Ancient Irish Scales

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter IV

THE construction of the old Irish scales has afforded a wide field for the most conflicting theories. Even Dr. Sullivan, in his critical introduction to O'Curry, says that the Irish scales were "manifold, and often apparently quite arbitrary, so that the principles upon which they proceed are sometimes incomprehensible to us." Dr. James C. Culwick would have us believe that the Irish scales numbered 15, and he compares our old "gapped" scales to those of the Chinese, Russians, and Zuni Indians. Father Bewerunge, the most recent authority on this subject, only admits four modes namely, Doh, Ray, Soh and Lah.[1]

From a long and careful study of some thousands of our ancient melodies, I have arrived at the conclusion that the old Irish scale was pentatonic, proceeding as follows: C D EG AC. By making each note in this first mode a tonic, or keynote, we naturally form four other modes—and thus we get five modes. These five are:—

1st. C  D  EG  AC
2nd. D  EG  AC  D
3rd. EG  AC  D  E
4th. G  AC  D  EG
5th. AC  D  EG  A

The notes F and B are studiously omitted, and the arrangement is made throughout these five modes so as not to include the fourth and seventh. This omission of F and B is largely the cause of the quaintness which characterises many of our oldest airs. Between the eighth and twelfth century, the missing, or absent notes of the above five scales were gradually supplied, and thus our ancient gapped scale became almost the self-same as five of the so-called Gregorian modes, namely:—

1. Intense Iastian.
2. Æolian.
3. Intense Hypolydian.
4. Iastian.
5. Relaxed Iastian.
6. Hypolydian.
7. Relaxed Hypolydian.
8. Dorian.

The third Irish mode (omitting F and B) is the same as the Phrygian mode in the E to E scale, with naturals only.[2] However, I would especially call attention to the beauty of airs constructed in the fourth Irish mode, at least, the variant of it which obtained in the early Anglo-Irish period, when the really characteristic note of this lovely mode had become definitely fixed by the inclusion of the missing seventh, that is F natural. This mode being subsequently played and sung in the modern key of G major (which, of course, has F as an essential sharp), had to flatten the seventh in order to meet the tonality of the Irish modes, and thus the airs written in this fourth mode were said to have been the flat seventh. One of the very best examples of the airs written in this quaint mode is "An Maidrin Ruad" which Moore sadly mutilated in his "adaptation" of "Let Erin Remember"—a mutilation which extended not only to the character of the mode, or scale, but to the very rhythm, or time-period, of the tune. In the light of this explanation it is amusing to read of the flat seventh as "one of the most certain indications of an ancient Irish air"! Indeed, for well nigh two centuries, we have invariably one writer copying another as to the "ravishing effect of the flat seventh," ignoring the real truth that it is the modern scale which must needs flatten the seventh in order to equate itself with the old Irish scale of the fourth mode.

Another very popular delusion, which has been quoted ad nauseam by English and Irish writers, is the apparent use of the minor mode by the ancient Irish. One constantly meets with allusions to the "grand old air in a plaintive minor scale," or to "a captivating ballad in a minor key, so characteristic of old Irish melodies," etc. As a matter of fact, some of our liveliest and most inspiriting dance tunes are in what one would call the modern minor key, whilst many caoines and dirges are in the major scale. Strange as it may seem, there is a vein of melancholy or tenderness throughout all our old tunes, which character is derivable from the peculiarity of scale construction. This is equally true of our hymns, folk-songs, battle-marches, jigs, cradle-songs, elegies, drinking-songs, etc.; and Moore has hit it off very aptly in his exquisite lyric, "Dear Harp of my Country," when he sings:—

"But so oft hast thou echoed the deep sigh of sadness,
That ev'n in thy mirth it will steal from thee still."

According to Walker, the ancient Irish cultivated three species of musical composition, answering to the three modes (the Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian) which the Greeks borrowed from the Egyptians, namely, the Goltraighe, the Geantraighe, and the Suantraighe. Hardiman also writes:—"Among the ancient Irish the principal species of musical composition was termed Avantrireach. It consisted of three parts—Geantraighe, which excited to love; Goltraighe, which stimulated to valour and feats of arms; and Suantraighe, which disposed to rest and sleep." I may add that the Irish affix, draiocht, or traighe, means a mode or measure. The ancient Gol, which dates from the remotest period, was a distinctive lamentation air; and each province had its own Gol. Walker prints the four ancient Lamentation Cries for Connaught, Munster, Leinster, and Ulster. Petrie informs us that "the Gol answers exactly to the rhythm and cadence of those words, which are recorded, in the Book of Ballymote, to have been sung over the grave of a king of Ossory, in the tenth century." Numerous Suantraighes are still preserved, better known as "Irish Lullabys," but the Geantraighe has more or less disappeared.[3]

Mr. Alfred Perceval Graves says:—"Ireland was the school of music for the Celts of Great Britain during the Middle Ages, and her minstrelsy remained unrivalled until the Irish Bard, famous for 'the three feats' of solemn [goltraighe], gay, [geantraighe], and sleep-compelling music [suantraighe], degenerated under the stress of the internecine conflict between Saxon and Gael in Ireland, into the strolling minstrel, and finally into the street ballad-singer."

Numerous dissertations have been written on the characteristics of Irish music, but as a nutshell summing up of the whole question, it may briefly be stated that nearly all our ancient tunes are of symmetrically short construction, having the emphatic major sixth, and the thrice-repeated final cadence (the thrice-struck tonic at the close)—and with an undercurrent of tenderness, even in the sprightliest tunes. Apart from an artistic construction peculiarly Celtic, there is an undefinable charm about our ancient melodies that cannot be mathematically expounded. Sir William Stokes, in his Life of Petrie, thus writes:—

“It was Petrie's opinion that the music of Ireland stands pre-eminent among that of the other Celtic nations in beauty and power of expression, especially in her caoines, her lamentations, and her love-songs; the latter, by their strange fitfulness, and sudden transitions from gladness to pathos and longing, are marked with a character peculiarly her own. It may well be supposed that some of these delightful tunes are accompanied by songs of corresponding simplicity and pathos.”

Petrie himself thus writes regarding our ancient folksongs, and his description of their construction is applicable to numerous old melodies:—

“These melodies are all in triple or three-four time, and consist of two parts, or strains, of eight bars each, and the same number of phrases, divided into two sections. Of these sections, the second of the first part is, generally, a repetition—sometimes, however, slightly modified—of the section preceding; and the second section of the second part is usually a repetition of the second section of the first part—sometimes also modified in the first, or even the first and second phrases—but as usual in all Irish melodies, always agreeing with it in its closing cadence.”

Taken in general, from a technical point of view, the ancient Irish can claim the credit of inventing musical "form"—in fact the germ which developed into the Sonata form. Dr. Pearce, no doubt, wishes us to believe that the latter development is due to the thirteenth century Wolfenbuttel melody of the Christmas hymn: Corde natus ex Parentis. However, there is not a shadow of doubt that we have Irish tunes long before this period—certainly before the Anglo-Norman invasion —which are characterised emphatically by an artistically constructed ternary or three-phrase arrangement, that is, a phrase of four bars, not unfrequentiy repeated, followed by an apparent modulation. Sometimes we meet with phrases of seven bars, namely, of four bars and three bars alternately; whilst a rather unusual rhythm is also to be met with, consisting of four sections of five bars each, each section being barred according to modern ideas into equal or unequal phrases of two bars and three bars. A not unfrequent form of rhythm is nine-eight; and we meet with numerous tunes constructed on the principle of four sections of two bars each in nine-eight time The jigs in nine-eight time are known as Hop Jigs, Slip Jigs, or Slip Time, and, at Hudson remarks, are "the most ancient, as well as in general the most effective."

But here it may be objected that probably our ancient Irish music was not of a high order, according to the canons of modern criticism. To this I shall briefly answer by quoting five unquestionable authorities.

(1.) Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley, Mus. Doc., acknowledges that "long before Norman influence was brought to bear on native art, there existed in Ireland traditional melodies, the origin of which is lost in antiquity." (2.) Sir Hubert Parry, after an exhaustive examination of about three thousand tunes in various collections, gives it as his opinion that "Irish folk music is probably the most human, most varied, most poetical in the world, and is particularly rich in tunes which imply considerable sympathetic sensitiveness." (3.) Sir Alexander MacKenzie writes in an equally eulogistic strain. (4.) Chappell, who was particularly biassed in favour of English music, avows the "exquisite beauty" of our old tunes; and (5.) the late Brinley Richards was enraptured with "their individuality and tenderness." It is unnecessary to quote the eulogies of Handel, Beethoven, Berlioz, Pleyel, Haydn, and other great masters.

Our own Moore rather ignorantly alludes to the comparatively modern date of many of our "ancient" melodies, the origin of which he is pleased to reckon as "dating no farther back than the last [eighteenth] disgraceful century." In his later years the "bard of Ireland" grudgingly admitted to Dr. Petrie that he was mistaken in his previous views, and he acknowledged that "the date of those airs is much more ancient" than he had stated. This admission, however, is not to be found in the various editions of the Melodies. However, as Renehan points out, Moore, in his History of Ireland (1840) admits "the superior excellence of the music of Ireland before the English invasion." Recent research has more than vindicated the undoubted claim of ancient Erin to the possession of the loveliest airs in the world.



[1] See New Ireland Review, for June, 1903.

[2] Mr Fuller Maitland, in January, 1904, in an admirable lecture on Folk Music, quoted examples of the Dorian (D) mode, and also of the Ionian (C), Lydian (F) and Mixolydian modes, from the Petrie Collection.

[3] The commentator of the meeting at Dromceat by Dallan Forgall, preserved in the Yellow Book of Lecan, says that "it was a cruit without any one of three tunings (Glesa) which served to Craiftine the harper, namely, Suantraighe, Goltraighe, and Geantraighe, for the sleeping, the crying, and the laughing modes."