I have a new-to-me harp - it isn't anything fantastic, but I'm learning a lot with it, and I love the way harp sounds. Pennsic offered several wonderful opportunities for playing harp, and I got to jam with wonderful musicians, and see other harpists play much better than I.
While at Pennsic, I saw a listing for an Anglo-Saxon lyrebuilding class - which was a presentation of how the Sutton Hoo and Trossingen lyres might be made with power tools. But now of course I want one. (I also now want a bodhran, after having been shown the basic strokes by Marion of Heatherdale, above, but that's a drum, and we're on strings today.)
So here's a collection of resources for lyres, and for early harps - and it turns out that both were around in Migration Period Britain. Like many musical instruments (recorders/flutes, anyone?) variants seem to have developed in parallel. That's one of the things I love about music - there's room for everyone, if they're managed right.
There's a Yahoo! group for Anglo-Saxon lyres, wherein I learned that there's a fair bit of controversy about what is meant in old tales, a lyre or a harp:
The lyre and the triangular harp are two distinct instruments with two distinct developments and histories. Both of them are, of course, very ancient. Both were probably used in biblical times. The Greeks had both. As I said before, the triangular harp appears on Pictish stone crosses in what is now eastern Scotland long before it appears in Ireland. On the other hand, to my current knowledge anyway, no lyre-type instruments have been found on Pictish stone carvings. The leading harp historians agree that the harp probably was introduced to Ireland through Scotland. It is extremely unlikely that the triangular harp developed from the lyre in Ireland. (Nancy Thym)
(Regarding Beowulf) 8th century is when the story was written down and it is certainly much earlier. I personally am completely convinced that the instrument in these stories is a lyre and that the people we now term "Celts" played the lyre and not the triangular frame harp. But my friend Ann Heymann's arguments for the instrument in the story of Dagda's cruit being a triangular frame harp are pretty convincing too! But no matter whether it was a harp or a lyre, it was indeed, as you say, a stringed instrument. Like so many other "Celtic legends" the story of Dagda shows how revered the music of stringed instruments was in Ireland at that time. The "three strains of music" also appear again and again in the Irish stories. Irish harpers were expected to be able to play these three different strains. We now tend to think they are terms for different modes. Interestingly though, the Norse sagas mention many more types of music or modes. (Nancy Thym)
Yes, you mean the story of Dagda, who is considered to be a sort of god (sun god) or a first ancestor type, sort of the equivalent of Apollo, who also played the lyre. The instrument in the original story is called a "cruit", We don't know what a "cruit" was at that time. The word later came to be used for a triangular harp. Dagda's cruit has been taken prisoner by the Formorians, so Dagda with three other "gods", goes to rescue it. It is hanging on the wall of the Formorian eating hall. Dagda calls for it and in the process describes it in detail as "oak of three woods" (don't have all my articles on this in front of me, so don't quote me exactly on this!) and "4-angled". When he calls it, it jumps off the wall, killing nine Formorians on its way to him. Then he plays the three strains of music, goltraigh, gentraigh, and suantraigh, which cause the listeners to weep, laugh, and sleep in turn. When they are all asleep, Dagda takes his cruit and he and his companions escape. This story is from "The Battle of Mag Tured (or Moytura) from around the 8th century.
There have been various interpretations of the description of the instrument in this story. "4-angled" could mean the frame of a lyre, but it could also mean the 4-sided square box of a harp. "Oak of three woods" could be the three sides of a frame harp, or it could be soundbox, arms and yoke of a lyre. I have been wrestling with this description for many, many years.
There are depictions of triangular harps in Scotland from about the 8th century on. In Ireland they appear later, around the beginning of the 12th century. The instruments depicted on Irish stone crosses are in my opinion definitely types of lyres. In some you can even clearly see the bridge.
What does a lyre sound like? Well, YouTube solves that question...
Germanic Lyre strummed, charming.
NW European Lyre, strummed aggressively. I don't think this soothed anybody's nerves. Also, I don't think this guy can generalize from his hand size to mine.
Nylon strings are usually pretty stable tuning wise, even with wooden friction pegs, I tend to use zither pins for my student lyres as this combination is completely stable giving the player more time to focus on playing. (Nylgut and flourocarbon strings sound much much better than plain nylon BTW)
In the USA the pentatonic tuning is more popular, In The UK Diatonic, there is a Tenth century reference that gives a CDEFGA scale(diatonic) which works really well on the cologne lyre.
Here's another nice video from Michael King, showing the differences in materials and talking about tuning on three different lyres.
More on 3-sided harps in early Britain:
It is not known where or how the fore-pillar or upright column that created a triangular-framed harp body came into use. The earliest drawings of triangular-frame harps appear in the Utrecht Psalter in the early 9th century. It was the appearance of the harp column possibly during the early Christian era that marked the advent of the modern harp. It solved two problems. It allowed the harp maker to increase string tension without distorting the instrument which also made the harp easier to tune as changing the tension of one string no longer affected the tension of all the other strings. Harps could then be built with more strings with higher tensions, better volume and tone. (Alison Vardy)
So my tent and harp match!
>My new harp book says the Romans brought an angle harp to Britain around 50 BC, and the Irish developed a frame harp by 400 AD. (Mel Bay Presents Exploring the Folk Harp, Janna McCall Geller and Mallory Geller)
"Leaving the Greek poet and coming nearer home, we find that so long ago as 160 B.c. Blegwryd ab Seisyllt, King of Britain, was credited with being a good musician and a performer on the harp to boot, so much so that tie was designated "the God of Music." Two historical instances are on record showing the strategic uses to which harpers in disguise were put. In the fifth century, when Colgrin was besieged in the city of York by King Arthur, Badulph assumed the character of a harper and thereby gained admission to the beleaguered city in order to consult his brother. King Alfred (a.d. 878) pursued similar tactics when he penetrated into the Danish camp to discover the counsels of his foes. And in the tenth century Anlaff, the Danish King of Northumberland, adopted the same subterfuge with King Athelstan. Dressed as a minstrel " he sang so sweetly before the royal tent, and at the same time touched his harp with such exquisite skill, that he was invited to enter, after which he was dismissed with a valuable present "! Very neatly done, King Anlaff. Thus it will be seen that the harp was looked upon as something more than a highly respectable instrument—indeed, 'twas an instrument fit for kings to set vibrating with their royal touch."
"The Venerable Bede gives some very interesting information in regard to it in these Islands during the seventh century. The harp was so generally played in Britain that at entertainments it was customary to hand it from one to another; and "the Venerable" mentions one such guest who, ashamed that he could not play, thereupon stole away lest he should unhappily display his incompetence."
"The Welsh people can lay claim to it as their national instrument from time immemorial. In such honour was the harp held in Wales that a slave might not practise it. To be able to play upon it was an indispensable qualification of a gentleman, and a harp could not be seized for debt. Moreover, a professor of this favourite instrument enjoyed many privileges: his lands were free and his person sacred! The musically-descended scion of these harpists of the Principality, one who has been placed at the head of Welsh music in these days, forms the subject of this biographical sketch. (John Thomas, "The Harp in Olden Times", The Musical Times, volume 40, 1899)