The harp is an ancient and widely distributed instrument, and its usage ranges from pure entertainment to solo and ensemble music. The oldest extant harp, found at Ur in Sumer, dates from ca. 2600 B.C. The tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs contained elaborate golden harps that were used in ensembles and worship. Bow shaped artifacts of Ancient Greece have been discovered. Some harps and lyres dating from 2800 BC have been found in UR near Mesopotamia.
It is presumed that the harp moved westward from Egypt in ancient times to Greece and Italy as early as the 6th century B.C. The harp first appears in medieval Europe in illuminated manuscripts and carvings from the 8th to 10th century.
It was very popular in Ireland, beginning in the 10th century, where it became the country’s national symbol.
The best known of the historical Celtic harps was the Clairseach–the brass-wire strung Irish harp also played in highland Scotland. Having roughly 22 strings at the onset, around 1100 AD the Clairseach was an improvement on the ancient small harp or lyre having from 9 to 15 strings. The Clairseach, has a sound box carved from a single piece of wood, a pillar that curves outward, and today has 30 to 36 metal strings that can be played with either the fingers or the finger nails.
The instrument was “exported” to Wales where the strings were changed from metal to horsehair and gut. It then became popular in Scotland and England. During the middle ages, itinerant European harpers earned their living by moving from town to town, using small harps for self-accompanied singing, storytelling, and in instrumental consorts. The harp had such mystical significance that many kings or chieftains had harpers in their employ, believing the instrument to possess magical powers. It was not unusual for a harper to remain unharmed during battles, being respected by the enemy and considered immune from attack
Between 1792 and 1802 John Egan established a factory in Dublin to build harps. He developed a mechanism which connected the string arm hooks with levers that could be operated by the feet.
Our modern orchestral harp has 47 strings and evolved through a series of formats which attempted to solve the problem of chromaticism. The final version, a “double action” harp, was patented in 1810 by Sebastian Erard of Paris and enabled the performer to alternate the pitch of each string between flat, natural, and sharp by moving a pedal between three individual positions
The pedals are organized in the following order, and are easily remembered by the phrase “Did Columbus Bring Enough Food Going (to) America.”
The strings are lengthened and shortened (thus changing the pitch) by a complex mechanism which runs from the pedals up through the column and into the neck. There are two forked disks for each note on the outside plate that twist against the string when deployed. For example, when a pedal is moved from flat to natural, the top disk turns and pulls the note up a half-step. When the pedal is moved again from natural to sharp the note raises a second time.
Lever, or folk harps, are so called because the mechanisms used to change keys are levers that are attached to the harp and push against the strings to make them shorter and thus sharpen the string. Many people, when thinking of harps, think first of the large, ornate classical pedal harps seen on stage with symphony orchestras. Classical, or pedal harps use pedals instead of levers to change keys. The advantage of pedal harps is that you can play accidentals easily and quickly, as well as being able to change keys quickly. The advantage of lever harps is that they are lighter and more portable, and can come in any size, from tiny lap harp to full-size floor harp.
Because all harps were gilded with 22 carat gold the price made them accessible only to the wealthy.
In the last fifty years there has been a great resurgence of harp playing. The construction of smaller, non-gilded harps has made them more affordable. Pedal harps are still the price of a small car, but the Celtic harp is now in a price range for beginners, and is enjoyed and loved by those harpists who do not wish to play the pedal harp.
A word about harpists. In 1875 the general consensus of opinion was that the instrument was much too complicated for a woman to play! Today we have thousands of women, men and children who enjoy playing this magnificent instrument.
Facts worth knowing…
A harpist uses only the first four fingers of each hand to play; the little finger is never in action.
When the harp is tuned to the correct pitch, the pressure of the strings on the sounding board is approximately 4,400 pounds.
Having no “black keys”, how does the harpist find himself among the 47 strings? Every C is colored RED while every F is BLACK. These are the “landmarks”.
The majority of concert pedal harps around the world are made in Chicago, Illinois.
The average concert grand pedal harp weighs around 80 pounds and is approximately six feet in height
In medieval Scandinavia the harp was viewed as an instrument for noblemen. A commoner found playing a harp was condemned to death!