional knowledge of the previous age.6

In the year 1600 Robert was accused of abducting the daughter of a minor nobleman and stealing household goods (including some ‘writinges’). He was imprisoned in a tower awaiting trial, but before that could happen he was rescued and ‘never seen again’ (at least not by the law officials in Merioneth). Part of his troubles might have been due to his dubious political associations, as his brother had been linked to rebellion in Ireland, and his patron supported Arabella Stuart as a successor to Elizabeth I.7

The manuscript that Robert copied out was different from the usual word lists and descriptions in that it attempted to put to score a music which wasn’t composed or played in a metrical fashion. It is possible that he used a notation system invented by the master harpist and poet Robert ap Hywel Llwyd some thirty years before to do the same thing he was doing then. This manuscript was attributed to Wiliam Penllyn (c.1550­70), master poet and harpist.8

The ap Huw manuscript is bound as a book, but was re­bound in the mid­18th century by the antiquarian and folk­historian Lewis Morris (also born on the island of Anglesey), who found the manuscript in 1727. Where he found it is unknown, but it was in rough shape.

Unfortunately, in the re­binding two or three centimeters were trimmed off all the edges, cutting off most of the edge notations.9 Also unfortunately, the knowledge of how to interpret the musical notation was not passed down, and since the manuscript re­surfaced nobody has been able to say with any authority that they have deciphered the system.10

Some of the original pages from the ap Huw manuscript were lost some time before it was re­bound, but Lewis Morris did attempt to add a more modern touch to it by adding page numbers and an index page. Even so, the final book contained eighty-­six pages.11

The notation system, styles and techniques

The book lists nine different compositional types, four of which are represented in the notated music, and the other five in the list of almost one hundred songs mentioned at the back of the book. By his own notes Robert ap Huw wrote at least one other manuscript, which is now lost.12

According to two other manuscripts, Dosbarth Cerdd Dannau (‘the classification of cerdd dant’) and Cadwedigaeth Cerdd Dannau (‘the preservation of cerdd dant’), the rules of the art of music were codified at a council of harpers at Glendalough, Ireland c.1100.13 It is difficult to prove or disprove those claims, as there are no other records. The names of some of the individuals present at the council are represented in the titles of some of the compositions in the Welsh medieval musical repertory. But, the four most technically demanding are named after harpers from the latter part of the 15th century. And, others from the teaching list of tunes are accredited to composers from the early 14th century.14

In modern harp technique the focus of the player is on making a full, round note using the pad of the fingers. Robert ap Huw describes seven ways of playing a note, including using the fingernails, and ways of moving between notes of different intervals. This page has the title gogwyddor i ddysgu y prikiad (‘the alphabet to learn the pricking’).15 There are different techniques including ‘wrinkle the thumb’, ‘double plait’, ‘bee’s plait’, ‘shake the finger’, ‘half scratch’, ‘double scratch’, and ‘thumb choke’ (using the thumb to damp down the sound of the string).16 It wasn’t enough to just play the note, there were ways to make even the notes themselves sound different using different pressures and techniques. The way the music was described was as if the notes themselves were speaking, forming their own sort of vowels and consonants. The very popular (at the time) bray harp, with the buzzing sounds, were supposedly to make it more like speech. It was literally a ‘language of music’.17

The ‘alphabet’ was written in two columns, on the left the names of the techniques, and on the right the notes, written in black or white. The notes themselves are a little like modern quarter notes in appearance (see figure 1). The modern­style notations on the right are additions by Lewis Morris in his attempt to decipher the ‘code’.18 This is different from the rest of the manuscript, which uses a system of columns of squiggles to denote fingerings and notes played (see figure 2).

The styles

A cainc (literally a ‘branch’) was a repeated musical structure linked together with others to make a song. The ceinciau used the twenty­four measures of cerdd dant (‘the art of the string’) as a base structure. The cainc was also a structure used in early Welsh literature.

The first four tales of of the Mabinogion, which are thematically linked, are called the Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi (‘the four branches of the Mabinogi’).19

1. The gostegion

There are only four gostegion, and this has been confirmed by other sources. ‘Gosteg Dafydd Athro’, ‘Gosteg yr Halen’, ‘Gosteg Ieuan ap y Gof’, and ‘Gosteg y Llwydteg’. They may or may not have been used to call an assembly to silence, but they were definitely played as supper was served in a great hall. The gosteg don’t have a certain number of cainc, being between ten and thirteen in length.20 It is suggested that three of the four were composed by three musicians from one family on the island of Anglesey­ Dafydd ab Gof (Athro), Ieuan (or Ifan) ap Gof (a cousin) and Llewellyn (Ifan’s son). They lived between the late 1300s and the early 1400s.21

2. The caniadau

There are fifteen compositions in this group in the ap Huw manuscript, and it is the most populous of all the styles in the extant tune lists. It may have been an accompaniment to songs and/or poems. The most common pattern was a twelve­cainc structure, but it could have more or fewer as well.22

3. The profiadau

The profiadau use a freer structure and aren’t divided up into ceinciau, and apparently don’t have measures either, although they follow the pattern of simple chord alternations.

4. The clymau cytgerdd

It was also called the cwlwm cytgerdd. These were a series of variation exercises which were probably used as a teaching aid. The form could use an improvisation running through the twenty-­four measures in any order and using any finger techniques.23

5. The clymau ymryson

There are no examples of this style in the ap Huw manuscript, but a few were transcribed into the Iolo Morganwg manuscript.

Some of the other compositional styles mentioned in other repertory lists are the cadair, colofn, and difr. Of all the styles, the cwlwm (the fourth style mentioned above) was the most populous, and some other styles only have a few pieces.24 The cwlwm and caniad were pieces which apprentices could master. The cadair were ‘worth’ five of the cwlwm, and the colofn (which an apprentice didn’t begin to learn until they were at the fourth level) were worth ten cwlwm. In the 1520s even a pencerdd (master) only had to know three cadeiriau and three colofnau, but if he wanted to earn a prize at the Eisteddfod (a bardic gathering held every three years) he had to know at least four.25

The history of the music

The manuscript that Robert ap Huw illegally copied was written by a master teacher (pencerdd athro, the highest level possible) by the name of Wiliam Penllyn, who achieved that position at the Eisteddfod of 1567. That same gathering increased the numbers of accredited apprentices and masters by a significant amount­ thirty eight are named. The rules and standards were relaxed quite a bit in an effort to make the profession more attractive. Robert ap Huw was granted the rank of pencerdd in 1615, at the age of 35. He was one of the last to achieve this title.26

The final rules for governing apprenticeships in music and poetry were laid down during the Eisteddfod of 1523 at Caerwys, formalizing what had been a more informal practice. After this gathering every bard (both musician and poet) had to carry a copy of it on them at all times. This ruling was called The Statue of Gruffudd ap Cynan.27

Gruffudd ap Cynan was the king of Wales from 1081 until 1137. He was the grandson of a deposed king of Wales, Iago, and the great­grandson of King Sigtrygg Silkbeard of Dublin on his mother’s side. He was born in Dublin c.1055. The Ui Imair (Ivar) dynasty are, by legend and possible truth, the descendants of Ivar the Boneless. It was through these family connections in Ireland, the Isle of Mann and the Orkneys, that Gruffudd gained enough support and troops to win the kingship of Wales. 28 According to his biography, written on behalf of either his son or grandson, he brought with him from Ireland a number of musicians to bring Welsh bardic music more in line with that of Ireland.29 He became a symbol for Welsh resistance to outside conquerors because of his defense against Norman incursions.30

Wales was conquered by Edward I in 1283 31, but it was not completely merged into England until the Act of Union in 1543. 32 The time in between has been called ‘the most brilliant age of Welsh literature’33. In 1485 the Tudor dynasty came to the throne of England. As they had Welsh roots, the nobility and gentry of Wales saw increased opportunities at court. They sent their children to school in England and brought fashionable performers and minstrels to their houses.34

As the cultural structure which supported this music fell apart, those practitioners of the art tried desperately to preserve, codify and enshrine it, to no avail. Within one hundred years of the death of Robert ap Huw there were none left who even knew the sound of cerdd dant.

Just as in Ireland, this ancient and unifying symbol of Celtic culture was finally, completely erased. Thankfully, in Wales, some small crumbs remained.

Kinney, Phyllis. Welsh Traditional Music, University of Wales Press:2011. accessed online March 2, 2016.

Welsh Music History, vol.3­ Robert ap Huw Studies, Ed. John Harper, University of Wales Press:1999.

Welsh Music History, vol.4, Ed. Sally Harper, University of Wales Press:2000.

Online resources for more information-


1. WMHv3, Sally Harper, from the Introduction

2. WMHv3, Robert ap Huw: A Wanton Minstrel of Anglesey, Nia Powell, p.10

3. p.8

4. p.10

5. Kinney, Phyllis. Welsh Traditional Music.University of Wales Press:2011, p.7

6. Powell, p.12

7. Powell, p.14

8. Powell p.15.

9. WMHv3, Aspects of the Palaeography and History of the Robert ap Huw Manuscript, Stephen P. Rees and Sally Harper, p.54.

10. Rees p.63.

11. Rees p.62.

12. WMHv3, The Robert ap Huw Manuscript and the Canon of Sixteenth­Century Welsh Harp Music, Sally Harper, p.130.

13. Harper p.131.

14. Harper p.131.

15. WMHv3, Robert ap Huw’s Harp Technique, William Taylor, p.83.

16. Taylor p.83.

17. Taylor p.85.

18. Taylor p.90.

19. Harper, p.132.

20. Harper p.133.

21. Welsh Music History, volume 4, Dafydd Wyn Wiliam, Ifan ab y Gof, Llyselyn ab Ifan ab y Gof and Dafydd ab y Gof (Dafydd Athro): Three Anglesey Composers?, pp.31­36.

22. Harper, p.134

23. Harper, p.134.

24. Harper, p.135.

25. Harper, p.139.

26. Harper, p.143.

27. WMHv3, The Statue of Gruffudd ap Cynan, David Klausner, p. 282.

28. Wikipedia

29. Kinney, p.7.

30. Wikipedia

31. Wikipedia­

32. Kinney, p.6.

33. Kinney, p.6.

34. Kinney, p.7.

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