A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Harp

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HARP (Fr. Harpe; Ital. Arpa; Germ. Harfe). A musical instrument of great antiquity; in its modern development, by means of the ingenious mechanism of the double action, distinguished as the only instrument with fixed tones not formed by the ear and touch of the player, that has separate notes for sharps, flats, and naturals, thus approaching written music more nearly than any other.

The harp presents a triangular form of singular beauty, the graceful curve of the neck adding to the elegance of its appearance Although the outline has varied at different epochs and in different countries, the relation of its proportions to the musical scale—a condition of symmetry in musical instruments—is in the harp very close; so that whether it be Egyptian, Persian, Mediæval, or Keltic, it is always fashioned in beauty of line, and often characteristically adorned.

In looking at a harp we recognise at once the varied functions of its structure. The resonant instrument is the soundboard, forming with its body the angle next the player. The opposite angle is the pillar. Both support the neck, a curved bracket between which and the soundboard the strings are stretched. In modern harps the neck includes the 'comb' containing the mechanism for raising the pitch of the strings one half tone by the single action, or two half tones by the double action. The pillar is hollow to include the rods working the mechanism. The pedestal, where pillar and soundboard unite, is the frame for the pedals, levers acted upon by the feet and moving the rods in the pillar.

The wood used in a harp is chiefly sycamore, but the soundboard is of pine, and in old harps was frequently ornamented with painted devices. The dimensions of soundboard and body increase downwards. Along the centre of the soundboard is glued a strip of beech, or other hard wood, in which are inserted the pegs that hold the lower ends of the strings, the upper ends being wound round tuning-pins piercing the wrestplank which forms the upper part of the neck. The soundboard is ribbed underneath by two narrow bars, crossing the grain of the pine, their duty being to drive the soundboard into nodes and figures of vibration.
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The strings are of catgut, coloured to facilitate the recognition of the notes by the player, the lowest eight being spun over, wire upon silk or wire upon wire. The compass of an Erard double-action harp is 6½ octaves.

The apparently slight resistance offered by the bridge to the tension of the strings, inadequate if their drawing power were perpendicular, is sufficient because they are placed at an angle. There is also a lateral angle in the position of the neck and strings, to allow for the strain on the side the strings are attached to.

The origin of the harp must be put back anterior to the earliest records of civilisation. It was possibly suggested by the stretched string of the bow. The addition of several strings would be analogous to binding several reeds or whistles together to form a syrinx, both contrivances apparently preceding the shortening to different lengths by the finger of a single vibrating string, as in a lute, or the shortening of the vibrating column of air in a pipe by means of holes perforated in it to be stopped also by the fingers. The oldest monuments of the harp are Egyptian. Those first seen by Bruce, painted on the wall of a burying-place at Thebes, are supposed to be as old as the 13th century B.C. These are very large harps, richly ornamented, and standing, to judge from the players, more than six feet high. These instruments, which have been often described, having no front pillar, could have had no great tension, and were probably of a low and sweet tone. But while all Egyptian harps wanted this important member for support, they were not limited to one size. There seems to have been a great variety in dimensions, number of strings, and amount of ornament. Some, like Bruce's, were placed upon the ground; others were upon rests or stools, to admit of the player's standing. Those held by seated players were more like the Greek trigonon, a link between the harp and lyre.

The Assyrian harps resembled the Egyptian in having no front pillar, but differed in the soundboard being uppermost, the lower angle being a simple bar for the attachment of the strings. Mr. Engel ('Music of the most Ancient Nations,' London, 1864) regards the absence or presence of the front pillar as distinguishing the Eastern harp from the Western, but it may be that the distinction is rather that of ancient and modern, for the very earliest Western harp of which a representation exists, that in Bunting's 'Ancient Music of Ireland,' attributed by him to an earlier date than A.D. 830, has no front pillar. The beautiful form of the more modern Irish harp is well known from its representation in the royal coat of arms. Two specimens are to be seen in South Kensington Museum: one is a cast of the ancient harp in Trinity College, Dublin, said to have belonged to Brian Boiroimhe. In these the body is perpendicular, or nearly so, instead of slanting, as in modern harps; the front pillar being curved to admit of this, and the neck—in the Irish harp called the Harmonic Curve—descending rather to meet it. This form gives a more acute angle to the strings, which were of brass, two to each note, the sounds being produced by the pointed finger-nails of the player. The number of strings is uncertain, but the fragments of the 'Dalway' harp, shown in the Special Exhibition at South Kensington in 1872, inscribed 'Ego sum Regina Cithararum,' and dated A.D. 1621, justify our assuming the large scale of fifty-two for this instrument.

The Irish Gaelic harp must have been the Scotch Gaelic one also. According to Gunn (Historical Inquiry, etc., Edinburgh 1807) a lady of the clan Lamont in Argyle took a harp with her on her marriage in 1640 to Robertson of Lude, which had for several centuries been the harp of a succession of Highland bards. Gunn described it as then existing, 38 inches high and 16 broad, with 30 strings. Another, also then existing and in excellent preservation, he stated to have been the gift of Queen Mary to Miss Gardyn of Banchory. It was smaller than the Lude harp, ami could only have carried twenty-eight strings. [App. p.668 "The Lamont harp carried 32 strings. The Queen Mary harp had originally 29, and a later addition made 30 in all."]

The Welch Harp has likewise a perpendicular body, but is larger than the Irish, increasing considerably downwards. The neck ascends, the front pillar being longer. The Welch harp has three rows of gut strings, the outer rows being unisons in diatonic series, the inner the chromatic semitones. There is one at South Kensington, lent by Lady Llanover.

The earliest representation of the portable mediæval harp, which so many painters loved to delineate along with lutes and viols, is perhaps that in Gerbert's 'De Cantu et Musica Sacra,' copied from a MS. of the 9th century in the Monastery of St. Blaise in the Black Forest, destroyed by fire in 1768. The form of this instrument is preserved in the modern harp, the front pillar only differing in being straight instead of slightly curving, to admit of the movement of the rods for working the pedals.

That the Western harp belongs to Northern Europe in its origin there seems to be no doubt. Mr. Max Müller claims the name as Teutonic, and has contributed these historic and dialectic forms: Old High German, Harapha; Middle do., Harpfe; Modern do., Harfe; Old Norse, Harpa. From the last were derived the Spanish and Italian Arpa, the Portuguese Harpa, and the French Harpe—the aspirate showing the Teutonic origin. The Anglo-Saxon form was Hearpe. The Basque and Sclavonian, as well as the Romance, took the name with the instrument, but there is a remarkable exception in the fact of the Keltic peoples having their own names, and these again divided according to the Gaelic and Cymbric branches. Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte has supplied the following illustration:—Irish Gaelic, Cláirseach; Scotch do., Cl'arsach, Manx, Claasagh; Welch, Telyn; Cornish, Telcin; Breton, Tílen.

The Mediæval harp, a simple diatonic instrument, was sufficient in its time, but when modern instrumental music arose, its limits were found too narrow, and notwithstanding its charm of tone it would have fallen into oblivion. It had but one scale, and to obtain an accidental semitone the only resource was to shorten the string as much as was needed by firmly pressing it with the finger. But this was a poor expedient, as it robbed the harpist for the time of the use of one hand. Chromatic harps were attempted by German makers in the last century and early in this, but it was found impracticable through difficulty of execution to give the harp thirteen strings in each octave, by which each would have been a sharp to its next lower and a flat to its next higher string. The first step towards the reconstruction of the harp was due to a Tyrolese, who came upon the idea of screwing little crooks of metal (crotchets) into the neck, which when turned against the string would cause the shortening necessary for a chromatic interval. Still the harpist lost the use of one hand while placing or releasing a crook, and one string only was modified, not its octaves. About the year 1720, one Hochbrucker, a native of Donauwörth in Bavaria, conceived and executed the first pedal mechanism, and rendered the harp fit for modulation, by using the foot to raise each open string, at will and instantaneously, half a tone higher, and leaving the player's hands free. This brought about a very remarkable revolution in harp-playing, giving the instrument eight major scales and five minor complete, besides three minor scales descending only. Hochbrucker's mechanism acted upon crooks which pressed the strings above nuts projecting from the neck. But there were inconveniences arising from this construction; each string acted upon by a crook was removed from the plane of the open strings, an impediment to the fingering, and frequent cause of jarring, and the stopped strings were less good in tone than the open. A fault no less serious was due to the mechanism being adjusted to the wooden neck, which was intractable for the curving required; if too much bent it was liable to break, and if not bent enough the middle strings would break when tuned up from being too long.

The first to make harps without crooks, and yet to stop half tones, were Frenchmen—the Cousineaus, father and son. They passed each string between two small pieces of metal (bequilles) placed beneath the bridge-pin. Then by the pedal action these metal pieces were made to grasp the string, and shorten it the distance required. The Cousineaus also introduced a slide to raise or lower the bridge-pin regulating the length of the string, and placed each system of levers belonging to strings of the same name between metal plates which were bevelled to make them lighter. Thus the neck could be curved at pleasure, and its solidity being assured, the proportions of the strings could be more accurately established. About 1782 they doubled the pedals and connected mechanism, and thus constructed the first double-action harp. The pedals were arranged in two rows, and the tuning of the open strings was changed to the scale of C♭ instead of E♭, as in the single-action harps. But it does not appear that the Cousineaus made many double action harps; they were still too imperfect; and the Revolution must have closed their business, for we hear no more of them.

We now arrive at the perfecting of the harp by that great mechanician Sebastian Erard, whose merit it was to leave this instrument as complete as the Cremona school of luthiers left the violin. His earliest essays to improve the harp date about 1786, and were confined to the single action. He worked upon a new principle, the fork mechanism, and in his harps which were finished about 1789, the arrangement of it was chiefly internal; the studs that shorten the strings alone performing their functions externally. He patented in London in 1794 a fork mechanism external to the plate. He made a double-action harp in 1801, patenting it in 1809, but it was not until 1810 that he produced the culmination of his beautiful contrivance, which has since been the model for all harp makers. In this harp, as in the single action one, Erard maintained seven pedals only, and simply augmented the extent of movement of the cranks and tringles (or levers) acted upon by the pillar-rods, to give successively a portion of revolution to the disks from which the studs project; the first movement of the pedal serving to shorten strings of the same name, to produce the first half tone, the second movement of the pedal for the second half tone, the contrivance being so ingenious that the position of the upper disk—the second to move but the first to act upon the strings—is not changed when the lower disk completes its movement of revolution and acts upon the strings also.

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The drawing represents 3 sections of the neck of Erard's double action harp, and shows the position of the forks and external levers, (1) when the strings are open, (2) when stopped for the first half tone, and (3) when stopped for the second. Two strings are shewn for each pitch.

It is not necessary to keep the foot upon a pedal, as it may be fixed in a notch and set free when not required; spiral springs with two arms fixed beneath the pedestal accelerate the return of the pedals. Unlike the weighty expedient of the Cousineaus, there are but two brass plates which form the comb concealing the greater part of the action. Lastly, Erard made the convex body bearing the soundboard of one piece, doing away with the old lute-like plan of building it up with staves.

As already stated, the double-action harp is tuned in C♭. By taking successively the seven pedals for the half-tone transposition, it can be played in G♭, D♭, A♭, E♭, B♭, F, and C♮. By the next action of the pedals, completing the rise of the whole tone, the harp is set successively in G, D, A, E, B, F♯, and C♯. The minor scales can only be set in their descending form, the ascending requiring change of pedals. Changes by transposition constitute a formidable difficulty in playing keyed instruments through the altered fingering required. On the harp passages may be repeated in any key with fingering absolutely the same. The complication of scale fingering, so troublesome to pianoforte playing, is with the harp practically unknown.

The harmonics of the harp are frequently used by solo players, and 'the sonorousness of these mysterious notes when used in combination with flutes and clarinets in the medium' called forth the admiration of Berlioz. ('Modern Instrumentation,' Novello 1858.)

In describing the Double-action Harp of Sebastian Erard, the writer has been much helped by a report, read before the French Institute in 1815, and lent to him by Mr. George Bruzaud.

[App. p.668 "Add the following notice of an innovation in harp manufacture:—The difficulties attending performance of the harp, the constant tuning necessitated by the use of catgut strings, and the absence of any means of damping the sounds, have induced M. Dietz, of Brussels, to invent a harp-like instrument with a chromatic keyboard, which he has named the Claviharp. It has been introduced into England through the advocacy of Mr. W. H. Cummings, but the introduction (1888) is too recent to admit of a just comparison being made between this instrument and the ordinary double-action harp. It is sufficient to say that the action of the Claviharp is highly ingenious, the strings being excited mechanically much in the same way as the strings of the harp are excited by the player's fingers. There are two pedals—one being like the pianoforte damper pedal and the other producing the harmonics of the octave. The Claviharp is of pleasing appearance."]

[ A. J. H. ]