Igor Stravinsky said that harpists “spend ninety percent of their lives tuning up their harps and the other ten percent playing out of tune”. I guess Igor was a perfectionist with very high standards. Or he just had an issue with harpists
Today’s “Music Monday” is dedicated to the harp, an instrument that is often associated with a soloist at a wedding ceremony; a beautiful bride walks down the aisle, flowers strewn about, as a harpist gently plucks “Here Comes the Bride”. But there is nothing lightweight about the harp’s history . It is, in fact, the oldest known stringed instrument. The origin of the harp dates back to Egypt in 2000 BC, or possibly earlier than that in the Mesopotamia region. Depictions of the harp can be found in ancient cave paintings and tombs.
What distinguishes the harp from other stringed instruments is that the strings on a harp run perpendicular to the soundboard instead of parallel, such as on a violin, lute, etc. This perpendicular string construction is the distinct harp feature. Some stringed instruments are referred to as “harps” but are not really true harps, but rather lyres, lutes, zithers, etc.
A Girl Playing a Harp by Henri Lebasque:
From ancient times up to the modern era, harp versions have existed in just about every part of the world, from Asia to Africa, to Europe and Latin America. Harps evolved from a bow-shaped design to the upright triangular structure we are familiar with in the concert harps of today. Sharp and flat notes are achieved through the use of levers or pedals, depending on the style of harp.
I found this marvelous image on the Wikipedia page for harp. The file description tells us that this is a section of a mosaic tile floor pavement excavated in Iran in the 1940s, and dates back to 260 AD. I love the way the shape of the harp looks next to the shape of the figure. I bet even Stravinsky would like this one:
The harp is especially beloved in Celtic history and culture and remains a symbol of traditional Irish music. The 14th century poet Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh wrote an adoring poem entitled “To a Harp”. Here is one stanza:
O choice instrument of the smooth, gentle curve,
thou that criest under red fingers,
musician that hast enchanted us,
red harp, high-souled, perfect in melody.
The Austrian artist Raphael Kirchner was known mainly for his postcard illustrations during the Art Nouveau period and erotic “pin up” style depictions of women. He did a beautiful job here with a woman playing her harp:
The harp possesses an ethereal, mystic quality, which explains its significant presence in mythology and lore. It’s the instrument of gods and goddesses and angels, and the sounds of its strings have attended human civilization for millennia.
Our harp audio selection comes not from Stravinsky but George Frederic Handel. This is Harp Concerto in B flat, Opus 4, performed by Academy of St. Martin in the Fields: