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Early Harp History I
Thousands of Years
of Fascination
for the Harp

 

  Earliest Harp History  

The harp is the oldest known stringed instrument. The word "harpa" or "harp" comes from Anglo-Saxon, Old German, and Old Norse words meaning "to pluck". By the 13th century the term was being applied specifically to the triangular harp as opposed to the lyre harp. The earliest Gaelic term for a wire-strung instrument was "cruit" was applied specifically to the harp by 1200. A later word used in Scotland and Ireland for the "Celtic" harp was clarsach or cláirseach. Scottish records of the 15th and 16th centuries show that both the terms "harp" and "clarsach" were in use at the same time, and seem to indicate that there was a distinction between the gut-strung European-style harps and wire-strung Gaelic clarsachs.

Today, we know the Gaelic harps as the Irish, Celtic, Folk, Scottish Clarsach or the modern lever harp. Most folk harps are strung with a combination of nylon, metal, gut and/or synthetic gut (carbon fibre) strings. Brass wire strung harps continue in the Gaelic tradition.

 

  The Harp's Origins  

No one really knows where the harp originated and we will never know what harp music sounded like in the pre-historical era. One of the earliest musical instrument discoveries showed a harp-like instrument on rock paintings dating back to 15,000 BC in France. Many believe that the earliest harps came from the sound of the hunter's bow

In Egypt, some of the earliest images of bow harps are from the Pharaoh's tombs dating some 5,000 years ago. These hieroglyphs show that there were many harps in ancient Egypt. The Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses III (1198-1166 BC) had many bow harps painted in his tomb. In the New Kingdom, harps measured up to 2 metres (6.5 feet) in height with 19 strings and were played seated or standing up.

Harps were very popular in ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia. One of the earliest illustrations of a harp was on a vase found in a Babylonian temple. These harps were angled harps with 12 to 15 strings and similar to the bowed instruments played in Egypt about the same time. The angle harp represents the next step in history towards the modern harp. The angle harp differs from what we call the harp today in that it lacked the front-piece, column or pillar. It was played "upside down" from its present playing orientation, with the tuning pegs on the bottom.

 

  Lyre Harps in the Middle East  

Vertical harps with 2 arms also known as lyre harps or "lyres" also began appearing in ancient Sumaria by 2800 BC. Some of the oldest carvings of harps were discovered in Phoenicia with marble harp statuettes found dating back to 3,000 - 2,300 BC. The development of the lyre harp in Greece also coincided with the development of mathematical musical scales. By the 6th century BC, Pythagorus discovered numerical ratios corresponding to intervals of the musical scale. The Greeks are also credited with inventing the Aeolian harp, a harp played by the wind.

 

  The Romans  

Ancient Rome did not seem to place as high an importance on music compared to other ancient civilizations. With the decline of the Roman Empire, music seemed to have died out and there are very few historical references for a half millenium. In early European society following the fall of Rome impressions of lyre harps were found on the coins of pre-Christian Gauls. The harp and musical culture in general seems to have disappeared in the Dark Ages. These centuries are shrouded in mystery.

 

  The Lyre Harp In Western Europe  

After those centuries of obscurity in the historical record, the lyre precursor to the triangular Medieval harp reappeared in Western European civilization. In the fourth century AD, monk vocalizations predating Gregorian chanting were used in worship services in the Christian Church. The harp became a preferred instrument for accompaniment for the monks' voices. The harp was one of the few instruments allowed in the early church where the horn, drum and rattles were considered the devil's instruments. During the fifth century, the Papal Music School was established in Ireland where the lyre harp was taught. Fragments of a six-stringed lyre were found in the 7th-century burial ship unearthed at Suffolk in England. The remains of several Germanic lyres, dating from the fifth through the tenth century, have been found in Saxon and Frankish graves in Germany and England.

 

  The Triangular Harp  

It is not known where or how the fore-pillar or upright column that created a triangular-framed harp body came into use. The earliest drawings of triangular-frame harps appear in the Utrecht Psalter in the early 9th century. It was the appearance of the harp column possibly during the early Christian era that marked the advent of the modern harp. It solved two problems. It allowed the harp maker to increase string tension without distorting the instrument which also made the harp easier to tune as changing the tension of one string no longer affected the tension of all the other strings. Harps could then be built with more strings with higher tensions, better volume and tone.

 

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