1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Harp

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HARP (Fr. harpe; Ger. Harfe; Ital. arpa), a member of the class of stringed instruments of which the strings are twanged or vibrated by the fingers. The harp is an instrument of beautiful proportions, approximating to a triangular form, the strings diminishing in length as they ascend in pitch. The mechanism is concealed within the different parts of which the instrument is composed, (1) the pedestal or pedal-box, on which rest (2) the vertical pillar, and (3) the inclined convex body in which the soundboard is fixed, (4) the curved neck, with (5) the comb concealing the mechanism for stopping the strings, supported by the pillar and the body.

(1) The pedestal or pedal-box forms the base of the harp and contains seven pedals both in single and double action harps, the difference being that in the single action the pedals are only capable of raising the strings one semitone by means of a drop into a notch, whereas with the double action the pedals, after a first drop, can by a further drop into a second and lower notch shorten the string a second semitone, whereby each string is made to serve in turn for flat, natural and sharp. The harp is normally in the key of C flat major, and each of the seven pedals acts upon one of the notes of this diatonic scale throughout the compass. The choice of this method of tuning was imposed by the construction of the harp with double action. The pedals remain in the notches until released by the foot, when the pedal returns to its normal position through the action of a spiral spring, which may be seen under each of the pedals by turning the harp up.

(2) The vertical pillar is a kind of tunnel in which are placed the seven rods worked by the pedals, which set in motion the mechanism situated in the neck of the instrument. Although the pillar apparently rests on the pedestal, it is really supported by a brass shoulder firmly screwed to the beam which forms the lowest part of the body, a connexion which remains undisturbed when the pedal box and its cover are removed.

(3) The body or sound-chest of the harp is in shape like the longitudinal section of a cone. It was formerly composed of staves joined together as in the lute and mandoline. Erard was the first to make it in two pieces of wood, generally sycamore, with the addition of a flat soundboard of Swiss pine. The body is strengthened on the inside, in order to resist the tension of the strings, by means of ribs; there are five soundholes in the back, which in the older models were furnished with swell shutters opened at will by the swell pedal, the fourth from the left worked by the left foot. As the increase of sound obtained by means of the swell was infinitesimal, the device has now been discarded. The harp is strung by knotting the end of the string and passing it through its hole in the centre of the soundboard, where it is kept in position by means cf a grooved peg which grips the string.

(4) The neck consists of a curved piece of wood resting on the body at the treble end of the instrument and joining the pillar at the bass end. In the neck are set the tuning pins round which are wound the strings.

(5) The comb is the name given to two brass plates or covers which fit over both sides of the neck, concealing part of the mechanism for shortening the strings and raising their pitch a semitone when actuated by the pedals. On the front plate of the comb, to the left of the player, is a row of brass bridges against which the strings rest below the tuning pins, and which determine the vibrating length of the string reckoned from the peg in the soundboard. Below the bridges are two rows of brass disks, known as forks, connected by steel levers; each disk is equipped with two studs for grasping the string and shortening it. The mechanism is ingenious. When a pedal is depressed to the first notch, the corresponding lower disk turns a little way on a mandrel keeping the studs clear of the string. The upper disk, set in motion by the steel levers connecting the disks, revolves simultaneously till the string is caught by the two studs which thus form a new bridge, shortening the vibrating length of the string by just the length necessary to raise the pitch a semitone. If the same pedal be depressed to the second notch, another movement causes the lower disk to revolve again till the string is a second time seized and shortened, the upper disk remaining stationary. The hidden mechanism meanwhile has gone through a series of movements; the pedal is really a lever set upon a spring, and when depressed it draws down the connecting rod in the pillar which sets in motion chains governing the mandrels of the disks.

The harp usually has forty-six strings, of gut in the middle and upper registers, and of covered steel wire in the bass; the C strings are red and the F strings blue. The compass thus has a range of 6½ octaves from Britannica Harp Range.png. The double stave is used as for the pianoforte. The single action harp used to be tuned to the key of E♭ major.

The modern harp with double action is the only instrument with fixed tones, not determined by the ear or touch of the performer, which has separate notes for naturals, sharps and flats, giving it an enharmonic compass. On the harp the appreciable interval between D# and E♭ can be played. The harp in its normal condition is tuned to C♭ major; it rests with the performer to transpose it at will in a few seconds into any other key by means of the pedals. Each of the pedals influences one note of the scale throughout the compass, beginning at the left with D, C, and B worked by the left foot. Missing the fourth or forte pedal, and continuing towards the right we get the E, F, G and A pedals worked by the right foot. By lowering the D pedal into the first notch the D♭ becomes D♮, and into the second notch D#, and so on for all the pedals. If, for example, a piece be written in the key of E major, the harp is transposed into that key by depressing the E, A, and B pedals to the first notch, and those for F, G, C and D to the second or sharp notch and so on through all the keys. Accidentals and modulations are readily played by means of the pedals, provided the transitions be not too rapid. The harp is the instrument upon which transposition presents the least difficulty, for the fingering is the same for all keys. The strings are twanged with the thumbs and the first three fingers.

The quality of tone does not vary much in the different registers, but it has the greatest brilliancy in keys with many flats, for the strings are then open and not shortened by the forks. Various effects can be obtained on the harp: (1) by harmonics, (2) by damping, (3) by guitar tones, (4) by the glissando. (1) Harmonics are produced by resting the ball of the hand on the middle of the string and setting it in vibration by the thumb or the first two fingers of the same hand, whereby a mysterious and beautiful tone is obtained. Two or three harmonics can be played together with the left hand, and by using both hands at once as many as four are possible. (2) Damping is effected by laying the palm against the string in the bass and the back of the finger in the treble. (3) Guitar or pizzicato notes are obtained by twanging the strings sharply at the lower end near the soundboard with the nails. (4) The glissando effect is produced, as on the pianoforte, by sliding the thumb or finger along the strings in quick succession; this does not necessarily give the diatonic scale, for by means of the pedals the harp can be tuned beforehand to chords. It is possible to play on the harp all kinds of diatonic and arpeggio passages, but no chromatic, except in very slow tempo, on account of the time required by the mechanism of the pedals; and chords of three or four notes in each hand, shakes, turns, successions of double notes can be easily acquired. The same note can also be repeated slowly or quickly, the next string being tuned to a duplicate note, and the two strings plucked alternately in order to give the string time to vibrate.

Pleyel's chromatic harp, patented in 1894 and improved in 1903 by Gustave Lyon, manager of the firm of Pleyel, Wolff & Co., is an instrument practically without mechanism which has already won great favour in France and Belgium, notably in the orchestra. It has been constructed on the familiar lines of the pianoforte. Henry Pape, a piano manufacturer, had in 1845 conceived the idea of a chromatic harp of, which the strings crossed in the centre as in the piano, and a report on the construction was published at the time; the instrument, however, was not considered successful, and was relegated to oblivion until Mr Lyon revised the matter and brought out a successful and practical instrument. The advantages claimed for this harp are the abandonment of the whole pedal mechanism, a metal framing which insures the strings keeping in tune as long as those of a piano, and an easily acquired technique. The chromatic harp consists of (1) a pedestal on castors, (2) a steel pillar without internal mechanism, (3) a wide neck containing two brass wrest-planks in which are fixed two rows of tuning pins, and (4) a soundchest in which is firmly riveted the steel plate to which the strings are fastened, and the soundboard pierced with eyelet holes through which the strings are drawn to the string plate. There is a string for every chromatic semitone of the scale of C major, the white strings representing the white keys of the piano keyboard, and the black strings corresponding to the black keys. The tuning pins for the black strings are set in the left side of the neck in alternate groups of twos and threes, and those for the white in the right side in alternate groups of threes and fours. The strings cross half-way between neck and soundboard, this being the point where they are plucked; the left hand finds the black notes above, and the right hand below the crossing. There is besides in the neck a set of twelve tuning buttons, each one of which on being pressed gives out one note of the chromatic scale tuned to the pitch of the diapason normal. It is obvious that the repertoire for this harp is very extensive, including many compositions written for the piano, which however cannot be played with any legato effects, these being still impossible on this chromatic harp.

History. — While the instrument is of great antiquity, it is yet from northern Europe that the modern harp and its name are derived. The Greeks and Romans preferred to it the lyre in its different varieties, and a Latin writer, Venantius Fortunatus,[1] describes it in the 7th century of our era as an instrument of the barbarians — “Romanusque lyra, plaudat tibi barbarus harpa.” This is believed to be the earliest mention of the name, which is clearly Teutonic, — O.H. Ger. harapha, A.-S. hearpe, Old Norse harpa. The modern Fr. harpe retains the aspirate; in the Spanish and Italian arpa it is dropped.


Harp2.png

Fig. 1.


The earliest delineations of the harp in Egypt give no indication that it had not existed long before. There are, indeed, representations in Egyptian paintings of stringed instruments of a bow-form having affinities with both primitive harp and nefer (a kind of oval guitar) that support the idea of the invention of the harp from the tense string of the warrior's or hunter's bow. This primitive-looking instrument, called nanga, had a boat-shaped sound-chest with a parchment or skin soundboard, down the centre of which one end of the string was fastened to a strip of wood, whilst the other was wound round pegs in the upper part of the bow. The nanga was played horizontally, being borne upon the performer's shoulder.[2] Between it and the grand vertical harps in the frescos of the time of Rameses III., more than 3000 years old, discovered by the traveller Bruce[3] (fig. 1), there are varieties that permit us to bind the whole, from the simplest bow-form to the almost triangular harp, into one family (see fig. 2).


Britannica Harp Egyptian Harp Variety.png

Fig. 2.


The Egyptian harp had no front pillar, and as it was strung with catgut the tension and pitch must necessarily have been low. The harps above-mentioned depicted in the tomb at Thebes, assumed from the players to be more than 6 ft. high, have not many strings, the one having ten, the other thirteen. What the accordance of these strings was it would be hard to recover. We must be content with the knowledge that the old Egyptians possessed harps in principle like our own, the largest having pedestals upon which they bestowed a wealth of decoration, as if to show how much they prized them.

The ancient Assyrians had harps like those of Egypt in being without a front pillar, but differing from them in having the sound-body uppermost, in which we find the early use of soundholes; while the lower portion was a bar to which the strings were tied and by means of which the tuning was apparently effected.[4] What the Hebrew harp was, whether it followed the Egyptian or the Assyrian, we do not know. That King David played upon the harp as commonly depicted is rather a modern idea. Medieval artists frequently gave King David the psaltery, a horizontal stringed instrument from which has gradually developed the modern piano. The Hebrew “kinnor” may have been a kind of trigonon, a triangular stringed instrument between a small harp and a psaltery, sounded by a plectrum, or more probably, as advocated by Dr Stainer in his essay on the music of the Bible, a kind of lyre.

The earliest records that we possess of the Celtic race, whether Gaelic or Cymric, give the harp a prominent place and harpists peculiar veneration and distinction. The names for the harp are, however, quite different from the Teutonic. The Irish “clairseach,” the Highland Scottish “clarsach,” the Welsh, Cornish, Breton “telyn,” “telein,” “télen,” show no etymological kinship to the other European names. The first syllable in clairseach or clarsach is derived from the Gaelic “clar,” a board or table (soundboard), while the first syllable of telyn is distinctly Old Welsh, and has a tensile meaning; thus resonance supplies the one idea, tension the other.


Britannica Harp Irish Harp.png

Fig. 3.

Irish (Dalway) Harp.


The literature of these Celtic harps may be most directly found in Bunting's Ancient Music of Ireland (Dublin, 1840), Gunn's Historical Enquiry respecting the Performance on the Harp in the Highlands of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1807), and E. Jones's Musical and Poetical Memoirs of the Welsh Bards (London, 1784). The treatises of Walker, Dalyell, and others may also be consulted; but in all these authorities due care must be taken of the bias of patriotism, and the delusive aim to reconstruct much that we must be content to receive as only vaguely indicated in records and old monuments. There is, however, one early Irish monument about which there can be no mistake, the harp upon a cross belonging to the ancient church of Ullard near Kilkenny, the date of which cannot be later than 830; the sculpture is rude, but the instrument is clearly shown by the drawing in Bunting's work to have no front pillar. This remarkable structural likeness to the old harps of Egypt and Assyria may be accidental, but permits the plausible hypothesis of Eastern descent. The oldest specimen of the beautiful form by which the Irish harp is now recognized, with gracefully curved front pillar and sweep of neck (the latter known as the harmonic curve), is the famous harp in Trinity College, Dublin, the possession of which has been attributed to King Brian Boiroimhe. From this mythic ownership Dr Petrie (see essay in Bunting) has delivered it; but he can only deduce the age from the ornamentation and heraldry, which fix its date in the 14th century or a little later. There is a cast of it in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The next oldest is in the Highlands of Scotland, the Clarsach Lumanach, or Lament's Clarschoe, belonging, with another of later date, to the old Perthshire family of Robertson of Lude. Both are described in detail by Gunn. This Lamont harp was taken by a lady of that family from Argyleshire about 1460, on her marriage into the family of Lude. It had about thirty strings tuned singly, but the scale was sometimes doubled in pairs of unisons like lutes and other contemporary instruments. The Dalway harp in Ireland (fig. 3) inscribed “Ego sum Regina Cithararum,” and dated 1621, appears to have had pairs of strings in the centre only. These were of brass wire, and played with the pointed finger-nails. The Italian contemporary “Arpa Doppia” was entirely upon the duplex principle, but with gut strings played by the fleshy ends of the fingers. When E. Bunting met at Belfast in 1792 as many Irish harpers as could be at that late date assembled, he found the compass of their harps to comprise Britannica Harp Irish Range.png thirty notes which were tuned diatonically in the key of G, under certain circumstances transposable to C and rarely to D, the scales being the major of these keys. The harp first appeared in the coat of arms of Ireland in the reign of Henry VIII.; and some years after in a map of 1567 preserved in a volume of state papers, we find it truly drawn according to the outlines of the national Irish instrument.[5] References to the Highlands of Scotland are of necessity included with Ireland; and in both we find another name erroneously applied by lexicographers to the harp, viz. “cruit.” Bunting particularly mentions the “cinnard cruit” (harp with a high head) and the “crom cruit” (the curved harp). In the Ossianic MSS. of the Dean of Lismore (1512) the word “crwt” occurs several times, and in Neill M‘Alpine's Gaelic Dictionary (1832), which gives the dialect of Islay, closely related to that of Ulster, the word “cruit” is rendered “harp.” The confusion doubtless arose from the fact that from the 11th century cithara is glossed hearpan in Anglo-Saxon MSS., a word which, like citharisare in medieval Latin, referred to plucking or twanging of strings in contradistinction to those instruments vibrated by means of the bow. In Irish of the 8th and 9th centuries (Zeuss) cithara is always glossed by “crot.” The modern Welsh “crwth” is not a harp but a “rotta” (see Crowd). An old Welsh harp, not triple strung, exists, which bears a great resemblance to the Irish harp in neck, soundboard and soundholes. But this does not imply derivation of the harp of Wales from that of Ireland or the reverse. There is really no good historical evidence, and there may have been a common or distinct origin on which ethnology only can throw light.[6] The Welsh like the Irish harp was often an hereditary instrument to be preserved with great care and veneration, and used by the bards of the family, who were alike the poet-musicians and historians. A slave was not allowed to touch a harp, and it was exempted by the Welsh laws from seizure for debt. The old Welsh harp appears to have been at one time strung with horse-hair, and by the Eisteddfod laws the pupil spent his noviciate of three years in the practice of a harp with that stringing. The comparatively modern Welsh triple harp (fig. 4) is always strung with gut. It has a rising neck as before stated, and three rows of strings, — the outer rows tuned diatonic, the centre one chromatic for the sharps and flats. Jones gives it 98 strings and a compass of 5 octaves and one note, from violoncello C. As in all Celtic harps, the left is the treble hand, and in the triple harps there are 27 strings on that side, the right or bass hand having 37, and the middle or chromatic row 34.


Britannica Harp Welsh Triple Harp.png

Fig. 4.

Welsh Triple Harp.


The first pattern of the modern harp is discovered in German and Anglo-Saxon illuminated MSS. as far back as the 9th century.[7] A diatonic instrument, it must have been common throughout Europe, as Orcagna, Fra Angelico, and other famous Italian painters depict it over and over again in their masterpieces. No accidental semitones were possible with this instrument, unless the strings were shortened by the player's fingers. This lasted until the 17th century, when a Tirolese maker adapted hooks[8] (perhaps suggested by the fretted or bonded clavichord) that, screwed into the neck, could be turned downwards to fix the desired semitone at pleasure. At last, somewhere about 1720, Hochbrucker, a Bavarian, invented pedals that, acting through the pedestal of the instrument, governed by mechanism the stopping, and thus left the player's hands free, an indisputable advantage; and it became possible at once to play in no less than eight major scales. By a sequence of improvements, in which two Frenchmen named Cousineau took an important part, the various defects inherent in Hochbrucker's plan became ameliorated. The pedals were doubled, and, the tuning of the instrument being changed from the key of E♭ to C♭, it became possible to play in fifteen keys, thus exceeding the power of the keyboard instruments, over which the harp has another important advantage in the simplicity of the fingering, which is the same for every key.


Britannica Harp Erard Harp.png

Fig. 5.

Modern Erard Harp.


It is to Sebastian Erard we owe the perfecting of the pedal harp (fig. 5), a triumph he gained in Paris by unremitting studies begun when he adopted a “fork” mechanism in 1786 and ended in 1810 when he had attained complete success with the double action pedal mechanism already described above. Erard's merit was not confined to this improvement only; he modified the structure of the comb that conceals the mechanism, and constructed the sound-body of the instrument upon a modern principle more advantageous to the tone.

Notwithstanding these improvements and the great beauty of tone the harp possesses, the domestic use of it in modern times has almost disappeared. The great cost of a good harp, and the trouble to many amateurs of tuning, may have led to the supplanting of the harp by the more convenient and useful pianoforte. With this comes naturally a diminution in the number of solo-players on the instrument. Were it not for the increasing use of the harp in the orchestra, the colour of its tone having attracted the masters of instrumentation, so that the great scores of Meyerbeer and Gounod, of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner are not complete without it, we should perhaps know little more of the harp than of the dulcimer, in spite of the efforts of distinguished virtuosi whose devotion to their instrument maintains its technique on an equality with that of any other, even the most in public favour. The first record of the use of harps in the orchestra occurs in the account of the Ballet comique de la royne performed at the château de Moutiers on the occasion of the marriage of Mary of Lorraine with the duc de Joyeuse in 1581, when harps formed part of the concert de musique.

See in addition to the works already referred to, Engel's Musical Instruments in the South Kensington Museum (1874); and the articles “Harp,” in Rees's Cyclopaedia, written by Dr Burney, in Stainer and Barrett's Dictionary of Musical Terms (1876), and in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. On the origins of the instrument see Proceedings of British Association (1904) (address of president of anthropological section). (K. S.; A. J. H.)


  1. Poemata, lib. vii. cap. 8, p. 245, Migne's Patrologiae cursus completus (Paris, 1857-1866, vol. 88).
  2. A few nangas (c. 1500 B.C.) are preserved among the Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum, fourth Egyptian room.
  3. Bruce's harps are reproduced by Champollion, tome iii. p. 261.
  4. Representations of these may be seen among the musical scenes in the Nimrod Gallery at the British Museum.
  5. See also a woodcut in John Derrick's Image of Ireland (1581), pl. iii. (Edinburgh ed. 1883).
  6. See the fine volume Musical Instruments on the Irish and Scottish harps by Robert Bruce Armstrong (1904), vol. i. Vol. ii., which deals with the Welsh harp, has unfortunately been withdrawn from sale.
  7. See for the medieval harp a careful article by Hortense Panum, “Harfe und Lyra im alten Nord-Europa,” in Intern. Mus. Ges. vol. vii. pt. 1 (Leipzig, 1905); and for references as to illuminated MSS., early woodcuts, paintings, &c. see Hugo Leichtentritt, “Was lehren uns die Bildwerke des 14-17 Jahrhunderts über die Instrumentalmusik ihrer Zeit?” ibid. vol. vii. p. 3 (Leipzig, 1906).
  8. See Nauwerk, “Die Hakenharfe, Die Vervollkommnung des Mechanismus an der deutschen Harfe.” in Allg. musik. Ztg. (Leipzig, 1815), p. 545 seq.