Harp

DECO Angel - v1

A concert harp consists of a sound box, which is the broad section closest to the player; the strings, descending from an upper cross-piece, (today known as the neck); and a rigid forepillar which takes the strain of the tension generated by the strings.  Tuning of the strings generally is carried out by pegs, which are operated from the neck.

It is not clear when the harp was invented, but archaeological evidence points to early versions in Egypt dating from approximately 2500 BC, and in Sumeria, Mesopotamia as early as 3500 BC.  The harp probably began as an arched piece of wood, like a bow strung with many strings.  King David of Israel (ca 1000 BC), traditional composer of the Psalms, played another kind of ancient harp, the lyre. There are also early records of widespread use of the harp in Burma (the saung) and south-east Asia (the yaal).

Development of the forepillar allowed increased string tension to be tolerated and larger numbers of strings to be used.  This ‘frame harp’ is seen in Scotland in 8th century AD Pictish stones and it flourished in Western Europe at least from the 11th century AD.  There is pictorial evidence from the 13th century onwards that the framed harp was played with the fingers of both hands.

The concert harp we see today depended on a revolution of the late 18th century.  Musicians of the time were frustrated by the limited ability of the harp to play in different keys and to modulate rapidly.   And so in 1782 the Cousineau family in Paris produced a harp which had 14 pedals, enabling the instrument to play readily in any key.  Sébastien Érard then took this further in 1810 with his invention of the double action harp, which had 43 strings and 7 foot-pedals: this is very much the prototype of the modern concert harp. When the pedal is depressed once, the string is sharpened by a semitone, and depressing the pedal a second time causes the string to be sharpened by a further semitone.   Harp strings may be made of gut, nylon, wire or silk.  Nowadays harpists often choose to use wire for the lowest strings and gut or nylon for the higher pitched strings. Tuning all those strings is of course another matter.

Modern harps appear in many forms, but the concert harp of today has 46 or 47 strings, and is played with the thumb and three longest fingers of both hands.  The forepillar is not just for strength but contains pedal rods linking the action of the pedals to the sophisticated mechanics in the neck.  Today’s concert harp spans some 6 ½ octaves.  The instrument weighs around 35kg.

Handel, Mozart and Puccini used the harp in their operas.  Debussy, Tchaikowski, Richard Strauss and Wagner enriched their romantic works with lavish use of the instrument.  Benjamin Britten wrote a suite for harp as well as using it as the accompanying instrument in his Ceremony of Carols.  The harp has also had a place in the humour of our Western society.  Harpo Marx rarely used his vocal cords on screen, but communicated with horn, whistle, humorous facial expressions and of course the harp.

The harp also has considerable political and symbolic significance.  It has appeared as the symbol of Ireland in heraldry since the early 17th century.  Since the 19th century it has become an icon of a famous make of powerful dark ale.  More recently an Irish Airline has used the harp to advertise its excellence!  In Christian symbolism and iconography the harp is commonly seen as the instrument of angels.  Listening to today’s performance, you can readily understand why.

But finally spare a thought for the parents of every budding harpist.  Teachers are rarely on one’s doorstep, and so transporting a pupil to weekly lessons is an enormous commitment.  Both parents need to undertake intensive bodybuilding at the gym in order to develop the musculature for loading the instrument into a car large enough to transport it.  Forty-six strings have to be purchased, and each may cost around £50.  And finally, lifting an unwieldy 37kg instrument up the stairs to a concert platform is a complex task akin to that of a Dalek required to ascend the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Nevertheless the instrument of angels is central to our classical repertoire today, and undoubtedly transports the listener effortlessly up the stairway to the pearly gates –  “Welcome to heaven; here’s your harp and tuning key”.