| Innovative Ideas:
Some New Chromatic Harps
by Philippe Clément
Note to our readers: Philippe Clement has
retired and these harps are no longer being manufactured. However, we hope
that his ideas might provide stimulation to other innovators
Most harps have this similarity: they require mechanical means to
produce accidentals. Before my 2001 retirement
from harp building, I developed three new chromatic harps
which address this situation.
Not too many people besides harp players themselves know that a harp is
usually tuned diatonically, like the white keys of the piano. Even
fewer realize that to provide accidentals (like the black, or chromatic,
keys), harps usually require having carefully crafted, sometimes complex
mechanical apparatuses such as hooks, blades, levers,
or pedals. .
Playing chromatic music on diatonic harps demands thoughtful planning,
and even then there are some limitations on what music is playable.
(Conversely, of course, there are some things harps can do that no other
Over the centuries, one way around these mechanisms has been to have
double or triple sets of strings, with a chromatic row parallel to one
or two diatonic rows. Another is the cross-strung harp. , with the
diatonic and chromatic rows crossing in an "X":
Sample of "X" crossing pattern
have developed harps with three more methods of dealing with
chromaticism:the in-line or single row chromatic harp,the double in-line chromatic harp,and the crossing triple chromatic harp.
In-Line Chromatic Harp
For those whom the sight of a cross
strung harp would make seasick, I have designed and built chromatic
harps featuring all 12 strings per octave in one row. Their principle
is comparable to that of the cross strung chromatic harp, except that
all strings are on the same row:
E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D,
In-Line Chromatic Harp
|I feel that this harp is simpler to play than other chromatic harps. It
has only one rank of strings, just like the diatonic harp, and strings
can be plucked without reaching above or below, which one does when
playing the cross-strung harp. However, 12 strings to the octave means
that the strings must be close together, and thus the instrument is only
suitable for fingernail plucking in a technique reminiscent of wire harp
On this harp the diatonic strings are bronze wrapped, and the chromatic
are nickel wrapped. All diatonic strings are equidistant, and the eye
can easily spot spaces between E-F and B-C; each octave is about 4 3/8
inches wide, equal to the middle octave of a concert harp. There are 37
strings on the single row model.
In-line chromatic harps may date back to the Renaissance, from which
there remain oblique references to some use of 12-string octaves, so no
contemporary harpmaker could call them his invention. Perhaps their
time has come again.
Double In-Line 37+24 Chromatic Harp
Double-line harp, detail
Double-line, full view
This instrument is based on that
escribed above, but I have added a second parallel row of strings.
The double in-line that I build is a close relative of both the
historical double harp, like the Italian Arpa Doppia. , and the
contemporary double harp . The Arpa Doppia, however, had essentially two
or three parallel (sometimes partial) rows, one tuned to the chromatic
scale and the others to the diatonic; the contemporary double harp's
two rows are in diatonic tunings, with sharping levers on each string.
My harp's two rows, on the other hand, are permanently and identically
tuned in chromatic order.
"37+24" refers to the number of strings in each row. On the right hand
row the number of strings is 24 only, in order to limit the number of
strings and make the harp easier to tune.
Crossing Triple Harp
This harp is essentially a double harp
(two ranks of parallel diatonic strings) with a third crossing row of
chromatic strings. That is, strings of the third row are not parallel
to those of the diatonic rows, as in the traditonal triple harp;
instead the chromatic row intersects both the diatonic rows as on a
cross strung harp, from lower left to upper right. Thus the row of
chromatic strings can be reached by the right hand up under the neck of
the harp, while the left hand plays them just above the soundboard. .
The two diatonic rows are played as they would be on any double harp.
One drawback of this harp, as is the case of other multi-course harps,
is that a three octave harp boasts 60 strings, a tuning challenge
The crossing triple-harp
Essentially, the crossing triple harp delivered what it was designed to
do: merge in one instrument the capability of two existing ones, opening
the fingerpad-plucked harp to a new dimension of musical interpretation.
The design has some limitations, however. Since only one single row of
strings provides sharps for two rows of diatonic strings, this limits
the typical abilities of the double harp (splitting or doubling the
melody, repeated notes, etc.,) if sharps are involved. In other words,
the player will only find one sharp for two naturals. This limitation of
course is not new. The traditional triple harp had only one row of
sharps for two rows of naturals, and the player had to be able to
"strategize" his-her use of the sharps. The ultimate answer to this
limitation would be a harp with four rows of strings (two naturals- two
alterations), or if one prefers: two cross-strung chromatic harps with
one single neck and one single soundboard. It can be done.
The Fate of the Chromatic Harp
With all their assets, one would
expect that chromatic harps should, by now, have conquered the world of
music. The fact that they did not has been interpreted by some critics
as a demonstration of the fact that perhaps the multi-course chromatic
was not after all the God-sent gift to harpists that it was portrayed to
be. In my opinion, the marginalization of these harps had little to do
with the instruments themselves and a great deal to do with the weight
(or inertia) of a cultural/musical tradition.
At the passing of the 20th century, harps are still very much among the
most charming and the most celebrated musical instruments, the double
action pedal harp is still the dominant concert harp, and
multiple-course chromatic harps are still rather obscure, marginal
the 21st century will hold is very much anyone's guess. There are no
signs announcing today a departure from current pedal harp or diatonic
folk harp trends, as was the case at the end of the 19th century with
the Pleyel cross strung chromatic harp. On the other hand, what is
interesting to note, as Roslyn Rensch did in the conclusion of her book
("Harps and Harpists" 1989), is that today's harpists and builders are
still dreaming of new ways of pushing the edges of their instruments.
We could perhaps interpret this as: not all harpists are totally
satisfied with their harp.
Will the 18th and 19th century's infatuation with "machinery" which led
to the double action pedal harp, finally give way to the 21st century's
love of electronic gadgetry? Or will harpists of the coming generations
turn themselves to more simple and pragmatic harp design solutions? In
case harpists finally opt for the latter, chromatic harps will still be
standing, ready to be tuned.