Harps & Harpists

Harps & Harpists


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Harps & Harpists by Roslyn Rensch

Beautifully illustrated with more than 130 photographs and drawings, this book surveys the progress of the harp from antiquity to the present day -- from the simple bow-like early harp to the gleaming modern pedal harp, most recently equipped with the refinements of electronic sound.

Part I considers the harps of the ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Cycladic peoples, those of the fabled Scythians, and traditional instruments still played in Burma and Afghanistan. Part II presents the non-pedal harp in the Western world, from early in the Christian era to the 20th-century. Examples from art and literature are discussed, along with extant early harps and some important harpists and their music. Part III traces the development of the pedal harp over the last 300 years. Famous performers, teachers, and harps are highlighted. The book concludes with information on the modern study of the harp, on harp societies, conferences and competitions, and on the burgeoning repertoire of harp musi

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253212092
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 07/28/1998
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.21(w) x 9.24(h) x 0.88(d)

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Harps and Harpists

By Roslyn Rensch

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2017 Roslyn Rensch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-34903-3


The Beginning

Our knowledge of the harp in the ancient world would be meager indeed without pictorial evidence, since only a small number of these early musical instruments now survive. Fortunately, representations of harp-like musical instruments can still be found in a variety of ancient paintings and sculpted reliefs. Attention to these art works, as well as surviving harps, will shed some light on the early history of the harp.


Early evidence of the harp in Mesopotamia is provided by archaeological finds of objects attributed to the Sumerians, a non-Semitic people who, by the fourth millennium B.C., had settled in the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Semitic nomad shepherds from the western desert also established themselves in this vicinity and in subsequent centuries domination of the area shifted between dynasties from the Sumerian city of Ur and those of the Semitic kingdoms of Akkad and Babylon; there were also periodic conquests from neighboring territories. Finally the Assyrians of northern Mesopotamia overcame southern resistance and established an empire which, during the first millennium B.C., ruled most of the Near East for almost three centuries. Despite these changes, interest in the harp apparently endured and the partial remains of a few harps as well as some representations of the instrument are extant. The survival of these objects seems almost miraculous, since the physical climate of western Asia, like its volatile political climate, is hardly conducive to preservation.

Mesopotamian clay tablets of c. 2800 B.C. include as a pictographic sign a simple linear carving of a harp with three strings. Representations of musicians with harps occur even earlier on limestone plaques and on seals. All of these examples are quite small but it is possible to see that the harps, while bow-shaped in general outline, differ slightly in detail.

On a votive plaque less than 8 inches (20.3 cm) square, one of a pair of bearded figures stands while playing a harp (fig. 1.1). Presumably the harpist and the figure facing him, with arms crossed, are performing at a banquet honoring the seated figures represented in the top band of the plaque. Dated c. 3000 B.C., the plaque was found in the vicinity of the Sin Temple at Khafaje, a small city east of the Tigris River. Other depictions of harps have been found in the vicinity of Ur, once a city of great importance in South Babylonia and the seat of the Sumerian dynasties. On a seal from Ur, where a trio of onagers is represented cleverly prancing along on their hind legs, one plays a small harp (fig. 1.2). On another Ur seal, a larger harp, with a mushroom form capping its string arm, is held by a person standing with other musicians (fig. 1.3).

During the extensive excavations of the Royal Cemetery at Ur, conducted in the 1920s by C. Leonard Woolley, the remains of several stringed instruments were found. Museum restorations have produced handsome musical instruments truly worthy of being played for important religious or court ceremonies. However, an example of the Ur instrument at the University Museum, Philadelphia, elegantly decorated with the head of a bull covered with gold and trimmed with a beard of lapis lazuli, is more accurately designated as a lyre (fig. 1.4). The instrument is rectangular in form and its strings, relatively equal in length, fan out over the soundbox. In shell inlay on the soundbox end just below the bull's head, in one of several fanciful scenes probably illustrating myths or legends, a seated animal (perhaps another onager) plays a similar lyre. Instead of hoofs the animal has human hands whose fingers pluck the strings.

The British Museum's Ur exhibit, handsomely remounted since the 1960s, includes several restored lyres and a new reconstruction of a harp found in the grave of the queen. For some time this particular exhibit suffered from the problem that a lyre and a harp, long buried together, were restored as one musical instrument. A separation of these two forms has at last been achieved and the "Harp of Ur" now appears as a boat-shaped harp of eleven strings (fig. 1.5). Some remains of two other harps were found in the queen's grave. One instrument originally had fifteen strings. The string pegs of these harps were of precious metals and each string arm terminated in a cap of gold or silver. This feature resembles the mushroom form noted on the string arm of the Ur seal harp (fig. 1.3). Most recent archaeological study indicates a date of c. 2600–2350 B.C. for the foregoing examples.

On a vase fragment of green steatite, of an even earlier period (c. 3100–2900 B.C.), a pair of kilted musicians, with feathers in their hair, play bow-shaped instruments of seven and five strings, respectively (figs. 1.6, 1.7). Both instruments are held horizontally with the strongly arching string arm in the forefront and the soundbox tucked under the player's left arm. This manner of holding bow-shaped harps can still be seen in some parts of Africa. The vase fragment was found at Bismaya (the ancient city of Adab).

Harps that are angular, rather than bow-shaped, are represented on some terracotta plaques of the second millennium B.C. from Ishchali in the ancient independent kingdom of Eshnunna. A plaque only 5 inches (12.7 cm) long depicts a seated musician playing this instrument (fig. 1.8). Here the large soundbox, and the sturdy pole that serves as a string arm, are obviously two separate parts which join at an angle, and the soundbox (held vertically against the musician's body) rises above the string arm.

Other small plaques of the same period show an angular harp of similar design, and also an arched harp, held with the soundbox in a horizontal position while it is played. Both seated and standing musicians are represented with these horizontally held harps and each uses a plectrum to sound the harp strings. A plectrum does not seem to have been used in playing the vertically held angular harp. While no examples of this harp survive in Mesopotamia, the instrument probably served as a prototype for the angular harps found in Egypt.

Relief carvings from the first millennium B.C., discovered at Nineveh and Nimrod, in the ruins of the once great palaces of the Assyrians, include additional examples of the angular harp. These reliefs, often quite large continuous scenes, abound with a variety of carefully carved details. Both vertically and horizontally held angular harps are represented in left or right profile. The string arms of some horizontally held instruments terminate in the carving of a human hand, which points heavenward when the harp is played.

In a Nineveh palace relief, now in the British Museum, a musician playing a vertically held angular harp attends the powerful Assyrian ruler Assurbanipal and his queen as they dine al fresco. With admirable composure the harp player stands near a tree — from the upper branch of which dangles the severed head of the late ruler of Elam (fig. 1.9). In another Nineveh palace relief, eight harp players are included among the Elamite musicians assembled to greet Assurbanipal. Seven of the harps are held with the soundbox rising vertically above the string arm, while one instrument is held horizontally. The strings of the former instruments are finger plucked but the musician playing the latter instrument uses a long baton-like plectrum. The men and women (or perhaps eunuchs) represented here as harpists are either marching or dancing.

While it is never advisable to interpret a work of art too literally, the Assyrian carvings suggest that these harp players might vary their music by plucking the strings near the string arm with the fingers of the right hand and plucking nearer the soundboard with those of the left hand. Harmonics and muffling, both part of the present-day harpist's repertoire, may also have been employed. Certainly the muffling of some strings may have been desired if the plectrum was used to sweep across the strings of the horizontally held harp. In both versions of the harp, the strings are wrapped around the string arm, augmented by tassel-ended cords. The harps in these stone carvings have as many as twenty-one strings but, while this suggests a possible range of several octaves, the scales actually used in tuning the harps have yet to be determined. Curt Sachs, after studying the hand positions of the seven Elamite musicians playing the vertically held harps, suggested they were playing fifths and octaves on pentatonically tuned instruments. More recent research, based on an ancient Babylonian treatise on harp tuning, confirms a pentatonic and later a heptatonic tuning.


Archaeological excavations in Egypt make it evident that harps were of great importance in the cultural life of the ancient Egyptians. From prehistoric times Egyptian life evolved around the Nile, a long and constant river, running south to north and periodically overflowing its banks to enrich the surrounding land. Quite early the distinction was made between Upper and Lower Egypt, with African characteristics probably predominant in the former and Asiatic influence stronger in the latter. By the third millennium B.C., however, the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were united; a brilliant civilization was developing along the Nile, and much of its daily life was recorded in tomb decorations. The tomb art that has survived includes a variety of harp representations. Also, thanks to the dry climate of Egypt, parts of harps and even some complete instruments have been preserved.

Of all the Egyptian harp discoveries the most remarkable was made in the tomb of Rameses III (c. 1198–1166 B.C.) in the Valley of the Kings, at Thebes. Painted on the walls of a side chamber in this Twentieth Dynasty tomb were two standing figures each playing a tall, richly decorated harp (figs. 1.10, 1.11). The Scottish explorer James Bruce, who first saw these harps in 1768, had some difficulty convincing Europeans of their authenticity. A letter he wrote concerning the harps and a drawing of one of the instruments, included in the first edition of Charles M. Burney's A General History of Music, created a great stir. Joseph C. Walker, in his book Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards (Dublin, 1786), was prompted to publish an advertisement branding Bruce's claims as fiction. It charged that "no such painting of a Harp either does, or ever did, exist in Egypt." Later exploration vindicated Bruce, and representations of one or both harps (sometimes rather inaccurately drawn) have appeared in many publications since the eighteenth century. Recent photographs show the paintings in a very poor state of preservation, but it is still possible to see that the harps were originally very handsome instruments. The colorfully decorated (painted or inlaid) soundboxes of both harps terminate in representations of the pharaoh's head. One head wears the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt (fig. 1.11).

"Bruce's harps," as they are often designated, like the harps of most ancient civilizations, lack the column, or forepillar, which is an important part of the modern harp. Since the column (in completing the triangle) strengthens the harp frame, so it can better withstand the tension of tuned strings, it seems likely that the strings of large harps that lack this support were tuned relatively low in pitch. A pentatonic tuning has been suggested, however, little is really known about the scales used or the nature of the music played on these early instruments.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century Verdi, in the elaborate temple scene in Aida, called for the appearance of ancient Egyptian harps on stage. When this opera is performed the chords composed for the temple harps are played on the orchestra's modern pedal harp (usually concealed backstage). While no claim to authenticity can be made for such harp music, the illusion created is highly effective. On seeing Aida performed few would deny that the music which seems

The Harp in the Ancient World 10 to emanate from the exotic prop harps on stage adds immeasurably to the grandeur and mysticism of the temple scene.

The harps in the tomb of Rameses III represent only one type of Egyptian harp. Other tomb paintings provide examples of harps slightly different in construction and usually smaller in size. These harps were played from standing, sitting, or kneeling positions and some were even held upon one shoulder.

Most Egyptian harps are best described as bow-shaped. However, as represented in Old Kingdom art of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, the harp was already an instrument of some sophistication. Classified more specifically as spoon- or spade-shaped, due to the form of its shallow soundbox, this type of harp had a slightly curved neck and six to twelve strings. The strings were usually fastened to nonmovable pegs on the neck and attached, at the lower end, to a suspension rod connected to the resonator or soundbox. The ancient equivalent of the modern harp's soundboard might be of wood, like the rest of the instrument, or of animal skin. When played by a seated musician, the harp was held with the soundbox resting on the ground; the upper part of the harp leaned against the player's shoulder and the instrument terminated well above the player's head. The harpist played with the fingers of both hands, the hands being placed on either side of the strings. While artistic tradition played a part in the representation of these musicians, some of the hand positions shown suggest — as in some Mesopotamian examples — that harmonics and the techniques for muffling or damping of certain strings were also used by ancient Egyptian harpists.

Some limestone statuettes, from the tomb equipment of a Fifth or Sixth Dynasty nobleman, provide examples of Old Kingdom harps (fig. 1.12). The largest statuette is about 91/2 inches (24 cm) in height. Although the upper part of each instrument has been broken off, it is apparent that these harps are very like the ones represented in contemporary tomb paintings.

In most Old Kingdom tomb paintings, the harp player is shown with other musicians. Often a figure seated opposite seems to be employing hand signals (cheironomy) to indicate musical patterns to the performers. In the tomb paintings at Saqqara several harps, if shown together, are usually drawn in the same way. However in tomb paintings at Giza, Dah-shur and Thebes, when more than one harp is represented, one instrument is drawn in profile while the soundboxes of the other instruments are shown as if viewed from the front. In representing the human figure the tomb artist also followed a formula. The large-eyed, broad-shouldered appearance of the figures in many ancient reliefs and paintings is due to the "conceptual image" tradition.

In this tradition, the eye was represented in frontal view although the head was drawn in profile, and frontal shoulders were combined with a profile view of the hips, legs, and feet. (Readers interested in modern art may recognize here an affinity with some figures in the works of Picasso and other twentieth-century artists.) Egyptian artists adhered to this formula for several thousand years (see, for example, the lute player in fig. 1.13).

The Old Kingdom is considered the "classic" era of Egyptian music. During the Middle Kingdom other musical instruments such as the lyre and several types of drums were introduced, probably from Asia. In the tomb paintings, representations of women playing the harp become more frequent and some changes are evident in the instrument itself. The soundbox may be less shallow or the neck of the harp more strongly curved. Occasionally a three-dimensional carving, such as the head of a bird, decorates the harp neck and the soundbox may rest on a stand.

In the New Kingdom, which began with the Eighteenth Dynasty in 1546 B.C., the lute and a greater variety of harp forms appear in the tomb paintings. New Kingdom harps are classified as ladle-shaped, arched, crescent-shaped, boat-shaped, and also angular. The ladle-shaped harp, with a curved neck and a hemispherical soundbox, usually supported by a slanting brace or stand, is shown as having five to eleven strings. As earlier, the strings were fastened at the upper end to pegs and at the lower end to a suspension rod. No examples of this harp survive, but the instrument was frequently represented in New Kingdom art. A wall painting of musicians at a banquet, from a Theban tomb, c. 1504–1450 B.C., includes a man playing a lute, one woman playing the double pipes, and another — identified as the harpist and singer Baket — playing an eight-stringed, ladle-shaped harp (fig. 1.13). Baket's harp has an ample soundbox, colorfully painted and supported by a slanting brace.

"Bruce's harps" with strongly curved necks and elongated soundboxes, provide examples of the large arched harp (fig. 1.10, fig. 1.11). However, the crescent-shaped harp, a late variety of arched harp, appears in tomb paintings as a small instrument usually held on a tall stand and played by a noble lady or goddess. A crescent-shaped harp decorated with a sphinx head, now at the Oriental Institute, Chicago, is less than 16 inches (39.3 cm) in height (fig. 1.14).


Excerpted from Harps and Harpists by Roslyn Rensch. Copyright © 2017 Roslyn Rensch. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, ix,
Preface, xv,
1 The Beginning, 3,
2 Beyond the Earliest Sources, 19,
3 Early Representations, 29,
4 The Harp in Art, 1200–1665, 52,
5 The Harp in Literature and Music, 75,
6 Concerning Non-pedal Harps and Harpists, 97,
7 Some Early Harps, Harpists, and Music, 127,
8 From Single to Double Action, 147,
9 The Colonies and the United States, 183,
10 The Harp International, 206,
11 Some Notable Events, 227,
12 Four Essays by the Author, 274,
Appendix, 303,
Notes, 309,
Selected Bibliography, 333,
Index, 345,

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