J. Marshall Bevil, Ph.D.

"Some Observations Regarding Crwth Performance"


Read at the Fall, 1976, meeting of the Southwest Regional Chapter of the
American Musicological Society, Southern Methodist University, Dallas

Paper derived from portion of "The Welsh Crwth, Its History, and Its Genealogy"
(M.Mus-Musicology thesis, University of North Texas, completed in 1973)

           Crwth is a generic term denoting several small lyres that flourished in western Britain from the eleventh through early nineteenth centuries. 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. Hence written references to performance must be evaluated with care.
          The modern crwth was one of the last of the European bowed yoke lyres. Rather than evolving along a single line in the manner of the viol and violin, 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.
          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 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 first attempts to employ the drone strings that distinguish the modern crwth and its immediate prototype from significant earlier progenitors seem to date from around the twelfth century. However, 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.  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 sound hole 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. 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 and bow design, and tuning. Evidence of variance in tuning is particularly clear and significant. Tuning in paired fifths, in a way similar to a 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.



Dr. J. Marshall Bevil is a native of Houston, where he also currently lives. He is both a string music educator and a musicologist (B.Mus. with honors, Oklahoma Baptist University, 1970; M.Mus. - Musicology, University of North Texas, 1973; Ph.D. - Musicology, University of North Texas, 1984) with specialization in the history of bowed string instruments, oral-aural musical transmission, British and British-American folk music, and British academic music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His doctoral dissertation has been published by University Microfilms, International (UMI No. 8423854, "Dissertation Services"), and he has published post-doctoral studies in professional journals and presented papers in his areas of specialization at regional, national, and international academic convocations in both the United States and Great Britain. He also is the author of encyclopedia articles on John Avery Lomax, Alan Lomax, and Percy Aldridge Grainger; and he has published on the Internet. In addition to his pedagogic and academic pursuits, he is a performer on the crwth, a composer and arranger for string and vocal ensembles (publications on Sibelius.com, from December of 2004), and a forensic musicological consultant and expert witness  in copyright and intellectual property misappropriation disputes ( links:  1    2  )


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