Harp

Courtesy of iStock
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Pitch range

Harp pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale
Many old harps were decorated with beautiful carvings, courtesy of iStock

Many old harps were decorated with beautiful carvings

The harp is in a world of its own. It’s a string instrument, but it’s completely different from the violin, viola, cello and double bass. It looks different, it’s played differently, and its history is unconnected with those instruments.

It’s thousands of years old. There were harps in Ancient Egypt: we know this because they feature in cave paintings. It spread across the world, and many countries and cultures made their own versions of the same instrument.

The concert harp (or pedal harp – the type used in orchestras and pictured at the top of the page) has a triangular wooden frame with usually 47 or 48 strings stretched from top to bottom and pedals on the base.

The harp is special. It has a delicate, angelic sound, as if it has come from another world. For this reason, it’s been linked with heaven – in music, paintings and books. 

Inside the orchestra

Plan of the orchestra showing the harps, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Plan of the orchestra showing the harps

You won’t always see a harp in the orchestra, because not every piece needs one. When it is there, its unusual, silvery sound comes floating through with a kind of magical effect.

There might be just one harp, perhaps two. When Wagner wrote for six of them in his Ring cycle (a gigantic work containing four operas and lasting over 15 hours) he was, as usual, asking for more than most composers!

Outside the orchestra

Concertos: Not many of these; a highlight is Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto.

Chamber music: The harp doesn’t feature in a lot of chamber music but Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet is a shining example.

Solo pieces: Not a huge number, but more are being written all the time. Many well-known pieces for other instruments are also arranged for the harp to play.

Folk music: The harp has always had a big role to play here – in Ireland, Wales and Scotland in particular.

The concert harp is extremely big: about 1.8 metres (6 feet) tall.

To play it

Harpist in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Harpist in playing position

  1. You sit on a stool and lean the harp towards you with the pillar furthest away.
  2. You pluck the strings with both hands. Only the little fingers are not used for plucking.
  3. Your feet use the pedals to make notes sharper (higher) or flatter (lower). Every single string has to be tuned by the player before a rehearsal or concert. So harpists have to arrive before everyone else to make sure their harp is in tune.

The harp has seven pedals for the feet to press, which can sharpen or flatten the strings by changing their tension. It means a bit of fancy footwork for the harpist, but the result is that the harp can play in any key at all, without needing more strings.

Special effects

Glissando: This is heard a lot on the harp! The player’s hands brush up and down the strings to make a decorative, rippling scale sound.

Harmonics: These are produced by ‘stopping’ the strings with the fingers at certain points. The sound is hollow and less ringing than normal.

Harp strings can easily snap, sometimes right in the middle of a concert. Players carry extra strings with them, ready to do a fast mending job if they need to.

Find out more about the development of the Harp in .

A Little History of the Harp

Irish harp

Irish harp

Around 800 AD, harps found their way to Ireland. The Irish harp is still an important folk instrument.

In the 13th century, travelling musicians in Europe – called ‘minstrels’ and ‘troubadours’ – made sure the harp was seen and heard all over the place. Harpists were significant people at this time, hugely respected by everybody.

Harps were small in those days: they had between seven and 25 strings and could sit on your lap when you played them.

Then, harps started growing…

In the 14th–16th centuries there were ‘Gothic’ harps: tall with about 24 strings.

Then there were ‘Renaissance’ harps: taller, with even more strings.

But you could only play whole tones on the harp – that’s a bit like playing only the white keys on the piano. It was a problem because major composers of the 16th to 18th centuries wrote music using all the notes of the chromatic scale – i.e., the black keys as well as the white ones. The harp needed to change to keep up!

Gothic harp

Gothic harp

So, there were ‘chromatic’ harps, ‘double’ harps, ‘triple’ harps – each one trying to find a better solution to having all the notes.

Why was it such a problem? Well, the theory was that if the harp needed more notes, it needed more strings. But to play the harp, you have to reach across it and pluck the strings. So:

If the strings were too close together, it would be impossible to pluck each one on its own – you’d keep catching other strings by mistake.

If the strings were too far apart, no player’s arms would be long enough to reach them all.

By 1800, there was a breakthrough: the ‘pedal’ harp. It was perfected in 1820 by a Frenchman called Sébastian Érard. He called it the ‘double-action’ harp. And today’s concert harp uses this mechanism.

A modern concert harp usually has 47 or 48 strings. There are seven pedals for the feet to press; these can sharpen or flatten the strings by changing their tension. It means a bit of fancy footwork for the harpist, but the result is that the harp can play in any key at all, without needing more strings!

The harp wasn’t used much in orchestras until the 19th century. It was composers like Berlioz and Wagner who changed things, because they liked to pack as many instruments into their pieces as possible.

The harp was also popular in the 19th century as a ‘salon’ instrument – when groups of upper-class people got together and wanted some musical entertainment to enjoy. But in the 20th century, the piano was much more popular and people didn’t seem to want harpists so much.

Érard harp, courtesy of Érard Frères harp, Paris, 1800–1830

Érard harp

In the 1940s the harp was so neglected that when the Royal College of Music in London cleared out its instrument collection, 24 harps were chopped up and thrown away! Today they might have been worth £1 million ($1.5 million)!

From the 1970s, people started to remember the harp again. It’s even used in wedding receptions, restaurants and hotels to create a kind of luxurious, classy atmosphere for the guests. There are now more players, and more pieces.

It has also continued as a folk instrument. It’s firmly part of traditional culture in places like Wales and Ireland, where they have their own versions of the instrument.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which instrument did Mozart pair with the harp?

a. Guitar
b. Flute
c. Piccolo

 In which of these countries is the harp an important folk instrument?

a. Ireland
b. Germany
c. Spain

 How many pedals does a concert harp have?

a. 10
b. 14
c. 7

 What does a harpist use to pluck the strings?

a. Bow
b. Plectrum
c. Fingers

 What effect sounds really good on the harp?

a. Glissando
b. Spiccato
c. Flutter-tonguing

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Harp Extracts

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
The Nutcracker: The Waltz of the Flowers (extract)

The harp’s graceful rippling introduces the flowers’ dance.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.553271

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Concerto for flute and harp in C major, K. 299: II. Andantino

The flute and harp make a gentle couple.

Performers: Patrick Gallois, flute; Fabrice Pierre, harp; Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Katarina Andreasson

Taken from Naxos 8.557011

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
Capriccio espagnol (extract)

Time for a lively Spanish flourish!

Performers: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Leaper

Taken from Naxos 8.554044

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804–1857)
Nocturne in E flat major, arranged for harp by Andrea Vigh (extract)

The harp can provide tune and accompaniment.

Performers: Elizabeth Hainen, harp

Taken from Naxos 8.555791

Solo Harp & Harp and Voice

Sebstián Durón (1660–1716)
El pícaro de Cupido (‘Crafty Cupid’)

Sebastián Durón became one of the most important Spanish composers of his time. In 17th-century Spain, secular songs were accompanied by either guitar or ‘double harp’ – an instrument developed in Spain (in the Iberian Peninsula) between the mid-1500s and mid-1700s. In this recording of a song called ‘Crafty Cupid’, you can hear this instrument accompanying the singer.

Performers: Raquel Andueza, soprano; Manuel Vilas, double harp

Taken from Naxos 8.570458

Alphonse Hasselmans (1845–1912)
La Source (‘The Spring’)

Close your eyes and imagine water bubbling up to a stream… The harp is describing a spring, where water trickles, flows and even rushes! Alphonse Hasselmans was a harpist himself, so he would have known how to write satisfying pieces to play on the harp.

Performers: Judy Loman, harp

Taken from Naxos 8.554347

Henriette Renié (1875–1956)
Danse des Lutins (‘Dance of the Goblins’)

Henriette Renié was an impressive woman – a pioneer: she was the first woman to have a career as both a soloist (a harpist) and a composer at the same time. She supported her family and others as well by teaching, performing and composing. She wrote this piece in 1911, basing it on a poem by Sir Walter Scott about elves and spirits. In the poem, the poet listens to the soft music of the elves and watches their nimble feet. In fact, the harpist playing this piece has to have nimble feet on the harp pedals, changing around 100 pedals per minute!

Performers: Judy Loman, harp

Taken from Naxos 8.554347

Harp and Orchestra

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Concerto for flute and harp in C major, K. 299

As you listen to this, see if you can work out why the flute and harp go well together. The flute is a thin metal tube that packs away into a neat little case, and the harp is a huge span of strings that has to be wheeled onto the stage. Yet their sounds go together like bread and butter. Try making a list of words to describe the flute, then a list of words to describe the harp: are any of the words the same? This concerto was written by Mozart in 1778 in Paris, for a duke who played the flute and his daughter who played the harp. The duke had commissioned Mozart – which means that he asked him to write music in exchange for money (although he was extremely slow to pay poor Mozart!).

Performers: Patrick Gallois, flute; Fabrice Pierre, harp; Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Katarina Andreasson

Taken from Naxos 8.557011

Carl Reinecke (1824–1910)
Harp Concerto in E minor, Op. 182

Carl Reinecke was a respected teacher in Germany; he taught Grieg and Schumann and Mendelssohn both thought highly of him. He conducted, played the piano and also composed a variety of works. This Harp Concerto was written in 1884, and gives a nice variety of things for the harp to play while using the orchestra in a colourful way. Listen to the fairy-like beginning of the final movement (track 3) – Reinecke combines the tinkly harp with strings playing pizzicato (plucking); then can you hear at 0.24 the trumpet call? The orchestra is like a painter’s palette for a composer.

Performers: Fabrice Pierre, harp; Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Patrick Gallois

Taken from Naxos 8.557404

Chamber Music

Arnold Bax (1883–1953)
Elegiac Trio

The English composer Arnold Bax loved Ireland – and the Irish harp has always been an important instrument there. He even wrote poetry and stories under a made-up Irish name, and learned the language Irish Gaelic. He spent a lot of time in Dublin and got on well with many people there, including a man called Padraig Pearse, a champion of the Irish language. In the Easter week of 1916, Irish republicans tried to end British rule in Ireland. There was fierce fighting, and terrible casualties and destruction. Padraig, involved in this, was executed afterwards. Bax was very upset by this, and his Elegiac Trio for harp, viola and flute was written immediately after the event.

Performers: Mobius

Taken from Naxos 8.554507

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Quintet for flute, harp and string trio

The Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos wrote a large variety of pieces – for all sorts of instruments. This Quintet consists of a string trio (violin, viola and cello) as well a flute and a harp. Again, the little flute is put with the big harp! This music is like someone exploring places – sounds pop out of the texture, and it is bright-eyed. Listen out for ripples from the harp – one of its best effects. You can hear some of these at 1.30 in track 1.

Performers: Mobius

Taken from Naxos 8.557765