What do Egypt, Ireland, Kenya, Myanmar, Paraguay, Israel, Venezuela, and Wales have in common? Each one of these boasts a unique form of harp as their national instrument... In fact, a harp can be found in practically every culture around the world!
In its simplest form, the harp might well have developed from a huntsman's bow. However, the modern harp can take many forms, and is one of the most adaptable instruments. Large concert harps can come equipped with foot pedals allowing each string to sound 3 different notes. This versatility allows the instrument to accompany many forms of music, from classical, pop, and jazz to more traditional forms of dance music.
One of the earliest harp depictions is that of a wall painting in the tomb of Ramesses III, dating from c. 1198-1166 BCE. Interestingly, of the oldest surviving lyres – a close relative of the harp – was found in a mass Mesopotamian grave dedicated to Queen Pu-abi from c. 2600 BCE (read more about the Golden Lyre of Ur Project here. With these regions being the center of much trade, certainly the instrument made its way along common trade routes, such as the Silk Road.
By the Early Middle Ages, triangular harps were played by the Picts (a people living north of the Firth of Forth in Scotland) and by the Late Middle Ages, Bray (or "Gothic") harps were found in Wales. Documents from Wales and Ireland indicate that a gathering of musicians was held in the 11th century at the ancient monastic city of Glendalough in Wicklow, Ireland. At this gathering, 24 measures of string music were developed; a sophisticated binary system of notation using language of Welsh and Irish origin, indicating the shared importance of the harp between both cultures.
While the Bray harp played around Wales had a buzzing quality, the Medieval Irish harp, or cláirseach, had high-tension metal strings, played with fingernails for a ringing quality. An old example of this Irish harp, known as the "Brian Boru" or Trinity College harp, is today a national symbol of Ireland, dating from the 14th or 15th century. This harp is on display at Trinity College Dublin, and its likeness can be found on the Irish coat of arms as well as the Guinness stout trademark, making it a national icon as well as a cultural symbol.
While Celtic traditional music is often diatonic in nature (working within one modality, such as D major), the same is not often true of Classical pieces of music. Concert-style Triple Harps were subsequently developed (in the 1600s) to have 3 rows of parallel strings, allowing for truly chromatic playing (A 2-row harp from Spain helped to inform the development of this Triple Harp). Wales took up the Triple Harp with gusto, and while it had died out in the rest of Europe, it lived on in Wales.
Spanish harps, meanwhile, developed strings that crossed each other, such that hands would be positioned one at the top and one in the middle, in order to access all strings and provide a contrast in musical "color" with brighter tones from the top hand, and darker tones from the hand positioned more centrally upon the strings. Some players further accentuate this acoustic difference by growing out fingernails only on the top hand, for even brighter tones. This style in many ways mimics the playing of the guitar.
The harp moved from Spain to South America, where Venezuelan joropo music (traditional llanera music) makes use of a related style of harp-playing for lively dance music, most often accompanied by maraca, cuatro, bandola, and mandolin. Harp playing in Venezuela involves polyrhythms similar to those used in African kora playing. The kora, while not quite a harp, does bear some resemblance to its cousin in terms of tonality.
The 18th and 19th centuries brought about further developments in making it easier to play in different keys, using a pedal mechanism to sharpen the sound of notes of each type. In Bavaria, Jacob Hochbrucker developed a 5-pedal, single action system. Sébastian Erard took this further and developed the "modern" double action pedal harp with 7 pedals. With some mechanical improvements, Erard's system is still in use today.
From the rough and ready, to the refined and regal, harps are still very popular instruments today the world over, and a fantastic instrument to play regardless of musical experience. A nicely tuned harp is pleasing to the ear, and may even play itself when left out in the wind! It's not too surprising then that much folklore exists around this instrument, connecting it to spirits and fairy-folk. It's capable of some of the most enchanting and ethereal sounds!
To view our collection of harps, click here: