Surprisingly, the great composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), who’s works – such as the well-known Adagietto of the 5th symphony – are considered among the most beautiful pages of the pedal harp music, actually did hear of the Celtic harp during his life. However unlikely that, in the 19th century, the Austrian composer would have had the opportunity to see – and even less hear – the harp of the bards, he couldn’t ignore the existence of such an instrument.
During the Romantic time, Celtic culture, and its music in particular, comes to the fore, doing the splits between the nostalgia of a mythological past and the foundation of a real artistic renewal. This enthusiasm begins earlier in the 18th century with the famous publication of the Scottish bard Ossian’s poems by Macpherson and the first eisteddfod – a festival of traditional music and poetry in Wales. A Celtic wave rises and Celtic societies are created all over Europe.
In this environment the Viennese society Telyn was created. Telyn – “Celtic harp” in Welsh, Telenn in Breton – contrary to what one might think, was a philosophical and political Germanic society. Although the symbolic choice of this name underlines the Celtic societies' influences at that time, there is no real link with the bardic instrument. Among the members of the Telyn group were: the politician Victor Adler, the writer and philosopher Siegfried Lipiner and the student Gustav Mahler.
Mahler composing for the Celtic harp?
All through his life, Mahler is confrontational with his opponents – including his own musicians – as well as in his own musical works. One can often hear the opposition of one instrument playing against an ever more imposing orchestra in his symphonies: here, a violin performing like a soloist, there, a cello flirting with the concerto. The integration of the guitar and the mandolin in the 7th symphony proves, once more, Mahler's non-conformist temperament. Composing for a singular instrument, such as the Celtic harp, would not have been a first attempt for him. Who knows what surprises he would have created in the orchestration of the unfinished 10th symphony?
Published in 1907, Theo Zasche's caricature shows the modern orchestra where Mahler, sitting on a bomb, conducts an animal orchestra with a rattle. Arnold Schoenberg plays a sewing machine while Richard Strauss drops a weight on the public and Arnold Rose plays a double violin with two bows.
But let’s come back to the Telyn society. Although Mahler is not so involved within the group at the end of his life, he’s still deeply marked by its influence in his thoughts and artistic creativity. From this society, he kept long-term friendships, despite some of these friendships being troubled at times, as was the case with Siegfried Lipiner. With a nod to the history of music: as a committed student within this society, were his thoughts going towards the instrument of the bards while composing for the harp?
Let’s pause our enthusiasm and since one must render unto Caesar what is his, let’s bring back Mahler’s harp work in the pedal harp repertoire. First, the post-romantic composer’s writing requires from the performer a pedal harp technique and musical style, second, his work, in its conception, is far from the Celtic harp’s traditional music and even further from the Celtic traditional music.
This warming-up introduces a forthcoming series of articles involving composers – these ones well alive – who have written for the Celtic harp. From contemporary music, jazz, pop, to World music, passing by traditional music aesthetics, they will attest to their interest in composing today for the instrument. The first composer who will open this series will be the Irish Derek Ball (not to be confused with another Irishman, the late harp player of the chieftains, Derek Bell), in an article devoted to him soon.