History of the Harp
The word “harp” comes from Anglo-Saxon, Old German, and Old Norse words whose root means, “to pluck”. Harps in my definition are multi-stringed-instruments, with open strings (no frets), where each string plays one note and where the strings are plucked with the fingers. This would include medieval harps, baroque harps; Irish harps, Celtic harps, Spanish harps; Chinese harps, African Harps; as well as related instruments like lyres, zithers, chariot, citharas, psalteries, arpas, yahz, cheng, kotos, koras and other stringed instruments. The harp’s evolution went along with physical, cultural and economic changes such as human migration patterns, trade, religion, environmental changes, musical scale development, and technology. Pictures of harps dating back to prehistoric time (15,000 BC) have been discovered on rock paintings in France.
Many believe that the harp had its origins with the hunter’s bow. During the great Dynasties of ancient Egypt, harps were everywhere and were illustrated in many hieroglyphics. Harps were also very popular in ancient Mesopotamia where they became more angular and took on more strings. Harps were popular in biblical times. King David played harp to soothe King Saul. In ancient Greece, harps were associated with their mythology. Ancient Asia had an interesting harp legacy and harps abounded in India and China. Recorded history offers little information about the harp during the dark ages. With the rise of the early church, the harp was one of the few permitted instruments in the middle ages.
The harp became popular with the troubadours and wandering minstrels. Harps then began assuming all kinds of shapes and sizes. It became so popular in Ireland that it was designated as their national instrument. The Spaniards brought the harp to the New World and a unique harp tradition was born in South America. Paraguay especially is blessed with many harp makers and players. During the Renaissance, the great composers were writing works for the twelve-note scale which became firmly established while the harp remained a diatonic (seven note) instrument. Chromatic harps, lever harps, and hook harps were developed to increase the note range of the harp. Yet, the harp was no match for keyboard instruments, such as the piano, which could play all the notes without the effort of plucking strings and changing keys. The handmade harp was expensive by comparison and affordable only by the upper class. The harp became unpopular and no major innovations were made to the harp for about 200 years. In 1889, Lyon & Healy started as a factory and has been widely recognized as the world’s premiere harpmaker. You can still see these intricate instruments being hand made by craftsman in Chicago. The gold leafing is an intricate skill that makes a harp column worth thousands of dollars. The price of harps range from $38,000 down.
Today, we see techno-wizardry and global trends everywhere, which offer us an easier lifestyle. But for many, life seems more demanding, more hectic, more rushed and more stressful than ever before. Our loud, noisy and relentless society in which we live can be jarring on the nerves. Over a long period of time, all this distress starts to take its toll on our well-being. It is important to escape once in a while and go back to a place of peace and tranquility with the power of one of the world’s oldest instruments. Harp music can bring you to that place of peace, lower blood pressure, soothe the human heart, and speak to the soul as it has for thousands of years.