January 05, 2011

Why I can't play harp music from period.

Single-row harp c.1520
We all know what a harp looks like here.  It involves a single row of strings.  Modern concert harps have pedals that change the length of the strings, producing sharps and flats.  Modern folk harps have levers that do the same thing but require a hand to leave the strings to engage.  Harps in period had none of these - you played how your harp was tuned, or if you were really good you could fret a string to produce a sharp (this is impossible on modern folk harps given the string tension).

Lookit!  Two rows of strings!
Toward the end of period you also find harps with 2 or 3 rows of strings.  These harps had the same range as their single-row counterparts, but double or triple the strings meant strings for sharps and flats!  I have absolutely no interest in playing a double or triple harp.  The technique is wonky, the repretoire is overwhelmingly baroque (post-period and not really what I'm most into anyway) and my harp-making husband isn't a fan of their tone (I haven't really played around on one enough to hear for myself, but I tend to trust his judgment in these matters).

Now.  I've told you before that I'm arranging some lute music (Dowland right now) for harp to fill the gaping void that is period harp music.  There is exactly ONE piece designated for harp that survives from before 1600.  One.  And I have it on my computer.

This is the piece.  I promise this is music.

AND IT'S FOR EFFING DOUBLE HARP!!!!!  EFFFFFFFFFFFF!!!!!  I SO want to learn this piece.  It's our ONLY genuine piece of period harp music, and there are no transcriptions or recordings of it out there.  But I am NOT going to acquire and learn to play a double harp just so I can play ONE freaking piece!  I'm not!

Eff.  Effity eff-eff-eff!  I will transcribe it, though.  I'll transcribe it and see if it'll work on a pedal harp.  And if it will, I'll try to get a decent recording using one of my parents' pedal harps.  It won't be period, but at least it'll be OUT there!

And I'll keep going on Dowland and other lute music.  That's going really well, actually.  I'll post some of those pieces soon.

Raggin-fraggin double harp...


  1. Technically, the string-length doesn't change on either a lever or a pedal harp. Yer explanashun iz lacking.

  2. The vibrating length. Whatever. The bit-of-the-string-that-anyone-cares-about-length. :-P

  3. How about arranging it for two folk harps, tuned differently to cover the accidentals? That's sort of what Richard Strauss had to do for Der Rosenkavalier--he was changing keys all over the place within measures, so 2 harps had to play, switching-off on the chords, and pedalling all over the place, as well. Been there... wow.

    Debussy's Danse Sacree et Profane was / were composed for chromatic harp, commissioned by Pleyel, who manufactured them. Then eventually the danses were transcribed for pedal harp, and they have some divilishly difficult passages, since the chromatics have to be pedalled.

    Yes, you come by your wonkishness naturally.