In simplest terms, the harp is a plucked string instrument where the plane of the strings is perpendicular to the soundboard. The shape can be arched and open or a triangular frame. In contrast, the strings on other instruments (guitars, violins, etc.) run parallel to the soundbox.
Harps have been played since before the marking of time. They come from far-flung places—the temples of Tibet to the jungles of Africa. Twelfth century Buddhists carried them across the plains of Asia. Harpers entertained chieftains in ninth century Ireland. And for centuries, they were at the center of European society.
We can only speculate how the this instrument was born, but historians broadly agree it likely started with a hunter’s bow, probably 10,000 years ago. At around 2,000 BC the angular harp appeared: two pieces of wood were fastened at right angles with gut strings running from each end. It either started in Iran and spread slowly across the continents, or evolved independently in both Africa and Asia.
Today, harps are played worldwide, having long ago moved beyond their folk and classical traditions to invade the likes of jazz and rock. They help people celebrate, heal, relax, and mourn.
AFRICA: Story Tellers, Historians and Keepers of Customs
In Africa, a centuries-old tradition of using music to share village history and pass down family customs, or to complain about rotten fish, continues. African instruments are as diverse as the people. Researchers have identified nine distinct types of bow harps from Uganda and more than 150 throughout Africa.
Angular Harp Zambia, ca. 1989
IRELAND: Musical Poetry and National Symbol
Harps have been played in Ireland for more than 1,000 years. In the ninth century, “harpers” who entertained chieftains held a high position in clan society. The ear-ly Gaelic or cláirseach harp was made from a hollowed log. In 1534, harp devotee Henry VIII adopted the harp symbol on Irish coins.
By late 18th century, the Irish harp fell from favor. Its limited range was unable to compete with the French pedal harp. Nineteenth-century harp maker John Egan combined elements of the Gaelic and pedal harps into a portable model.
Clark Irish Harp with Stand, c. 1915
EUROPE: The Heavenly Harp
The harp has been associated with angels and heaven for centuries. There are images of angelic harpists in Christian paintings, and manuscripts, from Medieval Europe. In Renaissance Europe, harpists entertained royalty. Spanish harpists performed in royal chapels and in European capitals. The harp captured the fascination of Parisian society in the 1770s when Marie Antoinette, a harpist, ascended to the throne.
Experimentation, innovation, and a love of music led to the development of the orchestral harp. By the late 19th century, the pedal harp had moved beyond the salon to the great concert halls of Europe.
18th Century Naderman Harp
LATIN AMERICAN: Religion and Politics Shape Music Makers
As Spanish conquistadores invaded South America in the 16th and 17th centuries, they brought Christianity and “civilization” to the New World. Along with their weapons, soldiers, and priests, they brought bibles, music, and the harp. Natives cowered at the first, embraced the second, and fell in love with the third.
Within a century, the harp had been trans-formed and adapted into a folk instrument adored throughout South and Central America. In the mid-twentieth century, television, recording technology, and long-playing albums introduced the Paraguayan harp to the world. Today the Latin harp is the national instrument of Paraguay and the pride of all of Latin America.
Paraguayan Harp, 2005
UNITED STATES: Introduction of the Pedal Harp
Patrick J. Healy worried over the future of the harp in America. Orchestras often excluded the traditional European harp because it couldn’t be heard in large concert halls. Healy and his partner, George W. Lyon, introduced the first pedal harp in 1889. It produced a bigger, bolder sound, which won favor with musicians and composers. Today, the Lyon & Healy Concert Grand Model 23 is the standard bearer for excellence in pedal harps.
Lyon & Healy 23 Gold Concert Grand Harp, c. 1960s
In order to make the harp compatible with modern music makers, they’ve become smaller, lighter, cheaper, even electrified. William and Pamela Rees’s Harpsicle weighs four pounds, fits in an airline overhead, and retails for $399. Pop harpist Deborah Henson-Conant dreamt of a harp light enough to strap on her shoulders with the power to blow away a rock audience. She turned to French harp maker Camac who designed the an 11-pound, carbon fiber, 32-string electric lever harp, the Camac DHC Light—one of the fastest selling harp models in the world.
Camac Electroharp 30, Model W, 2012
—Information for this article was provided by the Museum of Making Music (www.MuseumofMakingMusic.org), Carlsbad, California.