Music Resources

King David’s Harp (Abridged)
by John Wheeler

No historical personage comes more readily to mind than the biblical King David when the word “harp” is mentioned. Yet the instrument, kinnor, translated “harp” in the King James Version of the Bible, was not a harp at all, but a lyre. The other stringed instrument David played, nevel, translated “psaltery” by the KJV, was likewise not a psaltery, and it may not have been a true harp either.

According to Josephus (1st century A.D.) the kinnor had ten strings, the nevel twelve. The kinnor anciently had a rectangular or trapezoidal sound box and two curved arms of unequal length joined by a crossbar. It was played with the fingers or with a plectrum.

Nevel seems to mean “skin-bottle”, perhaps because of its shape. Because the strings enter the top of the sound box, it is more of a harp-lyre than the kinnor, whose strings stretch over a bridge on the side of the box in a lyre-like way.

The kinnorot and nevelim (plural terms), with their light framework and high tension strings, produced enough volume to compete with rams’ horns, trumpets, and cymbals, and were used in both sacred and secular settings, accompanying choirs and soloists as well as song and dance.

Vocal melodies and instrumental accompaniment at that time were commonly conducted using gestures of the hands and fingers. Apparently the Hebrew Scriptures were sung to melodies conducted by a gestural system, for a transcription of such gestures is still found in the Hebrew Masoretic Text. All scriptures, not just the Psalms and songs, could in principle have been accompanied by kinnorot and nevalim, for “Thy statutes have been my zemirot (songs accompanied by plucked stringed instruments) in the house of my pilgrimage” (Psalm 119:54, KJV). The vocal melodies preserved by the biblical notation, then, would naturally have been accompanied by the biblical stringed instruments, as tuned to compatible scales and modes

On the basis of the late Suzanne Haik-Vantoura’s decipherment of the biblical notation, I suggest that the kinnor and nevel may have been tuned in the following basic scales, with (E) as the tonic of the basic mode:

A B C D (E) F G A B C D E (nevel)

A B C D (E) F G A B C (kinnor)

The instruments would have been tuned to the “Pythagorean” temperament (that is, by a cycle of fourths and fifths), to facilitate the production of accidentals within a given mode. Other diatonic and diatonic-chromatic modes (the latter including intervals of a step and a half between certain degrees, as in our modern “harmonic minor” mode) would have been derived by simply raising the pitch of one or more strings by a half step.

David and others probably played single notes, simple intervals, and arpeggiated chords to accompany the singing, as the vocal melodies were very “transparent” as well as “harmonic” in their structure. When they echoed from the walls of the chamber or courtyard where they were performed, they produced clear intervals and even triads. Any more complex accompaniment would clash with this effort, not underline it as the Talmudists suggest was the norm.

While King David’s “harp” does not match our current definition, a triangular-shaped instrument, he did play its precursor, and it is wonderful to imagine that the “harp” was such an integral part of all sectors of life so many thousands of years ago!

The Louis XVI Harps (Abridged)
by Beat Wolf

Note: This material is from a lecture given at the Historical Harp Symposium in Berlin, October 16-19, 1994

In the late 1700s Parisian harp makers were producing what are called the Louis XVI harps. [Louis XVI, King of France from 1774, and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, a harpist, died at the guillotine in 1793.] The harp that Riet Keppel played for the Symposium is a harp that I have built which resembles those from the 18th century, a single-action pedal harp with crochet [hook] mechanisms. It has 39 strings, from 6th octave F in the bass to 1st octave B in the treble.

Most Louis XVI harps of 1770-1800 were staved-back with 7-9 sides, rather than rounded, with a maple box and a spruce soundboard. Unlike modern harps, there were round holes in the soundboard, but were none in the sound box.

Accidentals were made with seven single-action pedals, attached by rods in the front pillar to hook (crochet) or pincher (Bequilles) mechanisms in the neck. In 1786 the forked disc mechanism was developed by Sebastian Erard, and by 1820 most pedal harps had it.

Decoration in the Louis XVI style includes an forward-turning spiral at the top of the pillar. The harp was usually varnished in brown, and had bouquets of flowers decoration the soundboard.

The sound of these harps provides a transition between the baroque and classical eras. They had a bright, brilliant and transparent treble, but a more powerful bass through the use of copper-wound bass strings.

Single-action pedal harps most certainly were not tuned to equal temperament, so that, unlike a keyboard, on the harp it was possible to differentiate between D# and Eb, and between G# and Ab.

Midevil harp: Basic Practical Advice on Playing the Medieval Harp (Abridged)
by Cheryl Ann Fulton

Recreating the sound of the harp of the late medieval period - the 14th and early 15th centuries - is an exciting challenge to today’s performer. Then, as now, the nature of the performance depended largely on the skill and inclinations of the performer, the technique used, musical originality and creativity, and the nature and quality of the harp itself.

Precise information about exactly what harps were played in this period is sparse, and much of our knowledge comes from paintings and poetic accounts, although these cannot always be assumed to be accurate representations.

It is likely that three kinds of harps were in use: the bray harp (see more below), the wire-strung harp, and the gut-strung harp. What kind of harp is most appropriate for which kinds of music from this period? The wire-strung harp, or clarsach, must be considered particularly for music from the British Isles. The bray harp was probably used more often than we hear in modern performances.(1) The style of music helps determine which harp is preferable: bray harps are loud and strident, wire-strung harps tones are very long-lasting, gut strung are more mellow and of shorter duration. Whichever is chosen, it is important to use the best reproduction harp from this period.[See resources: harpmakers]

Most harps in paintings of the period are single strung, and the tall, slim “gothic” shape is the most common. Generally they had from 10 or 11 to 25 or 26 strings (2), and were two to four feet high. Many harps in 15th century paintings had bray pins (3), which served the double function of holding the string to the soundboard and could also be turned and delicately positioned to touch the strings in such a way that a buzzing, humming sound resulted(4). The bray pins both changed the timbre and increased the volume of the sound produced, so that the gothic harps with very slender bodies and thin, small sound boxes had a tone capable of good projection in appropriate acoustics (5).

Strings in Europe of that time were likely gut (6), while metal or gold were used in Ireland and Scotland, and horsehair in Wales. Today’s non-wire harps can be strung with gut, nylon, or carbon fiber strings. Because they are played with the finger pads, they tend to have a wider string spacing than wire-strung, which are played almost exclusively with the nails (7).

Stringing system: From the 16th century on, most harps worldwide have been tuned in the major scale system of tones and semi-tones, as in c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c. The 14th century harp would more likely have been tuned within the “hexachord” system, with the notes c, d, e, f, g, a, b-flat, b-natural, the two b's being distinct, independent notes just as e and f are. Other common chromatic notes, called “musica ficta” or “falsa” (fictitious or false music) could be made by fretting.

Tuning and temperament: For a harpist beginning to explore medieval music the use of a strict Pythagorean temperament,, with pure fifths and very wide thirds, helps to wakeup the ears (8). [See unabridged article for complete tuning system.]

Scordatura tuning: Scordatura tuning allows for achieving the desired accidentals in the range where they are needed. For example, a 22-string harp could be tuned as follows:

C D E F G A Bb B c d e f g a b c C# D E F# G A.

Fretting: Accidentals may also be made by fretting, which involves pressing, with finger or tuning key, the string against the neck of the harp under the tuning pin to raise the pitch a semitone. Another method is to push the string towards the belly of the harp just above where the string enters the soundboard. Many traditional harps still use these techniques today.

Articulation and fingering: Articulation is a way of grouping or relating notes to each other to delineate music phrases. Different passages require different fingering choices which therefore should not be rigid, and can even change from performance to performance. Fingering choices can be highly personal, but the stylistic requirements of the music must be understood and honored (9).

The medieval harp, when played with a sensitivity to and knowledge of its original place and time, as well as its timeless beauty, can join past and present in living harmony.

The Spanish Double [Cross-Strung] Harp, or Arpa de dos òrdenes (Abridged)
by Hannelore Devaere

“The Christians make such use of [the harp] and teach it to their wives, sons and daughters. Hence it is rare to find a house all of whose indwellers do not skillfully pluck the harp.” Thus remarked the Ambassador of Morocco when he visited Spain in 1690-1691. “The persons who most cultivate this instrument are the sons and daughters of the great and noble. It is similarly much in use in their chapels, in their churches, and all those places in which they indulge themselves in their impious acts[!].”

Modern Reproduction of the Spanish Double-Harp One of the earliest collections that we have that refers to the use of the harp as a solo instrument was assembled in Spain in 1546, and mentions a certain Ludovico, who was probably an Italian virtuoso in the service of King Ferdinando V of Aragon. He played a diatonic, or single-row, harp on which the semi-tones had to be made artificially. Juan Bermudo wrote in 1555: “I was told that the named Ludovico, whenever he played a cadence, placed a finger under the string and thus made it sound as a semitone. Great ability was required to do that.” For many years he and other performers had devised this and other ways of handling chromatic notes: retuning; placing of nails, fingers, or tuning keys against the top or bottom of the string; or simply omitting the chromatic note altogether.

Help was on the way! Perhaps as early as 1555, but certainly by 1616, Spanish harp builders were also producing instruments with two sets of strings, one diatonic and one chromatic, that crossed, although there may sometimes have been only a few of the chromatic strings, enough to serve in playing cadences.

The Moroccan ambassador describes the Spanish arpa de dos ordenes as being “a large wooden instrument as high as a man and having about 46 strings.” Because of its height and the resulting high crossing of the strings, the harpist stands while playing it. The right hand usually plays above the crossing of the strings, near the neck of the harp, thus producing a clear, crystal-like sound. The left hand usually plays the bass strings, touching them in the middle of the instrument under the crossing of the strings, producing a warm round sound quite different from the treble. This sound difference is characteristic of the arpa de dos ordenes.

As on other historical harps, the fourth (ring) finger is hardly ever used. The gut strings of historical harps are much thinner and more narrowly spaced, and have less tension, than on a modern harp, so one must use as authentic a playing technique as possible. It is a good idea to study with a historical harpist or from a relevant text.

Now, almost 300 years later, we can enjoy a revival of the arpa de dos ordenes. Several historical harpmakers are building excellent replicas of the surviving instruments and of paintings, together with their own new designs.

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 cl√°irseach. 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.

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 millennium. 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.

More history:

The word “harp” is believed to be an Anglo-Saxon word which means “to pluck”. Harp, or “harpa” was used to describe the triangular-shaped stringed instruments during the 13th century. The harp is a very old music instrument and its’ roots is quite difficult to determine. It is believed to have been developed from the hunter’s bow. Evidence of harps during Ancient times can be seen in Egypt. Inside the Egyptian tombs are wall paintings of bow-shaped instruments similar to that of a harp. For example, the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses III reveals many paintings of bow harps. Bow harps have 19 strings and is more than 6 feet in height.

Angled harps are believed to have originated from Ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia.

This type of harp had no pillar and was played upside-down. An image of the angled harp was discovered painted on a vase from a Babylonian temple. It has 12 to 15 strings. The lyre or vertical harp is believed to have originated from Ancient Sumaria. This type of harp was very popular in Greece and Rome. it is also mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 4:21} and was the type of harp King David played as a young man. The lyre is played using only one hand and had fewer strings. Another type of harp that originated from Greece is called the Aeolian harp and is played by the wind.

The triangular harp evolved during the Middle Ages. By then, the pillar was added giving the strings more tension and thus allowing it to have a better tone and volume. Evidence of this type of harp were found in manuscripts such as those found in the Utrecht Psalter dating back to early 9th century. It resembles the Celtic harp of today.

Other Discoveries of The Harp in Early History

Rock paintings in France dating back 15,000 B.C.

Carvings in Phoenicia dating back 2300 to 3000 B.C.

Used as vocal accompaniments by monks in Western Europe during 4th century A.D.

In England, pieces of a harp were found in a buried ship dating back to the 7th century.

In Germany and France, remains of Germanic harps were found in graves dating back from 5th up to 10th century.

Stone carvings in Northumberland dating back to the 600’s A.D