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Getting Started; Early harps
Early Music Today

Getting Started; Early harps

Posted Tuesday, November 22, 2016   |   467 views   |   Music   |   Comments (0) Frances Kelly takes us through a brief history of the early harp in western culture, and the basic fundamentals of playing.

Why do we choose any instrument? Why does one particular instrument speak to us? I was very lucky to take up the harp completely by accident as a Junior at the Royal College of Music in the golden age of ILEA scholarships and free musical education. It spoke to me immediately, not just because I was mad about Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky and the wonderful colours in their orchestral music but also because I loved the feel of playing it, the sounds it conjures up and the way the they linger in space. With plucked gut strings you are really playing with the acoustic around you.

 

Growing up I was subject to the opinion that instruments changed and developed, got bigger and better, cleverer and could do more or less anything composers stretched their imagination to write. Of course the harp is still developing and we now have electric and midi harps, but I have been drawn towards exploring ‘early music’ and how each harp is right for the music of its time. I also love the element of improvisation involved and the communal exploration of the score.

 

People often come up to me and say, ‘I always wanted to play the harp’. There seems to be something about the harp sound that touches the heart; it can be soothing and therapeutic, but also dynamic and invigorating. The harp is so ancient, so culturally diverse, yet fundamentally so simple. There are many different types of harp, and to be entirely ‘authentic’ one could have a few different harps for each century.

 

A brief, rough summary of early harps in western culture (though it has to be said that the development is by no means as linear as this suggests):

 

• Medieval harp: A small single row, diatonic harp with a hollowed-out sound box (around 17–23 strings is useful) which rests on your lap or between your knees. It can have quite a robust sound.

 

• Gothic harp: A longer, more slender instrument, suitable for music from the 14th to the 16th centuries, it has a sweet and gentle sound which can be transformed by bray pins which buzz against the strings. Some accidentals are possible by fretting the string with the thumb, or by clever tunings in different octaves.

 

• Wire-strung harp: Strongly associated with Ireland and Scotland, and played with the nails, this harp has the most gorgeous, melting, lingering sound, but needs a careful and complex damping technique. The last gathering of the great Irish harpers was in 1792.

 

• Chromatic harps: From c.1580 with more than one row of strings and a greater range of notes, these harps are wonderful for accompanying from a figured bass and were usually played by professionals. In Italy the rows of strings were parallel but the Spanish harp had two rows crossing each other and its sound box is much broader. The harp for which Handel wrote was like the traditional Welsh triple harp of today, albeit much more lightly strung.

 

• Hakenharfe: A harp with hooks that can be turned manually on the string arm to fret a string and raise it by a semitone. This developed into …

 

• The single-action pedal harp: A beautiful and decorative instrument which flourished from about 1760–1850. Pedals were attached to rods that went inside the pillar and activated mechanism to fret the strings by one semitone. Usually tuned in E-flat major with a limited range of keys available; suitable for Classical and early Romantic repertoire.

 

• The double-action pedal harp: Perfected by Erard in 1811, the harp’s mechanism has not really changed since this time. It enabled the harp to play in all keys as each string can be fretted twice and thus can be flat, natural or sharp. 19th century harps should be much more lightly strung than today both in orde

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Early Music Today is the UK’s leading magazine devoted to performers and enthusiasts of early music.

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