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Where Do Double-Strung Harps Come From? [Double-Strung Harp FAQ S1E4Pt2]

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

Welcome 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 harps, to the Welsh triple harp in the 18th century. If you missed that episode, make sure you subscribe, so that you can find out about future episodes.

This time, in Part 2, we’ll keep exploring the roots of the modern double-strung harp. This will include the 19th century Welsh triple harp’s revival, and the 20th century “big bang” that gave birth to the modern double-strung harp. Let’s get started on Part 2.

The Welsh Triple Harp: 19th Century Survival

Unfortunately, by the 19th century, the Welsh triple harp was actually, despite its earlier popularity, in danger of extinction. The pedal harp was gaining favor, and there were a shortage of harpbuilders building the old (by that time) triple harp.

Also, despite our modern conception of harps being angelic and good and pure instruments, the Methodist religious revival in Wales gave harps and harpists kind of a bad rep. Triple harps were lighter and easier to travel with; they didn’t have a heavy metal mechanism. So the harps were frequently taken to fairs and taverns, and played along with fiddles. And people used to dance to their music, and dancing was extremely anathema to the Methodists.

So these triple harps got a bad reputation. And the triple harpists felt pressure after religious conversion and pressure from the church, sometimes even to the extent that they abandoned their harps. Harps were buried in peat bogs, they were burnt, or even just left to rot—for example, underneath the harpist’s bed, never to be played again.

Fortunately, there were two main sources of keeping the Welsh triple harp tradition going in the 19th century. One very important tradition is from 2 families of the Welsh Gypsy (or Roma), the Wood and Roberts families. These families played triple harp, and brought the triple harp from the north of Wales to the south. So now the entire country had exposure to the Welsh triple harp.

And a noblewoman named Augusta Waddington Hall, whose title was Baroness (or Lady) Llanover, established Llanover House as a center for Welsh language and culture, including music. She was amazing. She was the ultimate “Welshophile.” She employed triple harpists and harpbuilders, she donated triple harps as competition prizes, and collected folk music. She was a major contributor to the survival, and later the revival, of the Welsh triple harp and its music.

The Welsh Triple Harp: 20th & 21st Century Revival

But, unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Lady Llanover and her daughter, by the early 20th century (here we go again!) the triple harp and traditional music in Wales had nearly been abandoned once again for the pedal harp and classical music. Fortunately, once again, we have a couple of exceptions that kept everything going and and kept things going to the modern day.

One great exception was a remarkable harpist and woman named Nansi Richards-Jones. She learned the triple harp and traditional music from harpist and harpbuilder Thomas Lloyd, and she grew up listening and dancing to the music of the Wood Gypsy/Roma family in Wales. As she grew in popularity, she toured Britain and America, playing both the triple harp and pedal harp on her left shoulder. She toured these countries in the early 20th century, and she held the title of Royal Harpist to the Prince of Wales from 1911 all the way until her death in 1971. Nansi inspired many next-generation triple harp players, including Dafydd and Gwyndaf Roberts of the Welsh group Ar Log (who were later inspirations to Robin Huw Bowen, who we’ll talk about in a moment), and also Llio Rhydderch, who was a student of Nansi’s.

And as I mentioned, Robin Huw Bowen not only was inspired by students of Nansi Richards, but also himself studied with a link to the Welsh Gypsy/Roma tradition. He studied with Eldra Jarman, who was the great-granddaughter of John Roberts. So, we have 2 Gypsy/Roma triple harp connections, with Nansi with the Wood family, and Robin Huw Bowen through Eldra Jarman with John Roberts. Robin Huw Bowen is probably the most well known traditional player of the Welsh triple harp today; other current triple harp performers include Elinor Bennett, Eleri Darkins, and Gareth Swindail-Parry of Wales, and American Cheryl Ann Fulton.

But, just as important: you can’t have triple harp players if you don’t have triple harps to play. And one harpbuilder in particular was extremely important in this revival; he was a gentleman named John Weston Thomas. He was a master harpmaker who singlehandedly resurrected harpmaking in Wales in the mid 1960s, including the Welsh triple harp. He taught himself to build harps from museum instruments and looking at old illustrations, because at the time, he was the only harpbuilder left in Wales, and one of only 3 in all of Britain. His innovative perpendicular design made triple harps more stable and long-lasting for the next generation. He was awarded the BEM (the British Empire Medal) for harpmaking by Queen Elizabeth II in the New Year Honours in 1983.

The Double-Strung Harp in Wales

And here we finally meet our instrument, the modern double-strung harp. In 1989, a collaboration between Welsh-Australian harpist and singer Gwenda Davies, and the harpbuilder John Weston Thomas, started them discussing in late 1988 or early 1989 about a Welsh traditional double-strung harp, with levers on both sides. Because Davies was a singer, she wanted a harp where she could easily change keys with preset levers, instead of having to retune the strings, like the older triple harps and older historical harps required. Also, as a Welsh harpist, she wanted the new harp to keep the same 2 unison rows of the Welsh triple harp.

The resulting harp in 1989 was called the “Gwenda” by John Weston Thomas. He had fulfilled both her wishes, for the two unison diatonic rows and full levers on both sides. Davies played it in Wales before bringing it home to San Francisco, California in the early 1990s. And now she lives and teaches and performs in her native Australia. Thomas unfortunately made only one other Gwenda double harp before his death in December 1992. But he did go on to inspire and train a number of apprentices to keep the triple harp tradition going.

In a letter I received from Gwenda Davies in 2005, she says: “The personal enjoyment I gained from playing the Gwenda harp is mainly related to the increased complexity of sound textures, especially when improvising or accompanying my singing. It works particularly well on the Welsh triple harp techniques of doubling.”

Double-Strung Harps in North America

Not long after Thomas’s build of the Gwenda double harp, in 1992, the first North American double-strung harps were built by two harpist and luthier teams in North America: harpist Laurie Riley, and luthier Steve Triplett of Triplett Harps in California; and harpist Elizabeth (Liz) Cifani, and luthier Gary Stone, of Here, Inc., now known as Stoney End Harps, in Minnesota.

Fun fact here: I actually introduced Laurie Riley to Liz Cifani. Liz was my teacher at that time; I introduced them at the 1990 conference of the International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at Augsburg College. And coincidentally, Riley and Cifani—you know it—shared an interest in Welsh harp music, (It’s all starting to come together!)

After the conference, a phone conversation between the two of them inspired both players to design instruments that could play Welsh triple harp repertoire, without retuning or using a third chromatic row of strings. Laurie Riley turned to Triplett Harps, and Liz Cifani contacted Here, Inc., and by the summer of 1992, these collaborations had produced the first modern double-strung harps built in North America. In 1993, both these harpists released the first recordings to include double-strung harp, alongside their other harps: Cifani’s solo CD Bella Stella, and Riley’s duo CD with Michael McBean, Double Image.

While Riley and Triplett, and Cifani and Stone, were not the first to invent the modern double-strung harp, they were certainly the first to launch this new instrument in North America. And today, Stoney End Harps, Gary Stone’s company, is the world’s oldest continuous builder of double-strung harps.

The Double-Strung Harp: My Connection

Finally, I’d like to share my own connection with this story, in the double-strung harp family tree. My double-strung harp adventure began in graduate school at The Pennsylvania State University. This is where I studied harp, and directed the Early Music Ensemble. And, among other things, I played Baroque continuo on an arpa doppia built by Tim Hobrough.

Later, after grad school, I returned to my native Midwest, and I worked for a time for harpbuilders Lyon & Healy in Chicago. And that’s when I met and studied lever harp with Liz Cifani. In the summer of 1992, when she got that first double-strung harp from Gary Stone, hers was made of cherry wood; this was Gary Stone’s very first double, and this is the model now known as the “Lorraine.” When I saw that harp, I immediately placed an order for my own double-strung harp,

Gary built the next harp, his second double-strung harp, for me. This one was made of walnut wood, and I received it in September 1992 at the Fox River Valley Folk Festival in Geneva, Illinois. And, later that year, this harp inspired me to write my composition Walnut Welcome, which is one of the first compositions written for solo double-strung harp.

While I didn’t invent or design one of the first double-strung harps, I’m proud to be a pioneer double-strung harp performer, teacher and composer. In addition to that first harp by Gary Stone, I’ve played double-strung harps by Dusty Strings, Rees Harps, Argent Fox Music, and other builders. I’ve released 2 of the first all-double-strung harp solo CDs, written a best-selling double-strung harp method book, and launched a new series of double-strung harp arrangements. And at the time of filming this video, I’m getting ready to celebrate my 30th anniversary with the double-strung harp in 2022. And I’ll be sharing more with you soon about that celebration.

Wrapping Up

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed climbing the double-strung harp family tree, and learning more about the history and the evolution of the modern double-strung harp—about its historical multi-row harp ancestors, its Welsh triple harp cousins, and the “big bang” of the double-strung harp in Britain and North America in the 20th century.

If you liked what you heard today, please make sure you’re subscribed, so you can be notified of future episodes. And if you want to be the first for more double-strung Double Talk, please sign up at my website, CindyShelhart.com, and sign up for my mailing list.

Next time, on Episode 5, we’re going to visit Inspiration Station…we’re going to find out which music you can play on double-strung harp. See you next time!

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