(Fr. harpe; Ger. Harfe; It., Sp. arpa)
Generic name for chordophones in which, as defined in the classification system by Hornbostel and Sachs, the plane of the strings is perpendicular to the soundboard.
Normally triangular in outline, all harps have three basic structural components: resonator, neck and strings. Hornbostel and Sachs divided them into two categories: ‘frame harps’ and ‘open harps’.
Only European harps and their descendants are consistently frame harps: most others are open. Hornbostel and Sachs further subdivided open harps into two sub-categories: ‘arched’ and ‘angular’ harps. According to Hornbostel and Sachs, the neck of an arched harp curves away from the resonator while the neck of an angular harp makes a sharp angle with it.
The harp is played in six basic performing positions, of which five were used in ancient civilizations and are still in use today. Analysis of performing positions along with structure is vital to understanding the dispersal and evolution of the harp across time and the globe. Harp tunings are pentatonic, tetratonic, heptatonic (including diatonic) and chromatic. Strings are usually plucked with the fingers, but they may also be struck with a stick or strummed with a plectrum while strings which are not wanted to sound are damped; occasionally the bass wire strings may be stroked with the palm of the hand. Resonators may be used as percussion instruments and struck with the fingers, hands or with hooked rattles. Harpists may use any number of digits from the thumb of one hand with the thumb and forefinger of the other to the thumb and first three fingers of both hands; rarely only a single index finger is used. The fifth finger is seldom used because of its lack of strength and its shortness, which generally causes a clawlike and nearly unusable performing position when all five digits are placed on the strings.
The harp’s use ranges from religious ritual to pure entertainment. Harpists are depicted in royal chambers, salons, banquet scenes and processions as soloists or in ensembles. Harpists have accompanied themselves singing ballads, reciting oral history and epic poetry or accompanying rituals of various types.
Nowhere is there a larger variety of harps than in Africa. The harp has a place in the traditions of nearly 150 African peoples. The variations in the construction and decoration of African harps serve as excellent examples of the ingeniousness of African instrument makers in creatively utilizing locally available materials. African harp makers – often harpists themselves – incorporate formal and design elements that make each instrument a unique expression of a particular culture and performing practice. Harps and harp playing often have rich symbolic meanings; harpists are frequently historians and genealogists as well as the central figures in religious rituals.
The harp entered the modern orchestra by way of the opera house, where it was at first little used except as an instrument evocative of mythology and romantic legend. Early uses in 18th-century opera include Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). Haydn used it in his L'anima del filosofo (1791), and in 1804 Le Sueur called for 12 harps (six to each of two parts) in his Ossian ou Les bardes.
The harp continued to be played in opera orchestras – particularly noteworthy are the harmonics in Boieldieu’s La dame blanche (1825), the use of two harps in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (1831) and the idiomatic harp solo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) – but it was Berlioz who pioneered its use in the symphony orchestra (Symphonie fantastique, 1830; Harold en Italie, 1834). Not until the 1840s, however, did the double-action harp become so widespread that it was available to all Western composers. Liszt’s tone poems (particularly Orpheus) show the harp to great advantage. Both Schumann (Drei Gesänge for tenor and harp op.95) and Brahms (Four Songs op.17) wrote harp parts that are idiomatic and difficult, while those in Wagner’s operas are extremely difficult and unidiomatic. Verdi’s later ones, on the other hand, are well written and grateful to play. Bruch’s Schottische Fantasie op.46 (1880) has an important and well-written harp part. Occasionally in 19th-century operas multiple harps are required. Wagner apparently was the first in this: Das Rheingold (completed 1854) has six harps on-stage and a seventh off-stage. For the remaining three parts of the Ring, Wagner wrote only two harp parts but called for six harps, three on each part. Berlioz scored for six separate harp parts in Les Troyens (composed 1856–8).
The closing years of the century produced Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung and Don Juan (both 1888–9), Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela (1893) and Symphony no.1 in E minor (1898–9), Franck’s Symphony in D minor (1886–8) and Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1892–4), all with parts for harp. The Debussy Prélude is scored for two harps, using chords, arpeggios, broken chords, glissandos and harmonics to excellent effect. Also notable are harp cadenzas by Rimsky-Korsakov (Spanish Capriccio, 1887) and Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake, 1875–6; Sleeping Beauty, 1888–9; and The Nutcracker, 1891–2).
Early 20th-century works featuring the harp as a solo instrument include Gabriel Pierné’s Concertstück (1903), Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane (1904) and Ravel’s Introduction et allegro (1905).
Since at least the mid-20th century, many pedal harpists have played diverse forms of music – classical, jazz, popular and traditional – and many compositions and arrangements reflect this fact. Composers are increasingly writing for the harp played in combination with non-Western instruments, and for combinations of Western and non-Western tunings, resulting in new explorations of tonality and sound effects for the harpist.
As is true of all innovations in musical instruments, electric and electro-acoustic harps have been developed to respond to changing musical aesthetics and the needs of harpists. Beginning no later than the 1940s, jazz and pop music began to be explored as sources of solo repertory for the harp.
Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Denitza Dimitrova
- Natalia Cutovoi
Page created at: 11-06-2015