Explore the Harp

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Did You Know...

The harp is a stringed instrument which has the plane of its strings positioned perpendicular to the soundboard. All harps have a neck, resonator and strings. Some, known as frame harps, also have a forepillar; those lacking the forepillar are referred to as open harps. Harp strings can be made of nylon (sometimes wound aroundcopper), gut (more commonly used than nylon), or wire. A person who plays the harp is called a harpist or a harper, the latter term being older.

Various types of harps are found in Africa, Europe, North, and South America, and a few parts of Asia. In antiquity harps and the closely related lyres were very prominent in nearly all musical cultures, but they lost popularity in the early 19th century with Western music composers, being thought of primarily as a woman's instrument afterMarie Antoinette popularised it as a lady's pastime. There was no harp-exclusive museum until the North Italian harp building firm of Victor Salvi started one in 2005.

The aeolian harp (wind harp) and autoharp are technically zithers, not harps, because their strings are not perpendicular to the soundboard.

Origins of the harp

The harp's origins may lie in the sound of a plucked hunter's bow string. The oldest documented references to the harp are from4000 BC in Egypt (see Music of Egypt) and 3000 BC in Mesopotamia. While the harp is mentioned in most translations of the Bible,King David being the most prominent musician, the Biblical "harp" was actually a kinnor, a type of lyre with 10 strings. Harps also appear in ancient epics, and in Egyptian wall paintings. This kind of harp, now known as the folk harp, continued to evolve in many different cultures all over the world. It may have developed independently in some places.

The lever harp came about in the second half of the 17th century to enable key changes while playing. The player manually turned a hook or lever against an individual string to raise the string's pitch by a semitone. In the 1700s, a link mechanism was developed connecting these hooks with pedals, leading to the invention of the single-action pedal harp. Later, a second row of hooks was installed along the neck to allow for the double-action pedal harp, capable of raising the pitch of a string by either one or two semitones. With this final enhancement, the modern concert harp was born.

Most European-derived harps have a single row of strings with strings for each note of the C Major scale (over several octaves). Harpists can tell which strings they are playing because all F strings are black or blue and all C strings are red or orange. The instrument rests between the knees of the harpist and along their right shoulder. The Welsh triple harp and early Irish and Scottish harps, however, are traditionally placed on the left shoulder (in order to have it over the heart). The first four fingers of each hand are used to pluck the strings; the pinky fingers are too short and cannot reach the correct position without distorting the position of the other fingers, although on some folk harps with light tension, closely spaced strings, they may occasionally be used. Also, the pinky is not strong enough to pluck a string. Plucking with varying degrees of force creates dynamics. Depending on finger position, different tones can be produced: a fleshy pluck (near the middle of the first finger joint) will make a warm tone, while a pluck near the end of the finger will make a loud, bright sound.

The pedal or concert harp

The pedal harp, or concert harp, is large and technically modern, designed for classical music and played solo, as part of chamber ensembles, and in symphony orchestras. It typically has six and a half octaves (46 or 47 strings), weighs about 80lb (36 kg), is approximately 6 ft (1.8 m) high, has a depth of 4 ft (1.2 m), and is 21.5 in (55 cm) wide at the bass end of the soundboard. The notes range from three octaves below middle C (or the D above) to three and a half octaves above, usually ending on G.

The tension of the strings on the sound board is roughly equal to a ton (10 kilonewtons). The lowest strings are made of copper or steel-wound nylon, the middle strings of gut, and the highest of nylon. This is not to say that strings in the higher register are not produced in gut or that middle strings are not produced in nylon. The middle gut string and high nylon string setting is mainly because gut strings usually carry a higher price than nylon strings; they also fray and break more frequently than nylon strings. However, gut strings produce fuller sounds than do nylon strings do. The strings in the higher register are thinner and break more frequently. In the case of a broken string, replacing it with the same type (gut or nylon) is recommended, for a change in the type can be noticeable. For example, in a sequence of strings such as gut-gut-nylon-gut-gut, the nylon string's sound may stand out from the gut strings' sounds.

The pedal harp uses the mechanical action of pedals to change the pitches of the strings. There are seven pedals, one for each note, and each pedal is attached to a rod or cable within the column of the harp, which then connects with a mechanism within the neck. When a pedal is moved with the foot, small discs at the top of the harp rotate. The discs are studded with two pegs that pinch the string as they turn, shortening the vibrating length of the string. The pedal has three positions. In the top position no pegs are in contact with the string and all notes are flat. In the middle position the top wheel pinches the string, resulting in a natural. In the bottom position another wheel is turned, shortening the string again to create a sharp. This mechanism is called the double-action pedal system, invented by Sébastien Erard in 1810. Earlier pedal harps had a single-action mechanism that allowed strings to play sharpened notes.

Lyon and Healy, Camac Harps, and other manufacturers also make electric pedal harps. The electric harp is a concert harp, with microphone pickups at the base of each string and an amplifier. The electric harp is a little heavier than an acoustic harp, but looks the same.

Folk harps, lever harps, or Celtic harps

The folk harp or celtic harp is small to medium-sized and usually designed for traditional music; it can be played solo or with small groups. It is prominent in Irish, Scottish and other Celtic cultures within traditional or folk music and as a social and political symbol. Often the folk harp is played by beginners who wish to move on to the pedal harp at a later stage, or by musicians who simply prefer the smaller size or different sounds.

The folk or lever harp ranges in size from two octaves to six octaves, and uses levers or blades to change pitch. The most common size has 34 strings: Two octaves below middle C and two and a half above (ending on B), although folk or lever harps can usually be found with anywhere from 19 to 40 strings. The strings are generally made of nylon, gut, carbon fiber or flourocarbon, or wrapped metal, and are plucked with the fingers using a similar technique to the pedal harp.

Folk harps with levers installed have a lever close to the top of each string; when it is engaged, it shortens the string so its pitch is raised a semitone, resulting in a sharped note if the string was a natural, or a natural note if the string was a flat. Lever harps are often tuned to the key of E-flat. Using this scheme, the major keys of E-flat, B-flat, F, C, G, D, A, and E can be reached by changing lever positions, rather than re-tuning any strings. Many smaller folk harps are tuned in C or F, and may have no levers, or levers on the F and C strings only, allowing a narrower range of keys. Blades and hooks perform almost the same function as levers, but use a different mechanism. The most common type of lever is either the Camac or Truitt lever although Loveland levers are still used by some makers. Amplified (electro-acoustic) and solid body electric lever harps are produced by some harpmakers.

Wire-strung harps (clàrsach or cláirseach)

The harper on the Monifeith Pictish stone, Scotland, 700 X 900 AD
The harper on the Dupplin Cross, Scotland, circa 800 AD
The Gaelic wire-strung harp is called a clàrsach in Scotland or a cláirseach in Ireland. The origins go back at least the first millennium. There are several stone carvings of harps from the 10th century, many of which have simple triangular shapes, generally with straight pillars, straight string arms or necks, and soundboxes. There is stone carving evidence that supports the theory that the harp was present in Gaelic/Pictish Scotland well before the 9th century.[1]

The earliest descriptions of a European triangular framed harp i.e. harps with a fore pillar are found on 8th century Pictish stones.[2][3][4] Pictish harps were strung from horsehair. The instruments apparently spread south to the Anglo Saxons who commonly used gut strings and then west to the Gaels of the Highlands and to Ireland.[5] Historically the carvings were made in the period after the establishment of the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata. Despite the lack of direct evidence, some argue for a Gaelic influence. However, there are only thirteen depictions of any triangular chordophone from pre-11th century Europe, and all thirteen of them come from Scotland.[6] Moreover, the earliest Irish word for a harp is in fact Cruit, a word which strongly suggests a Pictish provenance for the instrument.[7]

One study suggests Pictish stone carvings may be copied from manuscripts like the Utrecht Psalter, the only other source outside Pictish Scotland to display a Triangular Chordophone instrument.[8] The Utrecht Psalter was penned between 816-835A.D.[9] While Pictish Triangular Chordophone carvings found on the Nigg Stone dates from 799 A.D.[10] and pre-dates the document up to thirty-five years.

The harp was the most popular musical instrument in later medieval Scotland and Ireland and Gaelic poets portrayed their Pictish counterparts as very much like themselves.[11]

Maedoc book-cover, Ireland, circa 1000 AD

This Scottish clàrsach, now in the Museum of Scotland, is a one of only three surviving medieval Gaelic harps. Two of them survive from Perthshire, Scotland, and there is good reason to believe that all three were made in Argyll.[12]
“ Scotland, because of her affinity and intercourse [with Ireland], tries to imitate Ireland in music and strives in emulation. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments only, the harp namely, and the tympanum. Scotland uses three, the harp, the tympanum and the crowd. In the opinion, however, of many, Scotland has by now not only caught up on Ireland, her instructor, but already far outdistances her and excels her in musical skill. Therefore, [Irish] people now look to that country as the fountain of the art. ”
—Gerald of Wales
The harp played by the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland between the 11th and 19th centuries was certainly wire-strung. The IrishMaedoc Book Shrine dates from the 11th century, and clearly shows a harper with a triangular framed harp including a "T-Section" in the pillar (or Lamhchrann in Irish) indicating the bracing that would have been required to withstand the tension of a wire-strung harp.

By the Later Middle Ages, the Gaelic language word clàrsach or cláirseach described a wire-strung harp with a massive carved soundbox, a reinforced curved pillar and a substantial neck, flanked with thick brass cheek bands. The wire-strung harp was played with the fingernails, and it produced a brilliant ringing sound. This is the style of harp on Irish coins and the Guinness label. Especially popular in 16th and 17th century English courts, it was played all over Europe and was usually called the Irish Harp.

By the 17th century, harps of any sort had fallen out of use in Scotland and Ireland due to changing social, political and economic conditions. At the same time, new chromatic harps were being created on the Continent for a bourgeois audience; harps with multiple rows of strings and harps with sharping mechanisms for playing the fashionable music of the time. In the mid-19th century, a revival of all things Celtic brought attention back to Gaelic culture, sparking interest in native language and music.

The Irish and Highland Harps by Robert Bruce Armstrong is an excellent book describing these ancient harps. There is historical evidence that the types of wire used in these harps are iron, brass, silver, and gold. Three pre-16th century examples survive today; the Trinity College harp in Ireland, and the Queen Mary and Lamont harps, both in Scotland.

One of the largest and most complete collections of 17th century harp music is the work of Turlough O'Carolan, a blind, itinerant Irish harper and composer. At least 220 of his compositions survive to this day.

Edward Bunting was commissioned to notate the music played by the harpers at the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival. He published his first volume in 1796. He continued to collect the music of the cláirseach and published his second and third volumes in 1809 and 1840 respectively. A reprint of the 1840 edition is now available from Dover Publications.

Dennis Hempson (O'Hampsey) was the last of the harpers who played in the old style using the fingernails to pluck while the finger pads are used to damp. He also was one of the last to use the left hand in the treble. He was in his 90s at the 1792 festival and died in the beginning of the 19th century. He took the unbroken tradition of wire-strung harping with him to his grave.

Since the 1970s, the tradition has been revived. Alan Stivell's "Renaissance de la harpe celtique" (perhaps the best-seller harp album in the world), using mainly the bronze strung harp, and his tours, has brought the instrument into the ears and the love of many people . Ann Heymann has revived the ancient tradition and technic by playing the instrument as well as studying Bunting's original manuscripts in the library of Queens University, Belfast. Other notable players include Patrick Ball, Cynthia Cathcart, Alison Kinnaird, Bill Taylor, Siobhán Armstrong and others.

As performers have become interested in the instrument, harp makers ("luthiers") such as Jay Witcher, David Kortier, Ardival Harps, Joël Herrou and others have begun building wire-strung harps. The traditional wire materials are used, however iron has been replaced by steel and the modern phosphor bronze has been added to the list. The phosphor bronze and brass are most commonly used. Steel tends to be very abrasive to the nails. Silver and gold are used to get high density materials into the bass courses of high quality clàrsachs to greatly improve their tone quality. In the period, no sharping devices were used. Harpers had to re-tune strings to change keys. This practice is reflected by most of the modern luthiers, yet some allow provisions for either levers or blades.

Multi-course harps

A multi-course harp is a harp with more than one row of strings. A harp with only one row of strings is called a single-course harp.

Double harp
A double harp consists of two rows of diatonic strings one on either side of the neck. These strings may run parallel to each other or may converge so the bottom ends of the strings are very close together. Either way, the strings that are next to each other are tuned to the same note. Double harps often have levers either on every string or on the most commonly sharped strings, for example C and F. Having two sets of strings allows the harpist's left and right hands to occupy the same range of notes without having both hands attempt to play the same string at the same time. It also allows for special effects such as repeating a note very quickly without stopping the sound from the previous note.

A triple harp features three rows of parallel strings, two outer rows of diatonic strings, and a center row of chromatic strings. To play a sharp, the harpist reaches in between the strings in either outer row and plucks the center row string. Like the double harp, the two outer rows of strings are tuned the same, but the triple harp has no levers. This harp originated in Italy in the 16th century as a low headed instrument, and towards the end of 1600s it arrived in Wales where it developed a high head and larger size. It established itself as part of Welsh tradition and became known as the Welsh harp (telyn deires, "three-row harp"). The traditional design has all of the strings strung from the left side of the neck, but modern neck designs have the two outer rows of strings strung from opposite sides of the neck to greatly reduce the tendency for the neck to roll over to the left.

Cross-strung harp
The cross-strung harp consists of one row of diatonically tuned strings and another row of chromatic notes. These strings cross approximately in the middle of the string without touching. Traditionally the diatonic row runs from the right (as seen by someone sitting at the harp) side of the neck to the left side of the sound board. The chromatic row runs from the left of the neck to the right of the sound board. The diatonic row has the normal string coloration for a harp, but the chromatic row may be black. The chromatic row is not a full set of strings. It is missing the strings between the Es and Fs in the diatonic row and between the Bs and Cs in the diatonic row. In this respect it is much like a piano. The diatonic row corresponds to the white keys and the chromatic row to the black keys. Playing each string in succession results in a complete chromatic scale.

Harp technique

Harp playing uses all of the fingers except for the pinky, which is generally too short and weak to effectively pluck a string. In order to make notation of fingerings easier, each finger is given a number, "1" for the thumb, "2" for the index finger, "3" for the middle finger, and "4" for the ring finger. Most types of harp only require use of the hands. The exception is the pedal (concert) harp, where the harpist pushes the pedals with his or her feet.

There are two main methods of classical harp technique in the United States: the French method (associated in the United States with the French-American harpist Marcel Grandjany) and the Salzedo method, developed by Carlos Salzedo. Neither method has a definite majority among harpists, but the issue of which is better is sometimes a source of friction and debate. The distinguishing features of the Salzedo method are the encouragement of expressive gestures, elbows remain parallel to the ground, wrists are comparatively still, and neither arm ever touches the soundboard. The Salzedo method also places great emphasis on specific fingerings. The French method advocates lowered elbows, fluid wrists, and the right arm resting lightly on the soundboard. In both methods, the shoulders, neck, and back are relaxed. Some harpists combine the two methods into the technique that works best for them.

On the wire strung clarsach, a thumb under technique is also used.

As in all baroque instrumental techniques, the underlying principle is that of strong and weak articulation. The player only uses three fingers of each hand, and the thumb moves under the other fingers, rather than being held very high as in modern harp technique. The thumb and third fingers are "strong" fingers and the second finger is a "weak" finger. Scales are fingered with alternating strong and weak fingers - that is, a scale fingering could be either 1 2 1 2 1 2 or 3 2 3 2 3 2. In contrast, classical harp technique uses a fingering of 4 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 going up and 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 going down.

Another approach to "thumb under" technique as described above is to place the thumb so that it passes over the second finger, rather than under it. There is equal evidence for both thumb over and thumb under playing techniques on historical harps.

In this second approach it is important to note that the fingers are placed on the strings an equal distance up the string from the soundboard. This may be as little as 5-8 inches on very lightly strung harps. If you begin by making a circle with your thumb and second finger, placing both the thumb and the second finger on the same string, open your thumb and place your thumb on the string above, also placing the third (and fourth – if you choose to use it) on the neighbouring strings below the second finger. The fingertips placed on the strings should loosely form a straight line parallel to the soundboard of the harp.

As you play each finger, the aim is to roll the string over the end of your finger as you release it rather than pulling the string into your hand. This should require very little finger action to produce a warm and well rounded sound. Each finger produces a subtly different tone articulation. When playing scales down the harp, after playing the thumb it passes just over the second finger onto the string below, with the second finger falling onto the string below the thumb after releasing its note. Otherwise, as with thumb under technique, all scales are played alternating strong and weak fingerings.

Other harps around the world

In South America, there are Mexican, Andean, Venezuelan, and Paraguayan harps. They are derived from the Baroque harps that were brought from Spain during the colonial period: wide on the bottom and narrow at the top, with perfect balance when being played but unable to stand independently for lack of a base. The Paraguayan harp is the most popular, and is Paraguay's national instrument. It has about 36 strings with narrower spacing and lighter tension than other harps, and so has a slightly (four to five notes) lower pitch. It does not necessarily have the same string coloration as the other harps. For example, some Paraguayan harps may have red B's and blue E's instead of red C's and blue F's. This harp is also played mostly with the fingernails.

All of Africa's harps are open harps because they lack the forepillar. With the exception of Mauritania's ardin, which is a true harp, most West African harps, such as the kora, are technically classified as harp-lutes because of their two rows of strings which are strung parallel to each other but perpendicular to the soundboard.

In Asia, there are very few harps today, though the instrument was popular in ancient times; in that continent, zithers such asChina's guqin and Japan's koto predominate. However, a few harps exist, the most notable being Burma's saung-gauk, which is considered the national instrument in that country. The Chinese konghou, which died out, is being revived in a modernized form.Turkey had a harp called the çeng that has also fallen out of use.

There are no harps indigenous to Oceania or the Americas.

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