|Practical Advice On Playing the Medieval Harp (Full text-p.2)
(continued from previous page)
A 17th century source gives one of the best illustrations of tuning the
single-row harp according to the hexachord system.(15) Marin Mersenne
in his monumental treatise, Harmonie universelle, (Paris, 1636) includes
descriptions of the harp in two Propositions from the Book of
Instruments. For Mersenne the triple strung harp is the "normal" harp
but in Proposition XXIV, Chapter 3.,(16) to explain the shape, tuning,
range and use of the harp, he also discusses a single-strung gothic
harp. I have added yet another illustration of a single row harp so
that we may consider the way in which the old bray pins made the strings
buzz in an unpleasant way, as well as the [reasons for] the 23 intervals
of the 24 strings that make up the 24-note range, because the numbers
that are to the right of the shell explain them (the intervals).
One also notices between the strings the names that the Greeks gave to
each string in their literature. The letters above the lines are taken
from Porphyre and other ancient Greek authors. However, I have placed
the letters from our regular scale above the tuning pins so that it can
be understood from that one figure how Guy Aretin related the letters of
the Latin alphabet to the Greek strings. The strings next to which I
have not placed the Greek letters (eswz) were mobile. Those letters
mean immobile; thus, the strings bearing that sign always stay at the
same tone on the instruments, whereas all the others can be raised or
lowered depending on the differences in styles, and kinds of pieces.
The musicians of this century change all the strings by adding flats in
all sorts of keys. They do, however, almost always keep a few tones
unchanged: for example, the principal strings of the mode they are in.
These they call "modals," as I have mentioned elsewhere. Hence, one may
conclude that this harp can be used to learn a great deal of music that
has come to us from the Greeks as well as modern music.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Mersenne's comments concerning the
single-row harp is that he considers this harp totally in the context of
the hexachord system. His reference to Guy Aretin (Guido d'Arezzo)
makes this connection perfectly clear, and the harp is shown strung
according to Guido's gamut including separate strings for b flat and b
natural. Mersenne also describes the retuning of the single-row harp.
According to the old system, he reports, eight notes - G ut, A re, D sol
re, G sol re ut, B natural (mi), C fa ut, F fa ut and B flat (fa)
according to the diagram - were constant and all the other strings could
be changed as needed.(17)
The Guidonian system encompasses all the tones used in the modal system
and the two existed simultaneously. Musicians from this period were
accustomed to hearing most melodies in the eight church modes. These
modes in their authentic and plagal forms are: Protus- Mode 1 & 2, final
d, Deuterus- Mode 3 & 4, final e, Tritus-Mode 5 & 6, final f and
Tetradus- Mode 7 & 8, final g. Some pieces in Tritus use a raised
fourth scale degree creating what to modern ears sounds like a major
scale. The main point is that the modern day harpist must shift from
being based in a major/minor system of tonality to a modal system within
the context of the hexachord system. This theoretical background, of
course, was not necessarily a conscious part of an itinerant minstrel's
musical vocabulary, but neither was the system of functional harmony
which later overtook and dominated Western music.
Tuning and Temperament: After deciding whether or not to
string the medieval harp according to the hexachord system, other
necessities and options must be considered. First is temperament: how
is the harp actually going to be tuned? Treatises from this
period overwhelmingly advocate the Phythagorean tuning system. In
practise, however, although generally a fairly strict Pythagorean tuning
is preferable, some adjustments occasionally need to be made. The best
notes to begin a tuning from are c, g, or d depending on the range of
the harp. It is best to tune the lower/middle register first and then
tune the octaves above and below. A Pythagorean tuning for the harp
starting on g could be done as follows:
- g up a perfect fifth to d'
- d' down a perfect octave to d
- d up a perfect fifth to a
- a up a perfect fifth to e'
- e' down a perfect octave to e
- e up a perfect fifth to b
- g up a perfect fourth to c'
- c' down a perfect fifth to f
- f up a perfect fourth to b flat
For a harpist beginning to explore medieval music the use of a strict
Phythagorean temperament, with pure fifths and very wide thirds, helps
to wake up the ears!(18) This also encourages a harpist to think and
feel in linear terms, to feel dissonances in a linear context and the
tension and release in melodic cadences.
Retuning, Scordatura tunings and Fretting: A crucial point
in the discussion of the gamut of medieval music is to remember that
pitch was not fixed. Transposition was a common and frequently
used means, both in sacred and secular music, of staying within the
system. So for example, if the harpist is playing in mode 4 with a
final on F, the harp must be tuned with e flats and b flats. By tuning
e flats for this purpose the harpist is not using musica ficta , but is
playing a transposed mode. In this way the syllables and whole and half
step relationships remain the same, but the final of the mode and/or the
actual vibrating pitch of a named note can be variable.
In his book Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages, Christopher Page
includes several translations from medieval poems which contain some of
the earliest descriptions of the retuning of the harp. Two are from the
thirteenth-century romance Tristan en prose:
. . . Take this harp (said Iseult), and tune it according to the music
your lines. . . the harper. . . then began to tune it according to what
he knew would be necessary for the music he was about to perform.(19)
Tristan takes the harp and begins to tune it in his way and after his
fashion. . .(20) Another 13th century poem, Lumiere as Lais (1267)
by Pierre of Peckham, gives an excellent description of the flexibility
of the tuning for the harp:
"One may change the settings
By tuning different notes,
And by different arrangements
Of variously placed semitones.
By this means
There is diverse tuning in the harp."(21)
The use of scordatura tunings allows for tuning desired accidentals in
the range where they are needed. Different choices for whole and half
steps can be made for different registers of the harp. For example a 22
string harp could be tuned as follows: C D E F G A Bb B c d e f g a b c
c# d e f# g a. From this example it can be easily seen that many
choices are possible.
Another example of retuning is found in the above mentioned Robert ap
Huw manuscript. According to harpist William Taylor, "Robert ap Huw's
repertoire requires five tunings for the harp, with lengthy appendices
giving lists of pieces to be played in specific tunings. Other tunings
are possible (and illustrated), but are seen as less important. The
tunings, while not necessarily always yielding straight diatonic scales,
derive from an orthodox Guidonian framework."
A practical consideration for both retuning and the use of scordatura
tunings, however, is the fact that in a modern day performance in a
concert, not a banquet hall, even the best of harps can only take so
much retuning in one evening before they become unstable and impossible
to tune precisely. Therefore in choosing the pieces for a program a
minimum of retuning should be used.
Accidentals, particularly at cadences, may also be played by using the
technique of fretting. Fretting is a technique that was documented in
the 16th century and is a still used in many traditional harp techniques
today. It is most definitely an option in the period under
consideration, especially on harps built with light construction, a wide
enough neck, no bridge pins so the string falls directly from the string
pin to the soundboard, and light string tension. Fretting involves
pressing the string against the neck of
the harp under the tuning pin to raise the pitch a semitone. If playing
on the right shoulder the harpist can use the following methods (22):
Use the left hand thumb to press the string against the neck and pluck
the string with the right hand.
- Press with the thumb of the left hand, play the raised note with the
right hand while plucking lower notes with the third or fourth fingers
of the left hand.
- Reach over the top of the neck with the right hand and press one or
two strings against the neck and play the string(s) with the left hand.
- Press the string with the index finger of the left hand and pluck the
string with the left hand thumb.
- Use the tuning key or some other devise to press the string instead of
Another method of shortening the string to raise it a semitone is to
push the string towards the belly of the harp just above where the
string enters the soundboard. This technique can be somewhat more
problematic and difficult than fretting on the neck.
Articulation and Fingering: Articulation is a way of grouping
or relating notes to each other to delineate music phrases. It is as
involved with the space - the silence - between each note, as much as
with the notes themselves. In a rhetorical context George Houle says,
"Articulations are sometimes explained as a means of producing an
instrumental equivalent to pronunciation that can be subtly and
infinitely varied to fit different music circumstances."(23) Not only
an intellectual understanding of articulation, but also a physical ease
with a variety of articulation patterns, are essential to effectively
communicate subtle phrasing.
Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of articulation and fingering is the
ability to create good phrasing by subtle agogic accents and weight
shifts, not by dynamic contrast and stress. On the harp the feeling of
weight must be felt in regard to "horizontal gravity." On the lute, by
contrast, the function of plucking or strumming the strings occurs in a
natural relationship to gravity. Strong or long articulations are most
easily executed by plucking or strumming down with gravity and weak or
short articulations by plucking or strumming up against the pull of
gravity. On the harp the same shifting of weight can be used, but in a
horizontal field with motion going towards the column or coming in
towards the player. Because this is an artificial relationship to
natural gravity, this weight shift can be felt and used as strong and
weak in both directions.
So, for example, when plucking a single string the player can start with
the thumb plucking towards the column with a long or strong beat
followed by the second, index finger plucking the string again back
towards the player with a shorter or weak articulation. It is also
possible to start with the index finger playing a long, strong note
plucking in towards the player, followed by the thumb playing a weak
note releasing and moving towards the column. The feeling can be
compared to the ebb and flow of waves in the ocean.
This fingering can be extended to play melismas and scales, ascending
and descending, with long and short articulations. Different passages,
depending primarily upon what precedes and/or follows the given passage,
require different choices as to which pattern to use: thumb for a long
stroke, second finger for a short one or vice versa. Many variations of
this basic fingering pattern are possible, including alternating the
second and third fingers on short notes with the thumb on long notes,
but the principle remains the same.
Choices in fingering do not need to be rigid and can even change from
performance to performance. The study of fingering is more essential to
the performer's understanding of articulation than to the actual
fingering used. Now, as then, fingering choices can be highly personal,
but the stylistic requirements of the music must be understood and
The practical considerations of obtaining an appropriate late medieval
harp, stringing it and tuning it are only the beginning. The next
daunting task is to approach the music and discover how to use the harp
in both monophonic and polyphonic, composed and improvised music of the
period. The instrument itself, however, will have much to teach and
show the receptive player. A delicate balance between
authenticity/historical accuracy and originality and
vital, creative expression must be established and nurtured. As Arnold
Hauser says of the medieval epic, "The poems have their own legend,
their own heroic history; works of poetry live not only in the form the
poets give to them but also in that which they are given by posterity...
every serious attempt to interpret a work from the point of view of a
living present deepens and widens its significance."(25) The medieval
harp, when played with a sensitivity to and knowledge of its original
place and time, as well as its timeless beauty, can join past and
present in living harmony.
End of Article
Cheryl Ann Fulton (harp) & Peter Maund (percussion)