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Where Do Double-Strung Harps Come From? [Double-Strung Harp FAQ S1E4Pt1]

Hi, I’m Cynthia Shelhart. You can call me Cindy. And it’s time for some #DoubleTalk. Double-strung harp, that is!

Last time, in Episode 3 of our double-strung harp FAQ series, we talked about how to choose the best double-strung harp for you—whether it’s your first one, or your next one. If you missed that episode, make sure to subscribe, so you can be notified for upcoming episodes.

And if you see me looking down today, I’ve got a ton of notes for you, because we have a lot in store on Episode 4. This time, we’re going to climb the family tree of the double-strung harp! We’ll explore the roots of the modern double-strung harp, which is a hybrid of historical & traditional multi-row harps and modern lever harps. And we’ll take a look at how it evolved to play chromatic music, key changes, and polyphony, while creating the double-strung harps that we’re familiar with. 

Late Renaissance Chromatic Harps: Spain & Italy

So, let’s take a walk back in history. We know that there were probably some medieval double-strung harps; these were tuned in unison, probably to play early polyphony (more than one voice at a time), overlapping in the same range. But, by the late Renaissance, music had become more chromatic—with accidentals, and playing in different keys—and chromatic harps came along to help solve those challenges for evolving music. 

Chromatic harps came first from Spain to Italy. These harps were cross-strung, meaning that the strings crossed each other like a letter X. There were two rows: one of them was diatonic, like the white keys of a keyboard instrument, and the other was for the flats and sharps, like the black keys on a keyboard instrument. 

The Italian instrument ended up being a little different. Because their harps’ soundboards and sound boxes were built more narrowly, these needed to have parallel strings, rather than the cross-stringing of the Spanish chromatic harps. These harps in Italy had 2, or even 3 rows (again, with parallel stringing because of the narrower soundbox), and they were called the arpa doppia. The name “arpa doppia” comes from the doubled number of strings—even if it’s not exactly doubled, it means “extra number of strings.” The outer row of the arpa doppia was a diatonic row, again, like the white keys on a keyboard instrument, and the inner row was chromatic. And they traded places in the middle, so that either hand would always play a diatonic row on the outside, and reach in from either side into the inner chromatic row. 

The 17th Century Italian Triple Harp

By the time music had evolved into what we now call the beginning of the Baroque era, around the year 1600, the arpa doppia had evolved also, into a larger Italian triple harp. There were still 2 parallel, diatonic, unison rows, with a chromatic center row. The center row was at first an incomplete middle row. It was used in the middle register of the harp, where the harpist would use that area of the harp for playing continuo harmony chords. Later, the middle row, the chromatic row, extended to more areas of the harp; more higher and lower strings were added to the third inner row.

And to play accidentals, the harpist needed to reach into the middle row from either side, similar to the earlier arpa doppia. Now, there were no sharping levers on these harps. So if a new key was needed, the harpist would have to retune all the strings as needed in the 2 outer rows. 

The larger Italian triples were used primarily as bass or continuo instruments, playing harmony, and they played low on the strings. These were extremely tall instruments, and the player would sit lower than the height of the harp, and play low on the strings near the soundboard, to bring out the resonant bass of this larger instrument. But later on, harpists, especially skilled harpists, were also used for playing more higher-range, solo passages. The most famous from this time is the solo in the aria, “Possente spirto” in Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo (1607).

17th Century Italian Triple Harps in France & England

The larger Italian triple harps soon made their way across continental Europe, especially to France, and then traveled to England. In 1625, a French triple harpist named Jean le Flelle came to London. He was in the large retinue of Princess Henrietta Maria, who came from France to become the Queen Consort of King Charles I of England. She liked to spend money, and she was a patroness of the arts. So, she brought Jean le Flelle along with her. And a few years after she became queen, le Flelle himself became a court musician. This was in 1629.

One of his fellow court musicians was the composer and musician, William Lawes. If you’ve ever heard of his Harp Consorts, which were composed for violin, viol, theorbo, and harp, these were probably composed for le Flelle’s ensemble at court. They were composed for this large Italian triple, and this was right around the time that le Flelle joined the party, so they were probably composed for le Flelle and his ensemble in the court of Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria. 

The 17th & 18th Century Welsh Connection

When le Flelle came to London and came to court, there were already other harpists and harpbuilders active in London. They came especially from Wales, which already had a historical connection with the harp. Older harps from Wales were single-row harps. And, unlike the continental harp, Welsh harps (the single-row harps) were played on the left shoulder, so that the left hand played the higher treble strings, and the right hand played bass strings. 

King Henry VIII annexed the country of Wales in 1536. So the traditional moneyed patrons, the gentry of Wales, who would normally be the patrons of these (Welsh) harpists, and by extension, harpbuilders—these folks all went to London where the king was, where their new government was, and where all the action was. And Welsh harpists and their harpbuilders followed their traditional patrons to London.

When they came to London, le Flelle’s new triple harp at court was the latest thing, the latest fashion in music, and it was quickly adopted by these Welsh harpists and their builders at that time. It was the new thing, the new fashion, and they wanted to be a part of it.

In 1660, Charles Evans was the first known Welsh player of the Italian triple to become part of the court musicians. He was appointed to the court of Charles II, following the Restoration, after the English Civil War. 

By the 18th century, the triple harp had become redesigned—and really, transformed, having more strings in its chromatic row. The shoulder of the harp (near the shoulder of the player) on larger Italian harps was much, much higher, and the harpist sat down low. The new, transformed harps, the triple harps in the 18th century, were changed so that they were lower at the shoulder, and much easier for the harpist to reach the upper-range strings. So they would be able to play more virtuosic passages in the treble range of the harp. The design of the harp was almost flip-flopped, in a way; the shoulder became lower, and the bass strings, the long bass strings, had a tall, high “head.”

This harp became so popular among the Welsh, and later in Wales, that it became known as the Welsh triple harp, despite its Italian origins. Like the earlier Welsh single-row harps, these new Welsh triple harps were also played on the left shoulder, using the left hand for the treble row and the right hand for the bass strings. This new Welsh triple harp was more popular in northern Wales, at first; in southern Wales, they kept playing the older, single-row Welsh harp until the 19th century.

This (the Welsh triple) is the harp that is known to be the ancestor of the most characteristic sound of the Welsh triple harp, and later with a double-strung harp. This is, of course, what’s called “the unisons,” later called “doubling” (or my term, echoing), and this was used in arrangements of Welsh airs with variations. This is where the strings of the two outer rows, the diatonic rows, were tuned the same, and they echoed or “doubled” each other back and forth; they were referred to as “the unisons.”

In 1736. Handel’s famous Concerto in B-flat for harp, was premiered by Welsh triple harpist, William Powell. This was not premiered on a pedal harp, although it’s played a lot on pedal harps today. It was premiered on a triple harp. And later, it was frequently performed by the most famous of the 18th century Welsh triple harp players, John Parry.

Wrapping Up

So, wrapping up for today, that’s a first look at the historical roots of the modern double-strung harp—from the late Renaissance Spanish chromatic harps, to the 18th century Welsh triple harp. Next time, in Part 2, we’ll continue on with the Welsh triple harp and its 19th century revival, and move ahead to the 20th century “big bang”: the beginnings of the modern double-strung harp. 

If you liked what you heard today, please make sure that you’re subscribed, so that you can be notified about future episodes. And if you want to be one of the absolute first to get some more Double Talk, head on over to my website, CindyShelhart.com, and sign up for my mailing list. 

And again, next time, make sure you tune in for Part 2 of the double-strung harp’s family tree. See you next time!

1 thought on “Where Do Double-Strung Harps Come From? [Double-Strung Harp FAQ S1E4Pt1]

  1. […] back to our FAQ series on the double-strung harp. Last time, in Part 1 of Episode 4, we took a first look at the double-strung harp’s family tree: from late Renaissance chromatic […]

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