The History of the Harp
Posted on Feb 20 17
The world’s oldest known stringed instrument is the harp. Harps were the popular stringed instrument of the early Celtic nations in the 1200’s, where the instrument was labelled as a ‘cruit’, which was the oldest know description of the instrument. The old German, Anglo and Norse words to describe the ‘Harp’ or ‘Harpa’ mean to ‘pluck’ and in the 13th century to most popular harp, was described in general circles as the ‘Lyre’ and was different in shape to the traditional triangular shaped harp.
Later Scottish and Irish words for the harp were ‘cláirseach’ or ‘clarsach’ and it was around this time in the 15th century that there were clear differences in the harps and the sounds they produced. The Europeans tended to use wire in the construction of their harps, while the Celtic nations preferred a gut-strung harp. The ‘Lever’ harps of the Gaelic people were made for folk music and the primary materials used in stringing harps was gut, however, some harps were stringed using brass wire.
The true origins of the harp remain an unsolved mystery, we will never know what harp music sounded in its beginning before pre-recorded history began. Early French cave paintings show evidence of harps used in ceremonies, these paintings date all the way back to 15,000 BC. Images of ‘Bow-Harps’ are seen in hieroglyphic characters on the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs, these are dated as far back as 5,000 BC and can also be found on descriptions around the tomb of Ramses III who lived in the last decades of the Egyptian Empire between 1198-1166 BC. The New Kingdom created bow-harps that could be made as large as 2 metres in height with up to 18 or 19 strings. These harps were played by musicians that were seated, or stood in front of the harp and were often solely tasked with playing the harp as their service to the Pharaoh or other elitist Egyptian rulers.
Ceramic paintings of harps have been discovered in Ancient Babylonian temple ruins from the Mesopotamian and Assyrian era. The illustrations found on vases depicts harps with between 13 to 15 strings that were very akin to the bow harps of Ancient Egypt. The ‘Angle’ harp was also developed around this time and was the design that would transform over the generations to the modern triangular versions of today. Early Angle harps differ from today’s modern harps because they were played upside down to today’s format and they did not have the column or front piece, and the tuning pegs were found on the bottom of the harp, as opposed to them being positioned on the top.
The angle harp differs from what we call the harp today in that it lacked the front column or pillar. It was played ‘upside down’ from its present playing orientation, with the tuning pegs on the bottom.
Middle Eastern influence
Ancient Sumerian and Phoenician culture was the birthplace of the ‘Lyre Harp’ , a harp that was made with two arms, featured on paintings and ceramics of the culture from around 2,500 BC to 3,000 BC. The Greeks also played a large role in the development of the Lyre harp and with the discovery of Mathematic music scales by Pythagoras, and they applied these ratios in the construction of their own style harps which were played by the wind, also known as the ‘Aeolian harp’.
Western European influence
The Roman ages were covered in mystery surrounding their musical tastes and affairs. They seemed to have very little interest in music and there is no recorded history of the use of any instruments from this era apart from some basic descriptions of harps that were found on early coins of the Gaul’s.
After these centuries of mystery, the beginning designs of today’s Lyre harps appeared in medieval western civilisation. Christian worship ceremonies were used alongside chanting in early Christian worship and was one of the very few instruments that met the churches approval, as they believed that percussive instruments were the rattles of the devil.
By the fifth century, a Papal music school was founded and classes on playing the Lyre harp were taught to elitist students. Many Frankish and Saxon people were buried with their Lyres and from these remains, different designs, such as the 6-string Lyre, were found.
Modern evolution – The Triangular harp
The earliest drawings of the triangular harp are found in the ‘Utrecht Psalter’, dated to the Ninth century. These were the first depictions of a harp that featured a wooden column between the two ends of the arms of the harp.
The early Christian era popularised the use of these columns in harp construction due to the ability it gave the musician to tune the harp easily by accessing each of the strings tension independently of each other.
This was a result of the harp maker being able to increase the string tension without distortion occurring in the body of the harp through the use of the column to stabilise the harps frame. This was a huge innovation in harp making and harps began to feature more strings with greater tension capabilities and a range of new sounds and notes that could be played.
The Harp Renaissance
Gaelic culture was supremely influenced by the harp. At the time, harpers were seen as the top echelon of society and were often sought out as advisors and respected for their opinion in public affairs. Their roles extended to the courts and to royalty, where they were held in great esteem by the tribal chieftains of the clans and commanded great respect amongst the populace.
When Feudalism was ravaging the Celtic cultures, harpists would roam the lands and take with them small harps that they would use for telling folk-style stories through the use of song and music. Most of these harpers were not seen as threats while traveling through different lands and visiting different tribes. The tribes generally saw them as a way to keep in touch with what was happening in other lands and were mystified when they heard the harpers sing of other cultures and its peoples.
This led to a revolution in the harp as its stringed music was enjoyed by so many in every land and kingdom of the western European world. The minstrels and troubadours of the 11th and 12th century were making their harps from materials that they sourced on their travels. It was common to find harps with small sound boxes carved from logs and strung with anything from hair to plant fibres.
Egyptian introduction & Celtic inspiration
The Phoenicians may have officially brought the harp to Europe in the pre-Christian era, through their travels in the trade routes around the islands and shores of the Mediterranean basin, and all the way down the coastlines of Northern Africa as they expanded their trading empire. In fact, some scholars believe that the Phoenicians sometimes traded harps for other goods and these harps were then passed along to the musicians of the towns and cities along the trade routes, improving the harps popularity amongst the coastal populations and leading to the creation of other stringed instruments by the locals.
However, it is commonly accepted that the Irish were the first to popularise it in western European culture. Today’s Celtic harpers love their music with a passion and keep the tradition alive in the communities while exposing it to the world as a beautiful musical expression of creativity that can inspire emotions that are as unique as the sound itself. Renowned harpists such as Alison Kinnaird and Keith Sanger have discovered critical information from the history of the Celtic harp and harp legends and pioneers of the Celtic style such as Sylvia Woods. This has garnered a new interest in the traditional folk-styles of the harp from today’s generations.
In recent decades, the harp has gained tremendous popularity with harpers Kim Robertson, Derek and Patrick Ball, Moira O’Hara, Anne Heyman, Alan Stivell, and so many more that have produced fantastic records of Celtic music using the harp. It’s safe to say that the harp is a foundational part of Gaelic, Irish, Celtic and world culture, celebrated by thousands around the globe.
9 quick facts about the harp
- Africa has the widest variety of harps of any culture, and historical data of harps being used in African tribal tradition extends into almost 150 African nations.
- The term ‘Harpa’ was first used in the year 600 AD and means ‘to repeatedly talk on about a subject’.
- Today’s harps can be classified into two categories; The ‘Frame harp’ and the ‘Open Harp’
- The difference between modern harpists and Celtic harpists is that modern harpists will use the pads of their fingers to pluck the strings, while the Celtic style uses their thumbs and fingers to pluck the strings.
- An ‘Arpeggio’ is a quick succession of notes played on a harp and a ‘Glissando’ is the term for the sweeping motion of the hands across the strings.
- Harpists in Aristocratic times were judged on their performances by their ability to produce three emotional expressions, mainly; laughter, tears and yawning.
- The Harp has been the National symbol of Ireland from the 13th
- The Irish stout ‘Guinness’ has the Harp as its company identity logo.
- The ‘Historical Harp Society’ was founded in North America in
Popular events for harp music
In today’s modern society, harps bring a sound of refined culture to any high-class social event. They are perfect for wedding ceremonies, social gatherings, and executive parties and ceremonies. The beautiful notes swirling in the air inspire conversation and provide a pleasant environment for mingling and networking.
From drinks receptions to ballroom awards ceremonies if you need a Modern and classic harpist for your wedding or entertainment needs then book the Earcandy Harpists to add and accentuate your next event with an elegant and classic sound that will enchant your guests.