About The Harp



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The harp is one of the world's most ancient and universal instruments; two facts possibly associated with the simplicity of its earliest forms. (Simplicity is definitely not a quality associated with the construction or performance technique of the modern harp.) Basically, the earliest harp-form was a conjoining of two frame parts; the body and the neck, between which were strung various lengths of gut that were then plucked to produce notes of differing pitch.


The earliest harps can be traced back well into antiquity, even as far as 3000BC. These earliest types were arched harps and angular harps. The framed harp from which the modern orchestral harp derives eventually joined them.

Frame harps appeared in about the ninth century AD and it is thought that they arrived with the western drift of Celtic peoples to whom the framed harp was maybe indigenous. It maintained a stronghold within the Celtic lands of Wales, Ireland and Scotland. It was almost exclusively a European instrument.

The frame consisted of three parts; the body, which also acted as a resonator, the neck, from which the strings stretched, and the fore pillar. This addition completed the triangulation of the harp, thus strengthening the structure sufficient to accommodate increased string tensions.

This was the ancestor of the modern orchestral harp that was to achieve its present capabilities as a result of innovative technological advances.

The modern harp has the largest range of all orchestral instruments and this it manages with a complement of forty-seven strings. Were each string to represent but one note, such a range would be impossible. Efforts were made to produce a wider ranged harp with one note per string but the results proved cumbersome so whilst the early framed-harp was effective it was limited in its compass.

Attention changed to finding a way of influencing the vibrating length of the strings so that each string could produce more than one note. In the seventeenth century, hooks were situated on the neck and these were then turned to catch the string, modify its length and raise its pitch by a semitone. This was effective yet clumsy since one hand was needed to execute the adjustment and only one hand was left for playing.

Harp Pedals

In 1720, Celestin Hochbrucker from Germany introduced an ingenious system whereby he mechanised the hook system by introducing seven foot-pedals to the body, which now became a pedestal. The erstwhile solid fore pillar was hollowed to facilitate the insertion of levers and wires that transmitted the pedal motions to the hooks, which, shortened, raised the pitch of the strings by a semitone. (Not just one string was activated: each pedal associated with all corresponding notes within octaves.) The result of Hochbrucker's efforts was the first single-action pedal harp.

Enabling each string to be raised a semitone was a great advance but it was still insufficient to allow the harp to remain apace with the developments in composition.

Harp Strings Sebastien Erard (1752-1831), an important pianoforte maker advanced the scope and efficiency of the mechanism by rejecting the idea of hooks. In their place he substituted rotating discs with two studs mounted thereon. The discs, activated by the pedals by transmission devices set within the fore pillar, gripped and shortened the string with the effect of raising the pitch by a semitone. In addition to this innovative mechanism, Erard went even farther. In 1810, he supplied each string with, not one, but two discs so that two pedal movements would increase the range by a further semitone. By introducing the first double-action pedal harp, Erard had allowed each string to produce its neutral pitch and its accompanying sharp and flat.

The efforts of Hochbrucker and Erard meant that the harp could achieve a chromatic scale whilst being tuned diatonically with seven notes per octave, as opposed to the twelve-note chromatic octave.

The mechanism introduced by Erard has remained virtually unchanged and the double-action pedal harp is still in use today.

In the nineteenth century, the harp was a favoured instrument for domestic performance. It was, it is said, not only enjoyed for its musical and social qualities but also for the fact that the mainly female players were, due to the sweeping, flourishing action of playing, seen to display their arms to great advantage!

It is as an orchestral instrument that the harp is now mainly used though the Celtic harp retains a strong presence in folk music. Much of the solo work available for the harp was produced for consumption at such domestic entertainments as those described above. Concerti have been written for the harp but they are few in number and there is more call for the harp in chamber music but this repertoire, too, is limited.

The characteristic sweeping motion of playing notes consecutively gives rise to the term arpeggio, from arpa, the Italian for harp.

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