Harp History I
Thousands of Years
for the Harp
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Go to….. Medieval