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Topic: A Brief History of Chromatic Harps

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  1. #1
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    A Brief History of Chromatic Harps

    This topic was split from the lesson 2 post to address a question about the chromatic vs. pedal harp.

  2. #2

    Re: A Brief History of Chromatic Harps

    Hello everybody!

    I am very intrigued with the Harp. Rimsky-Korsakov mensions, that "A chromatic harp without pedals has now been invented in France (Lyon’s system) on which the most abrupt modulations are possible"

    Is this harp, that is mentioned, in wide use today, or do the older precautions conerning the harp and its 7 pedals and diatonics and whatnot still apply?

    Thank you in advance.

  3. #3

    Re:A Brief History of Chromatic Harps

    The standard orchestral harp of today is NOT chromatic. You must plan the pedal changes.


    Quote Originally Posted by Alkemist
    Hello everybody!

    I am very intrigued with the Harp. Rimsky-Korsakov mensions, that "A chromatic harp without pedals has now been invented in France (Lyon’s system) on which the most abrupt modulations are possible"

    Is this harp, that is mentioned, in wide use today, or do the older precautions conerning the harp and its 7 pedals and diatonics and whatnot still apply?

    Thank you in advance.
    Alan Belkin, composer
    Professor of Composition
    University of Montreal

    http://www.musique.umontreal.ca/pers...n/e.index.html (links to examples of my music, as well as my online textbooks)

  4. #4
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    A Brief History of Chromatic Harps

    A Brief History of Chromatic Harps


    The history of the harp goes back thousands of years. The harp is the oldest known stringed instrument. The piano, the guitar, the violin and all other string instruments evolved from the harp. The word "harp" comes from Anglo-Saxon, Old German, and Old Norse words whose root means "to pluck". Scholars disagree as to what exactly a harp is. The names early musicians gave their instruments are not be the names we give those instruments today and the names of instruments in the ancient world were interchanged. Harps in my definition are multi-stringed-instruments, with open strings (no frets), where each string plays one note and where the strings are plucked with the fingers. This would include medieval harps, baroque harps; Irish harps, Celtic harps, Spanish harps; Chinese harps, African Harps; as well as related instruments like lyres, zithers, charach, citharas, psalteries, arpas, yahz, cheng, kotos, koras and other stringed instruments. The evolution of the harp conformed to paths of human migration and also coincided with the development of musical scales in each culture.

    By the time of the Renaissance, the organ was popular and other keyboards began appearing such as the clavichord and harpsichord. Essentially, the "harp"sichord is a mechanized horizontal harp where a string is plucked when a note on the keyboard is pressed. This was new technology - like sampling tech at the time. Keyboards made it possible to play all 12 notes of the scale and this established the 12-note system of Western music. The harp remained only capable of playing seven notes per octave. The music in the 16th to 18th centuries demanded more notes lying outside the seven notes of the harp's scale. The major composers of the time demanded all 12 chromatic notes of the scale. It was the lack of a full chromatic scale that was identified as the main 'defect' of the harp. Attempts were made to enable the harp to get around the diatonic limitations and to be more versatile.

    One solution was a chromatic harp, a harp with 12 strings per octave. Chromatic harps were built in Spainin the 16th and 17th century. A double harp - with two rows of strings - was first described in the writings of Vincento Gallilei in 1581. Soon afterwards, the triple harp appeared - where the player would reach between two diatonic rows of strings to play the chromatic notes in between. Charles I in England was noted to have engaged a triple harpist in the 1600's. The earliest surviving triple harp is in the Museo Civico and dates back to the late 17th century.

    The cross-strung: harp was another type of harp used for playing chromatically. The cross-strung harp has two intersecting courses of strings which are tuned differently, allowing the player to select notes from either course with either hand. Most cross-strung harps are tuned with a diatonic C major scale as one course, and the pentatonic notes (F#G#A#C#D#) as the other (like the white and black keys of a piano).

    Another solution to the harp's note limitations was to take the existing seven diatonic notes and change the pitch of selected strings to get sharps and flats. Hooks were first used in Tirol, Italyin the 17th century to sharpen individual notes by hand. One drawback of the hooked harp was that a performer temporarily lost the use of the hand making these adjustments. Although these were forward leaps, these attempts made the harp difficult to play and awkward. Musical composers continued either to ignore the harp or include it sparingly for swirly "harpy effects" - this despite the fact that Haydn, Weber, Rossini, Liszt, Chopin and Mendelssohn are all known to have been harp players. Bach never wrote anything for the harp; Handel used the Welsh triple harp only a few times in his operas and oratorios, Haydn never used it in his orchestra works (but did write one sonata for flute, harp and double bass); Mozart wrote just one work for the harp - the famous Concerto for flute and harp.

    The first single-action pedal harp was developed in the early 1700s which could raise the pitch of the selected strings by a half step, allowing the harp to play in most keys. In 1720 the Bavarian Celestin Hochbrucker added seven pedals that controlled the hooks via levers set in the forepillar. Hochbrucker's single-action pedal harp was improved in 1750, when Georges Cousineau replaced the hooks with metal plates that gripped the strings while leaving them in plane, and in 1792, when Sebastian ƒrard of Paris substituted rotating disks for the metal plates.

    Erard's "double action" seven-pedal mechanism for the harp (invented in 1810)further developed this concept. It allowed each string to be shortened by one or two semitones, allowing the harpist to perform in any key or chromatic setting. This harp eventually became the harp of choice in the orchestra.

    In the late 1800's/early 1900's, the pedal harp was experiencing some difficulty in keeping with the demand of a new music such as that of Wagner, Liszt, Faure, Richard Strauss ,Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1897, Gustave Lyon, who was the Director of the Pleyel & Wolff Piano Company, sought to simplify matters by designing a harp that had forty-six strings (corresponding to the white keys on a piano keyboard) on the left side of the soundboard, and the thirty-two (corresponding to the black keys) on the right. Debussy wrote an exquisite pair of dances using this harp.

    When Rimsky-Korsakov wrote: ""A chromatic harp without pedals has now been invented in France(Lyons system) on which the most abrupt modulations are possible" - this is the harp he was referring to.

    However, Lyon’s chromatic harp itself never caught on. It was iron-framed, was very heavy (something like 130 pounds), and it required players to learn an entirely new technique. And the characteristic harps glisses could not be played (except in the key of C). This harp soon became extinct and the double action pedal harp eventually supplanted the other forms of chromatic harps in the orchestra.


    Gary Garritan

  5. #5
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    Re: A Brief History of Chromatic Harps

    For more information on the harp, see the

    GPO Harp Tutorial by Terry Dwyer

    Writing for Harp Tutorial by Felice Pomerantz

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