J. Marshall Bevil,
"The Welsh Crwth, Its History, and Its Genealogy"
M.Mus.-Musicology thesis, University of North Texas, 1973. Text with companion audio tape. 249 pp., photographic plates, diagrams and charts, tables, written and recorded musical examples. Running supplement, "Errata and Addenda," issued by author, 1974-1980. Known locations of copies: author; Music Library, University of North Texas; Welsh Folk Museum, Sain Ffagan, Glams., U.K.; Warrington Museum, Warrington, Lancs., U.K.; U.S. Library of Congress.
investigation was undertaken to help clarify the place of the crwth both within
the culture of
Britain and in the history of the European bowed chordophone. It also represents
an effort to reconstruct a body of performance techniques whose traces were lost
with the demise of regional folk musical practices following the early
Any inquiry concerning an instrument is certain to be difficult when that instrument is extinct in common practice; when little if any music was ever written for it; when comprehensive treatises by knowledgeable performers of the instrument's heyday are not to be found; and when there are no extensive, non-condescending, genuinely knowledgeable treatments by academic writers of the period in question. Cultural isolation, linguistic esotericism, frequent ambiguity of nomenclature, and a generally unclear picture of the bowed yoke lyre's position in the history of string instruments make in-depth inquiries concerning the crwth even thornier than most others of their kind.
The 1973 study, with its ongoing revisions and related research, eliminates some of the confusion which has arisen as a result of the unusually complex web of often spotty evidence. The monograph is designed to inform not only organologists but also those in other branches of musicology and related historical and anthropological disciplines. Hence there is within it some repetition of common organological knowledge. Both between and within those blocks of information, however, are items of fact, theory, and hypothesis that, at the time of their writing and to the best of the authorís knowledge, had not been advanced previously.
Crwth is a generic term denoting several small lyres that flourished in western Britain from the eleventh through early nineteenth centuries. From near the end of that period to some decades thereafter, it may have been used occasionally in reference to the violin and its close kin. The most common English cognates are crowd and crowth, hence the surnames Crowder and Crowther that meant fiddler. The Scottish and Scots-Irish equivalent surnames are, respectively, MacWhorter and McWhorter (also MacWhirter, McWhirter; MacWherter, McWherter). The Irish cognate of crwth is cruit, but that term also may have been applied to certain harps in some cases. It is important to remember that neither crwth nor its many cognates, partial-cognates, and synonyms necessarily indicate any one particular instrument. Specific denotation depended on time, exact locale, and, in some instances, specific individual.
The most recent, or modern, crwth, which is the focus of this study, seems to have been peculiar to Wales and to have flourished ca. 1500-1730, and thence in rapidly decreasing numbers until perhaps as late as 1855 when, according to oral accounts, the last of the old players died. The modern crwth had four bowed strings traversing a flat fingerboard and an obliquely situated, almost flat, bridge. Two drone strings were drawn over the bridge and to the observer's-left side of the fingerboard, where they were plucked by the player's left thumb. It seems that some players held the instrument with its lower end either at the shoulder or against the upper chest. Evidently others held it obliquely across the body, either with its lower end resting on the lap or knees or with the instrument suspended from the neck by a strap.
The modern crwth was one of the last of the bowed yoke lyres, a genre that probably emerged in southern and central Europe when the bow, an Eastern incursion, was applied experimentally to pre-existing plucked lyres of probable European origin, beginning about AD 900-1000. The parallel developments of the viol and violin began when the bow was applied in like manner to lyres with Middle-Eastern roots. Rather than evolving along a single line, the bowed yoke lyre repeatedly split into varied designs, due in great measure to its having been subjected to much experimentation, structural variance, and disparity of playing technique from one geographic region and culture to another. For that reason, the bowed lyre never realized either the structural standardization or the standardization of performance methodology experienced by the more academic viol and violin families, and it ultimately became extinct in common practice as regional folk traditions either died out or were absorbed into the pan-European art music tradition.
One branch of bowed yoke lyres came to be equipped with drones. The first attempts to employ that feature, which distinguishes the modern crwth and its immediate prototype from earlier progenitors, seem to date from around the twelfth century; but they do not appear to have become firmly established until the middle to late fourteenth century.
The immediate prototype of the modern crwth was known not only in Britain (crowd and probably crwth) but also on the Continent, where it appears to have emerged. There it was called chrotta, crotta, and rotta. That instrument eventually was confined to Wales and portions of the English West Country following the dissolution of minstrelsy. It was gradually absorbed into the folk culture along with some of the music, performance practices, and other instruments of the minstrels. It ultimately disappeared from the English counties, and it was replaced in Wales by the modern crwth. That instrument differs from its immediate ancestor in having anterior rather than posterior wrest pins, a straight or nearly straight (rather than distinctly rounded) lower end, and an obliquely-positioned bridge instead of one situated horizontally across the soundboard. Those changes may have emerged as non-academic methods of tuning, holding, and bowing were adopted by folk musicians. Other features, such as the drones and the long bridge leg that goes through a soundhole and contacts the back of the resonator, were found on the prototype. While many, if not most, of the modern crwth's predecessors were instruments of the minstrels, the function of the modern instrument was that of a fiddle at country dances. There it sometimes was played with the pibgorn, a capped-reed aerophone with, in many instances, a barrel made from the shinbone of a ram and a bell fashioned from a bovine antler. In some situations, the harp, or telyn, also was a member of the ensemble.
Both the music of the crwth and the way of playing the instrument were handed down from father to son. One likely consequence of that was the emergence of varied methods of holding, bowing, bow design, and tuning. Evidence of variance in tuning is particularly clear and significant. Tuning in paired fifths, in a way similar to a more modern fiddle tuning, has been viewed as anomalous. However, prevailing fiddling practice and the likelihood of many earlier lyres having been tuned in octaves with central fifths above the root suggest that the crwth tuning in paired fifths may have been preferred over a more widely publicized tuning in paired seconds. Further, experimentation has shown that a crwth tuned in paired fifths is more facile, particularly from a melodic standpoint, than has been assumed heretofore.
1997, 2004 J. Marshall Bevil
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J. Marshall Bevil is a native of