Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Ten facts about the harp

The harp is an ancient instrument found in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and tunings in musical cultures throughout the world. In the West, the harp has been used to accompany singing in religious rituals and court music. It even appears as a solo instrument in jazz and popular music and with symphony orchestras. The harp has long held a special place in the music of Ireland, where the instrument serves as a national symbol and important component of traditional music, so in the month that includes the feast of Ireland’s patron Saint Patrick, we celebrate the harp by sharing some facts about the instrument:

1. The word “harp” originated with Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers.

2. The word “harpa” was first used to describe a plucked string instrument around 600 AD.

3. Between the 8th and the 18th centuries in Europe, harps were made out of single pieces of wood, some carved from the front and covered with leather, and then strung using animal parts, metal, and other materials. These harps often had a narrower range than the typical human voice.

4. Shōsōin Repository in Nara, Japan has the last two surviving angular Chinese harps, which were collected in the 9th century, but made centuries earlier.

5. Almost 150 African music cultures incorporate harps, making Africa the continent with the largest variety of harps.

649px-David_Playing_the_Harp_1670_Jan_de_Bray
Image credit: David Playing the Harp 1670 by Jan de Bray (1627-1697). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

6. The oldest Irish harp, now at Trinity College, Dublin, had legendary associations with Brian Boroimhe (926-1014), but dates back to the 14th century. It is low-headed: the upper end of its forepillar meets the neck at a point only slightly higher than the joint between the treble end of the neck and the resonator.

7. The earliest surviving Renaissance harp, now held in Eisenach, was made possibly in the 15th century in the Tyrol. It has 26 strings, stands 104 cm high, and has a delicate inlaid geometrical decoration.

8. In the West, most public harp performances were given by men until the late 19th century; beginning in the 17th century women played the harp domestically. Nevertheless, by the 19th century, the harp came to be associated with women and the first women to join symphony orchestras were harpists.

9. By the 1940s, harps began to play a part in jazz and pop music. One of the early pioneers in the United States was Robert Maxwell, graduate of the Julliard School of Music, whose original compositions and arrangements were first published around 1946.

10. Judit Kadar and Cheryl Ann Fulton held the first Historical Harp Conference Workshop, now an annual convention held in the United States, so that harp players, builders, and researchers could come together and discuss the instrument and its influence.

The above are only ten facts from the extensive entries in Grove Music Online. Did we leave out any interesting facts about the harp?

Featured image credit: Alizbar by Medunizza. CC BY – SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *