Crwth is a Welsh word, pronounced to rhyme with tooth (or /krʊθ/). The traditional English name, little used today, is crowd, crout, or crouth; it is also known as the rote (rota, rotta, rotte), and it is cited as such in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (in which the friar is stated to have played one). In medieval Latin it is called the chorus or crotta. The Welsh word crythor means a performer on the crwth. The Irish word is cruit, although it also was used on occasion to designate certain small harps. The English surnames (family names) Crowder and Crowther denote a player of the crowd, as do the Scottish names MacWhirter and MacWhorter.
The origins of the word crwth go back into Antiquity. A variety of string instruments so designated are thought by some to have been played in Wales since Roman times at least. Continuous, clear records of the use of crwth to denote an instrument of the lyre class date from the eleventh century of the Common Era. Medieval instruments somewhat resembling the crwth appear in pictures (first in Continental Europe) as far back as the 11th century, shortly after bowing was first known in the West. In Wales, the crwth long took second place to the harp in the musical hierarchy.
The Welsh word literally refers to a swelling or bulging out, of pregnant appearance, or a protuberance, and it is speculated that it came to be used for the instrument because of its bulging shape. Other Celtic words for violin also have meanings referring to rounded appearances. In Gaelic, for example, "cruit" can mean harp or violin as well as "hump" or "hunch".
From this point onward in this article, crwth will denote the modern, or most recent, form of the instrument (see picture above).
The modern crwth appears to date from only the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and almost surely is not, as some romanticized accounts imply or declare, the same instrument that was played by the ancient and Medieval Welsh bards. In fact, its close ancestors became instruments of the folk culture of Wales and the West Country and western Midlands following the demise of minstrelsy in Britain at the close of the Middle Ages; and in its final form (probably emerging ca 1485-1510), it seems to have been confined to Wales. Although the modern crwth bears something of a resemblance to the classical lyre, with the addition of a bow, it is more closely related to the various plucked and bowed square and round lyres that drawings, paintings, and sculptures show to have existed throughout northern Europe from as far back as the eighth century of the Common Era. While the Middle-Eastern origin of the early European chordophone bow seems beyond dispute, the connections between the European round and square lyres and Middle-Eastern and Classical prototypes are tenuous at best.
The instrument in its final form lingered on in Wales much later than elsewhere, but had gone completely out of fashion by the 18th century, or at the latest the early 19th, supplanted by the more versatile and powerful fiddle (violin). The crwth received its death-blow during the rise of Welsh evangelical Protestantism in the 1730s, when dancing and musical instruments associated with dance music came to be widely condemned. According to the National Library of Wales, records of the last traditional crwth player, John Morgan, are found in Newborough, Anglesey, around 1740. An unconfirmed account reports that one James Green, of Bron y Garth, was actually the last of the traditional players, and that he died in 1855. Other accounts in oral tradition maintain that among the last of the crwth players were Rhys Grythor and Shawms y Crythor (both almost certainly nicknames).
There are many carvings, manuscript illustrations, and written descriptions of crwth-like instruments, but so complete was the abandonment of the modern crwth in the century after about 1735 that only three 18th-century Welsh examples survive. These are held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans, or Sain Ffagan, near Cardiff, and Warrington Museum (near Manchester in the North of England). An important reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon round lyre, a likely early prototype of the crwth, is part of the collection from the Sutton Hoo ship's burial, housed in the British Museum in London. It closely matches many iconographic representations.
Crwth was also largely used in Finnish folk music. In Finnish it is called jouhikko or jouhikantele. It came to Finland through Sweden and the Swedish speaking coastal areas of Estonia. In 1800s it was largely played in Eastern Savonia, in the municipalities like Savonranta, Kerimäki and Mäntyharju, and in the bordering Karelian municipalities of Kesälahti, Kitee, Ilomantsi and Sortavala. In Finland the strings were made of horsehair. About 50 Finnish folk songs played by crwth are known. One of the most well known crwth player is Juha Villanen from Savonranta.
The crwth consists of a fairly simple box construction with a flat, fretless fingerboard and six gut strings, purportedly tuned gg´c´c´´d´d´´. It should be noted that the original report of that tuning (Edward Jones, Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards; London: 1784), from which most subsequent others appear to draw their information, uses arbitrary pitch designations for illustrative purposes. Jones also states that the tuning procedure began by tightening the highest string as much as possible without breaking it, subsequently tuning the others to it intervalically. Such was not an uncommon practice in the days before standardized pitch and was, in fact, mentioned in other manuals on string instrument playing.
While Jones's report was widely read and used as the basis of a number of subsequent accounts, and therefore today is often considered to be evidence of a standard tuning, it is more likely that a variety of tunings were experimented with and in some cases employed, as was and still is the case with many other string instruments, particularly those within folk cultures. A second tuning, reported by William Bingley (A Tour Round North Wales; London: 1800), features the drones tuned in octaves, with the strings over the fingerboard tuned in paired fifths rather than seconds. This tuning has been shown to have been more practical than the more widely reported tuning for both the playing of chords and the performance of melodies.
Traditionally the soundbox, or resonator, and a surmounting yoke in the shape of an inverted U (see picture of player), were carved as a single unit from a block of maple or sycamore. The soundboard, or belly, a separate piece (the upper surface, nearest the strings), was most often made of deal or some other soft wood, and the bridge was usually made of cherry or some other fruitwood. Two soundholes, or circular openings about an inch to an inch and a quarter in diameter, were cut into the soundboard to allow pulsating air from the soundbox to escape and strengthen the tone. The two G strings (to use Jones's terminology - see above) ran parallel to the fingerboard, but not over it, so those strings were used as fixed-pitch drones that were usually, if not always, plucked by the player's left thumb. The remaining strings, which were tightened and loosened with metal harp wrest-pins and a tuning key or wrench, were usually bowed with a horsehair and wood bow. One characteristic feature of the crwth is that one leg of the bridge goes through a soundhole (see picture of player) and rests on the back of the instrument (the bottom of the soundbox). Although it has been conjectured that this is a primitive attempt at a sound post, or anima, something the instrument lacks, it is equally likely that it is designed to take some of the downward pressure of the tightened strings off the soundboard. Since that piece is flat, unbraced, and usually made of soft wood, it is much weaker than the belly of a violin.
The crwth can be played on the shoulder like a violin, between the knees like a cello, on the lap held either upright or at a slightly oblique angle across the player's torso against the left shoulder, or braced against the chest, supported with a strap around the player's neck (see picture). While the crwth can be held at the shoulder, it is difficult to work the drones, or bourdons, with it in that position. The sloping bridge strongly suggests that the oblique-upright position across the upper body (which greatly facilitates the plucking of the drones) was often employed to allow the bow to be pulled slightly upward without rubbing against the bridge as it often would have done had the bridge been set straight across the soundboard. The acute angle of the bow to the strings would have produced the harsh, often squeaky, "glassy" sound that practitioners seemed to prefer. However, since the art of crwth-playing died out so completely, and since it was an instrument of the folk culture rather than part of the academic musical world, the exact manner - if, indeed, there ever was one exact manner - in which the instrument was traditionally played, like the tunings employed, will probably never be known for certain.
The tone of the crwth can seem rough compared to that of the modern violin, as well as lacking in power, and the crwth can be played with ease only in what string players refer to as first position, with the left hand at the far end of the fingerboard rather than moving up towards the bridge. However, it is capable of a delicate and gentle sound that goes well with the timbres of the harp and pibgorn (hornpipe). For all its technical limitations, the crwth has great charm, and is much more than a historical curiosity. Research over about the last thirty-five years, and particularly experimentation with tunings, have shown it to have been much more versatile and facile than was once assumed, although it definitely was not a prototype of modern orchestral bowed string instruments, which emerged from an altogether different branch of the complex string family tree. Historically, it represents the logical end of a line of development, not an early stage of another.
A number of modern reconstructions of the crwth have been made; makers include Guy Flockhart, Nial Cain, Hank Taylor and Gerard KilBride. A handful of folk musicians are reviving the tradition of playing this instrument, among them Cass Meurig (who also plays with the groups Fernhill and Pigyn Clust), Bob Evans (Bragod), and Dan Morris (Cilmeri). The repertoire of surviving crwth tunes is very small, although many other traditional tunes can be adapted for the instrument and new tunes are being written for it. The world's first CD of crwth music, Crwth by Cass Meurig, was released in 2004 by the Fflach:tradd label.
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