Muzyka Dawna w Pałacu Paca


by Andrew Lawrence-King

Like most musical instruments, the harp has become louder, larger and more mechanical as it developed from simple medieval instruments with a dozen strings or less, to the modern, five and a half octave, double-action pedal harp. The enormous increase in string tension associated with the complex (and heavy) mechanism for altering the pitch of the strings makes the modern concert harp as different from its Baroque predecessors as the piano is from the harpsichord.

The 25-string Gothic harp was played throughout the renaissance, but around the middle of the sixteenth century a new kind of harp was invented. It had two rows of strings and was completely chromatic, whereas the older, renaissance harps had only one row and were essentially diatonic. It isn't precisely known where or when these chromatic harps first appeared, but it seems likely that they originated in Spain and spread through Italy by way of the Spanish court in Naples.

The Italian theorist Vincenzo Galilei (father of the astronomer) described an arpa doppia or double harp with twice the usual number of strings in his Dialogo della Musica (1581). The harp quickly became associated with an extravagant playing style and with virtuosic improvisation, as cultivated by musicians such as Trabaci and Macque in Naples, and Orazio Mihi - the greatest harpist of his time - in Rome. An account of a young Sicilian girl playing 'the most beautiful and artificial pieces by the most famous composers' describes how she 'ran quickly from the highest strings to the lowest' and played 'with such pleasant and artful little scales and fugues'. Her harp was so large that she had to stand on a chair to tune it!

Just as the theorbo was developed from the renaissance lute, harps were made larger and provided with extra bass strings in order to play basso continuo. So around the year 1600, the arpa doppia was 'double', not only because it had twice as many strings, but also because it was very large and had a low bass register. By this time, harps were being built with three rows of strings, arranged like the black and white notes on a keyboard. One row has the white notes, and you poke your fingers through between two of the 'white note' strings, to reach the 'black notes' in the second row. The third row duplicates the first, giving the effect of a two-manual keyboard. Confusingly, these triple harps with three rows of strings were still called arpa doppia.

Harps were to be heard in England both before and after the Commonwealth, particularly in the lavish Masque productions or as part of Charles I’s Consorte. Also known as the "Lutes and Voices" or the "Private Music", the Consorte brought together the leading musicians of the time, to create exotic combinations of plucked and bowed string instruments. It was for this ensemble that William Lawes wrote his famous pieces for the harp consort - an ensemble of harp, theorbo, violin and viola da gamba.

The best-known harpist of the early 17th century was a Frenchman, Jean le Flelle, who was a musician in ordinary to the English Queen. After the Restoration, the Private Music included 'his Majesty's harper for the Italian harp'. As in Italy, the repertoire of the harp in England and France had much in common with that of lute and keyboard.

While professional harpist in court ensembles would have played large double-harps, smaller, simpler instruments remained popular among the common people. Some early renaissance tunes and chord-sequences, perhaps originating in Italy, survived in England as ballads, danced to or sung with a variety of texts, satirical, political or simply obscene. This is the kind of unwritten music that could have been played on these simpler 'folk' instruments. We even have a picture of Henry VIII playing a small harp, while the court jester pretends to stop his ears!

Andrew Lawrence-King

* Renaissance harp by Tim Hobrough, Arpa Doppia by Simon Capp