Llawlyfr y crythorion
A beginner’s guide to playing the crwth
by Cass Meurig
About the crwth
The crwth is a medieval bowed lyre with six strings, usually made of gut, and a flat bridge and fingerboard. The melody is played on four of the six strings, with the other two acting as plucked or bowed drones, producing a rich, earthy sound with a constant chordal accompaniment.
The crwth has been played in Wales in one form or another since Roman times. It was an instrument of the highest status during the Middle Ages whose best players could earn a stable income in the courts of the Welsh aristocracy. During the seventeenth century new instruments such as the fiddle came to Wales with a modern repertoire of country dance tunes. The crwth gradually declined and ceased to be played by the beginning of the nineteenth century. However the last ten years have seen a revival of the ancient instrument and there are now a number of both professional and amateur players and several crwth makers. There are three surviving eighteenth-century crwths in Britain which are kept in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, The Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans, Cardiff, and Warrington Museum. Other crwths including some nineteenth-century reproductions exist in European museums.
There is a good deal of information about the crwth available (those interested who can speak Welsh should read Bethan Miles’s MA dissertation Swyddogaeth a Chelfyddyd y Crythor; there is a copy in the National Library of Wales). Various eighteenth-century writers including Edward Jones and Daines Barrington described the instrument and gave instructions as to the usual method of tuning it and the names of the strings. There are drawings and carvings depicting the method of holding the instrument, and also a number of poems in Welsh which describe the shape and sound of the crwth and in some cases give the names of tunes which were played on it. Some of these song and dance tunes have survived in eighteenth-century manuscripts and books. We also have a clue as to an earlier medieval repertoire in the manuscript of the harpist Robert ap Huw (copied c. 1613), containing tunes written in harp tablature which may have been played on the crwth.
Modern crwth playing is based on some research and a good deal of experimentation. Some crwth players have opted mainly for reconstructing the medieval repertoire; others are more interested in adapting later tunes and songs and in writing new music for crwth. It is also used an accompanying instrument, mainly for voice. This manual includes song and dance tunes from the Welsh repertoire, taken from oral tradition and written sources. It is the result of my own experience of learning the crwth and is intended only to be a guide in the early stages until such time as the player feels confident to develop his or her own approach.
Tuning the crwth
The six strings of the crwth are usually tuned as follows (I use other tunings as well, but still find the standard tuning to be the most practical and flexible option).
The names of the strings are:
(1) crasdant (the harsh string),
(2) bwrdwn y crasdant (the harsh string’s drone) – (1) and (2) together are the ‘crasdannau’;
(3) bwrdwn y cyweirdant (the key string’s drone),
(4) y cyweirdant (the key string) – (3) and (4) together are the ‘cyweirdannau’;
(5) y llorfdant (the bass string),
(6) bwrdwn y llorfdant (the bass string’s drone) – (5) and (6) together are the ‘llorfdannau’.
Most of the time all six strings are played at once, due to the flat bridge, but it is possible to omit some in order to achieve a particular harmony or effect. The melody is played by stopping two or more strings at once, usually the crasdannau (1 and 2) and the cyweirdannau (3 and 4) which lie over the fingerboard. The llorfdannau (5 and 6) act as drones and can also be plucked or briefly stopped by the left-hand thumb.
Method for holding the crwth
The crwth is held by a strap around the neck which passes round the left upper arm of the crwth. Place the strap over your head and allow the tail end of the crwth to rest against your chest with the tuning pegs farthest from you. Keep the instrument at right angles to yourself and the floor with the strings on your right hand side rather than turning it to face you like a violin. You should be able to let go of the crwth now without it falling (this may mean adjusting the length of the strap). The reason behind the holding position is that it enables the player to move his hand freely up and down the instrument instead of gripping it constantly. It also helps the player to play in tune, as the angle of the bridge mimics the angle that the fingers touch the strings.
The position may feel odd at first, but there are several ways to make it more comfortable:
(1) put a cloth or sponge between the strap and the back of your neck to reduce the pressure;
(2) only practise for short amounts of time until you have built up the necessary muscles;
(3) practise either sitting on a chair with your back supported, or sitting on the floor with the body of the crwth resting on your left knee and your back supported.
There are various different methods of holding the bow, depending on the type of bow you have and personal preference. Here are two possibilities: choose whichever feels most comfortable and allows you to relax your hand without gripping tightly.
(1) The violin method:
Holding the bow in your left hand, place your right hand thumb underneath the stick of the bow approximately an inch from the heaviest end. Curl your index finger over the top of the stick and tuck it beind your thumb without touching the hair. Place your little finger on top of the very end of the stick. Allow the third and fourth fingers to find their own place between them. This method allows for a great deal of finger flexibility in the right hand.
(2) The finger-tension method:
Place the thumb, third, fourth and little fingers as per the violin method, but curl the index finger right over the top of the bow until it is holding the hair underneath. The advantage of this method is that it allows the player to control the tension of the bow hair.
Sounding the strings
Once you have mastered holding the crwth and the bow it is time to try sounding the strings. Raise the bow slightly above the strings of the crwth and starting from the ‘heel’ end (where your right hand is holding it), draw the bow firmly across all six strings. Try to keep the hair in contact with all six strings until you reach the other end of the bow (the ‘point’). This is called a ‘down bow’. Practise this movement until you can hear all six strings sounding. Try now to move the bow too fast. Now draw the bow across the strings from the point to the heel. This is called an ‘up bow’.
When you can do both movements, put them together: down bow, up bow, down bow, up bow. Try to keep the bow hair in contact with all of the strings at all times instead of lifting if off when you reach the end of the bow. The aim is to achieve a steady rhythmic droning sound.
The left hand
The left hand changes the pitch of the notes by stopping the strings. Because of the way the crwth is tuned (in octave pairs), most of the time you will need to finger two of the six strings at once: either the crasdannau (strings 1 and 2) or the cyweirdannau (3 and 4). There is a bit of a knack involved in this which means it will take a while before you will be able to play in tune, but don’t be put off. If you really can’t bear the early stages there is another option available; you could temporarily remove the octave drones (strings 2 and 3) and finger just the crasdant and the cyweirdant until you feel more comfortable (incidentally, a three-stringed version of the crwth existed in the middle ages, so this may have been how crwth players of old learned to play).
- The crasdannau (strings 1 and 2)
Cup your left hand around the neck of the crwth with your thumb under the llorfdannau (the two bass strings) and your fingers resting on the fingerboard over the strings. Now press your index finger firmly on the crasdannau (stopping both the first and second string) about an inch away from the nut. With your hand in this position draw the bow across the strings. When you have found the correct place for the index finger you should be able to hear a chord of C major, with your finger causing the E of the chord. If it is too low you will be playing C minor with your finger causing the E flat!
Now press your middle finger on the crasdannau, right next to your index finger. Play the chord; your finger should be playing an F. Repeat for the fourth finger, which goes about an inch from the middle finger; this finger plays a G. Finally repeat for the little finger (this is more difficult), about three quarters of an inch above the fourth. This finger plays an A.
Repeat all of this sequence until you can do it reasonably smoothly. Then practice reversing the sequence and going up and down the scale from E to A to E.
To begin the scale at C, you will need to bow only the cyweirdannau and the llorfdannau rather than all six at once, as the C is provided by the open strings of the cyweirdannau. Again, this takes a bit of practice and don’t worry if you hit the crasdannau as well at first. The D of the scale happens on the open strings of the crasdannau, so you need to bow all six strings at once without stopping them with your left hand. Practice playing a scale from C to A and back.
The cyweirdannau (strings 3 and 4)
Now repeat what you have just learned on the cyweirdannau, by stopping the third and fourth strings instead of the first and second. The finger spacing is slightly different for the cyweirdannau; to produce a scale of C from C to G, your middle finger will be about an inch away from your index finger, and the fourth right next to the third finger. Play the scale on the crasdannau and then on the cyweirdannau, listening for the difference in sound. This is created by the fact that depending which strings you are stopping with your fingers, the drone strings will play a different chord. If you stop the crasdannau, the cyweirdannau and llorfdannau drone a C chord (C in the cyweirdannau, G in the llorfdannau). If you stop the cyweirdannau, they drone a G chord (G in the llorfdannau, D in the crasdannau). When you play a tune on the crwth, you have the option of deciding which chord you want to be droning along behind the melody, by choosing to finger either the crasdannau or the cyweirdannau (it all sounds more complicated in theory than it is in practice).
Note: It is possible to create many more chords by splitting the octave pairs, eg. by fingering the crasdant and bwrdwn y crasdant separately. Also, if the crwth is tuned differently there will be entirely different drones happening. It is also possible to reach much higher than A in the scale by shifting the left hand’s position; it is not difficult to reach the octave (top C), and one can even reach as high as the E above top C with a bit of practice. But for the time being, stick with a scale of C to A, droning either a C chord or a G chord. It is surprising how many good tunes fit into 6 notes.
The crwth is fully chromatic within the limits of its range, so minor keys and other modes are not a problem. To play a scale of C minor you need to flatten the E to an E flat, which means moving the index finger back towards the nut on the crasdannau, or moving the middle finger back towards the index finger on the cyweirdannau. The little finger on the crasdannau also needs to move back to play A flat instead of A. It is worth taking a moment to find all the flats and sharps, by moving each finger in turn back and forward until you hit the right spot (you could check each notes against a piano or other instrument if you are not sure).
The left hand thumb
Resist the temptation to grip the crwth with the left hand thumb, as you will need it later for two purposes. The thumb can pluck the llorfdannau, creating a rhythmic accompaniment to the tune – a bit tricky at first but hugely satisfying once you get the knack. It can also stop the bottom string (bwrdwn y llorfdant) in mid-air to give a slightly indistinct bottom B, B flat or A. Try playing ‘Sbonc Bogel’ later on if you want to have a go at this.
You are now ready to play your first tune on the crwth! The tunes which follow are all fingered as follows. The fingers are numbered from 1 (the index finger) to 4 (the little finger).
The fingers on the crasdannau are shown in plain typeface:
The fingers on the cyweirdannau (and the bottom G, which is played by bowing the bottom string on its own) are shown in bold typeface:
The player often has a choice as to whether to play the tune on the crasdannau or the cyweirdannau. My fingering is only a suggestion; feel free to change it. I have adapted some of the tunes to make them easier to play on the crwth, but do experiment and make your own versions of them when you feel confident.