History, Music

24 January 2017

Heads, Harps and Hidden Secrets

Written by respected Scottish Harpist Bill Taylor, he recounts one of the biggest discoveries at the castle in centuries.

In the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, our theme for January is song, music & poetry. 

In August 2009 a remarkable discovery at Stirling Castle was announced, which proposed that a mid-16th-century carved wooden portrait contained a mysterious musical sequence.

I was invited to participate in a team examining this, along with historical pipes specialist Barnaby Brown and John Donaldson, the carver commissioned to make a replica set of the Stirling Heads at the Castle. The announcement received a strong response from the media and captured the imagination of the public, keen to explore the secrets hidden within ancient artefacts, like something out of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

The image in question, known as Stirling Head no. 20, is one of 33 large roundel portraits, made of oak and measuring approximately one meter in diameter. While many of the heads feature real or allegorical figures, our musical roundel shows an anonymous lady. Neither her distinctive headdress, cherub-like brooch nor her fine robes offer us any clues to her identity. Perhaps she was a female Worthy who embodied noble qualities for Renaissance viewers. So why, in the decorative frame surrounding her, is there a cryptic inscription with the symbols I, II and 0? One possible answer is that it is remarkably similar to the notation used by medieval Welsh musicians to describe compositional formulas.

The Music Head

The outer band encircling the lady employs a seemingly random combination of the three symbols. Just inside this is a separate band of stylized petals, opening outwards as if on a daisy. There is no question that these roundels were carved by a master artist, and yet there appears be a mistake in the array of the petals. John Donaldson puzzled over his discovery of a single petal (at the 9:00 position) which was purposely crushed to half the width of all the other petals. No proper artist would tolerate such a miscalculation! Could this have been intended as a pointer: “this is where the sequence begins”?

The sequence is a string of symbols similar to the notation found in the Robert ap Huw manuscript which contains the earliest body of harp music from anywhere in Europe. The music dates from the late Middle Ages and was composed, performed and taught by aural means until the 16th century when it was written down in a unique tablature, and later copied in the early 17th century by Robert ap Huw from a now-lost original source. Within this collection of harp pieces we find various appendices including tune lists, instructions on tunings, indications for executing figuration, and significantly for us, a list of “The 24 Measures of Cerdd Dant”. Cerdd dant translates as “string music”, and it relates to the wider skills, or craft, of the harp players.

Bill Taylor

The Measures are comprised of the symbols I and 0, used to represent moments of resolution (I) and tension (0), giving different combinations of alternating sonorities. The Measures are also given names, although now they are difficult to translate: “korffiniwr”, “wnsach”, “tytyr bach”, to name just a few. They have three functions, as we find in other 16th-century Welsh sources, such as Peniarth MS 62, in the National Library of Wales: “They exist for three reasons. The first is to produce music, the second to recognize music, the third is to keep music in mind.” That is, they aid in composing, they serve a didactic purpose in helping students to perceive the technical underpinning of the music, and they encourage memory – the most highly valued skill of the medieval poet and musician.

The Measures are foundations for composing music.  They are not tunes in themselves; rather, they provide combinations of varying lengths, which were employed by Welsh harp and crwth students to compose different genres of music in the late Middle Ages.  They do not give any specifics, other than indicating points of harmonic change.  Nothing tells us which pitches are to be used, which meter to use, how quickly or how loudly to play the music.

Stirling Castle commissioned me to compose a solo (played on the wire-strung clarsach), proposing that the symbols on the roundel equate to the medieval Welsh musical notation. To create a performable piece of music, I needed to make decisions, and I chose to use a G mixolydian scale, with the resolution (I) being G and the tension (0) being F.  I chose to interpret the “II” as a decorated “I”, because that symbol isn’t found in the Welsh sources.  Of course there are many possibilities for what this II may mean, such as being an extended I, a sub-dominant harmony, or a phrase separator.

Inevitably, there are bound to be conjectural elements when exploring the unknown. Just as archaeologists must make educated guesses about reconstructions of ancient ruins, so too must we be musical archaeologists, trying to understand the ancient notation, to place it in a suitable context and to propose conservative aural reconstructions.

The music composed and played by Bill Taylor now greets visitors as they enter the Royal Palace where they can also view the replica Musical Head.