Type: Bowl > Lyre > Chordophone.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.2
Tuning: gg´ / c´c´´ / d´d´´ /
Country: Whales, Great Britain.
Region: Western Europe.
Description: The crwth [ IPA: /ˈkruːθ/ or /ˈkrʊθ/] also called a crowd or rote, is a bowed lyre, a type of stringed instrument, associated particularly with Welsh music and with medieval folk music of England, now archaic but once widely played in Europe.
Four historical examples have survived and are to be found in St. Fagan’s National Museum of History [Cardiff], National Library of Wales [Aberystwyth], Warrington Museum & Art Gallery, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Etymology: The name crwth is Welsh, derived from a Proto-Celtic noun *krotto- [“round object”] which refers to a swelling or bulging out, a 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 “hump” or “hunch” as well as harp or violin. Like several other English loanwords from Welsh, the name is one of the few words in the English language in which the letter W is used as a vowel.
The traditional English name is crowd [or rote], and the variants crwd, crout and crouth are little-used today. 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 Crewther, Crowder, Crother and Crowther denote a player of the crowd, as do the Scottish names MacWhirter and MacWhorter.
Tuning: 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 intervalic-ally. 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. However this tuning is almost certainly derived from later violin playing and is impractical given that the crwth is equipped with a flat bridge and therefore designed to play all six strings simultaneously.
Construction: The crwth consists of a fairly simple box construction with a flat, fretless fingerboard and six gut strings. Traditionally the soundbox, or resonator, and a surmounting yoke in the shape of an inverted U. Originally they were carved as a single unit from a block of maple or sycamore. The body is carved from soft wood, and the bridge was usually made of cherry or some other fruitwood.
Two sound-holes, 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 which could be 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 sound-hole (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 the piece is flat, unbraced, and usually made of soft wood, it is much weaker than the belly of a violin.
Citations: “A new discovery within an old instrument: was the Welsh crwth unique in possessing two sound-boxes?”. St Fagans: National History Museum website. National Museum Wales. 2 April 2012. Retrieved 19 May 2013. “Museum website”. Bought in 1843 by Dr James Kendrick. Warrington Museum & Art Gallery. 2 April 2012. Retrieved 19 May 2013.