By the end of the 18th century, musical styles had changed and the centuries-old harping tradition was waning. In an attempt to reverse this trend, the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival aimed to preserve and promote the ancient harp music of Ireland. At this time of musical transition in Ireland, the repertoire of the Belfast Harp Festival incorporated features of both art music and folk music. The compositions of blind harper Turlough Carolan (1670-1738), featured in many of the performances, illustrate this variety of influences, drawing from Italian art composers, ancient Gaelic harp repertoire and traditional songs and dance tunes.
What set the Belfast Festival apart from earlier festivals, such as the Granard Balls of the 1780s, is that its organizers planned for the transcription of the harpers’ music. To this end, a classically-trained musician, 19-year-old organist Edward Bunting (1773-1843), was hired to notate the music exactly as played, without alteration.
Bunting’s first published collection, A General Collection of Ancient Irish Music (1796), was based on his transcriptions of the July 1792 festival. As the first known attempt to notate Ireland’s harp music directly from performers, Bunting’s transcription work took place just as the ancient harping tradition was about to pass away entirely. Even though Bunting is thought to have omitted some of the harpers’ bass lines, his published collection of 66 airs is still of major historical and musical significance.