Created | Updated Jun 24, 2014
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The harp is a musical instrument with a series of strings stretched over a roughly triangular wooden frame. Each string plays a different note. Music is produced by plucking the strings with the player's fingers. Harps were once the mainstay of Celtic folk music, but are rarely seen these days. Also, the instrument makes occasional appearances in the classical music world in the form of the double-action pedal harp.
The harp is probably the only musical instrument to be a national symbol: it was adopted as the symbol of Ireland at the setting up of the present Republic of Ireland and is used on all official government correspondence, appears on all the coins (even the new Euro ones) and on the president's flag. The harp is also the symbol of that other great Irish institution, Guinness.
The harp is one of the oldest musical instruments, having been around since the start of recorded history in 3000 BC. Harps have been found dating from this time in both Egypt and Mesopotamia, and are frequently shown in Egyptian tomb paintings. These early harps were of two varieties: angular harps and arched harps. Angular harps had a sound box and a neck attached to it at an angle. Strings were stretched between the neck and the sound box. Arched harps had a sound box which extended and curved around to make the neck in a long curve rather than with an angle. In both cases, there was no front pillar to take the strain in the strings. This meant that only a limited number of low-tension strings could be used, giving the instrument a limited range and a dull, quiet tone.
Harps of both these types have survived and are still played in some parts of the world; most notably, Africa, Myanmar and, until about 100 years ago, Iran and Afghanistan.
The Frame Harp
The addition of a front pillar to strengthen the construction seems to have been a European invention and took place some time around the 9th Century AD. Although played throughout Europe, these harps were found most often in the Celtic countries: Scotland, Ireland and Wales. In all three countries there was a strong tradition of harp playing, with the harpist being one of the most exalted members of society. There were, however, slight regional differences. Irish harps were metal-strung and played with the fingernails, while Welsh harps used horsehair and had two or even three rows of strings. Normal harps were tuned in a diatonic scale (equivalent to the white notes of a piano), and the extra rows of strings allowed semitones (sharps and flats) to be played.
The Celtic frame harp had a curved front pillar. It survived in this form until the 18th Century when it died out. A wonderful example is on display in Trinity College, Dublin, dating from the 15th Century. The left side of this particular harp is the symbol of the Republic of Ireland, while the right side of the same harp is the symbol of Guinness.
The Gothic Harp
By the 14th Century, harps in mainland Europe started to change in shape, evolving a straight pillar and becoming much larger. This allowed a bigger range and a brighter tone.
The Single-action Pedal Harp
The single-action pedal harp was invented in 1720 by Hochbrucker, and featured seven foot-operated pedals. By an elaborate mechanism, each of these pedals controlled all the strings of a particular name: for example, the F pedal controlled all the F strings. Pressing the pedal would raise all the F strings simultaneously to F#. This enabled tunes to be played in a number of different keys. This harp was not very popular, due to shortcomings in the pedal mechanism, but it led the way for the invention of the ultimate design: the double-action pedal harp.
The Double-action Pedal Harp
This is the harp used in orchestras today. It was invented in 1820 by Sébastien Erard. It has 47 gut or nylon strings ranging from the lowest C of the piano to the G six and a half octaves higher. Each string can be raised or lowered in pitch by a semitone by the action of the seven pedals. One pedal raises all the Cs, another all the Ds and so on. The name 'double-action' means that the string may be either raised or lowered. This means that the harp can play a diatonic scale in any one of the 15 keys from seven flats to seven sharps. There is also a smaller version which is not quite as cumbersome to move around.
The Chromatic Harp
The chromatic harp was in vogue at the beginning of the 20th Century. It is still made, but is far less popular. This has a string for every semitone, so that music need not be confined to particular keys but can range over the whole spectrum of the chromatic scale.
The Modern Folk Harp
With the folk music revival of the start of the 20th Century, the Celtic frame harp was revived in a slightly different form. Gut or nylon strings are now used instead of metal. Sharpening levers are provided at the neck which can be used to sharpen individual strings to allow the playing of music in sharp keys only. This is much more limited than the capabilities of a concert harp, but is sufficient for the playing of folk music. These harps generally have at most 36 strings.
Playing the Harp
The player normally sits behind the sound box of the harp and reaches around the sound box to reach the strings. The harp is tilted back so that it rests on the player's shoulder. The longest strings which play the lowest notes are furthest away and the small high-pitched strings are closest to the player. All the C strings are coloured red; all the F strings are coloured blue. Other strings are a neutral colour. With this colour coding, it is possible to see where all the notes are.
Special Playing Techniques
Arpeggio - this means literally 'in the style of a harp'. It is the way chords are normally played on a harp. Instead of playing all the notes at the same time, the notes are played one at a time in rapid succession, starting with the lowest.
Glissando - this means that a finger is dragged across strings either upward or downward, playing all the notes.
Harmonics - these are rare. If one finger touches the string exactly half way along the string while another plucks the string, a note an octave higher will be produced. This is called a harmonic. It normally has an eerie sound.
Music for Harp
In the Irish traditional music scene, the works of Turlough O'Carolan, the 18th Century blind harpist, stand out. O'Carolan bridged the gap between the old Irish traditions and the European baroque music which was coming into the country at the time. He wrote a large amount of music, the tunes of which have been handed down to the present day. It is not known what type of harmony or ornamentation he and other harpists would have used at the time.
In the classical music scene, some composers love the harp while others seem to ignore it totally. Mozart wrote one concerto for flute and harp, and Handel wrote some music for it in his opera Esther, as well as one concerto which may have been for harp. Bach doesn't appear to have written anything for harp at all, but Wagner uses six harps in his opera Das Rheingold, and Mahler regularly uses two or three in his symphonies.