The Louis XVI Harps
|The Louis XVI –
(2009 updated edition with additional illustrations and
the results of new research)
Beat Wolf © 2009
The pedal harp in the style of
Louis XVI was made in Paris from about 1760 to around 1800. Ch.S.Favart reported already in 1761 that the new harp was very
fashionable and the ladies in Paris were almost mad to play it. As it
was the favorite instrument of Marie-Antoinette, interest in the
harp increased in the Parisian nobility. Numerous Louis XVI-harps are
still preserved in museums and private collections; some are back in
good playing condition after a careful restoration was made, so their
magical charm can breathe on.
Jakob Hochbrucker (1673-1763)
from Donauwörth is generally regarded as the inventor of the pedal harp,
but it is however clear, that he ultimately perfected the pedal
mechanism. As early as 1720, he built an instrument that in principle
foreshadowed the French Louis XVI - harp. This pedal harp is displayed
in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna; it includes all the important
features of the later French harp: sound box composed from 7 ribs;
spruce soundboard with horizontal grain; single action pedal mechanism
with 7 pedals; head shape suggesting a volute (scroll).
The German G. A. Goepfert might
have played a harp of that kind when he celebrated great success in the
„concert spirituel“ in Paris in 1749. Unfortunately no clear evidence
has emerged to tell us more about the nature of his pedal harp and its
mechanism. So we do not know whether Hochbrucker made the final step
towards the “crotchet” mechanism, or whether it was it Goepfert himself
(after Garsault and Mme
de Genlis), the harp-maker Salomon or the innovative watchmaker
Beaumarchais (a student of Goepfert). Of the latter two, I do not
know of any preserved harp. The beautiful and delicate harp of
Saunier at the Musée de la Musique Paris might be the earliest
preserved Parisian harp of that type.
It is dated around 1760.
Woman with what is probably
a Louis XVI Harp
Characteristics / Construction
The typical features of the Louis Seize
- style harp can be described as follows: it is as single action harp
with seven pedals. Forepillar and neck are marked with profiles and are
crowned by an elaborately carved volute (scroll) with acanthus foliage.
The sound box made from 7 or 9 thin ribs of maple is covered by a spruce
soundboard with horizontal grain. The body shell is closed at the back,
if not equipped with shutters (renforcement) invented 1785 by
Krumpholtz. The sound holes are placed as simple 6-hole circles in
the sound board which is painted with floral ornaments, with music
trophies or fantasy landscape. Less frequently gilding and “chinoiserie”
can be found. Some rare examples are decorated with realistically carved
scenery. See picture 1 for harp terms.
Initially the range was A1 - g3
with 35 strings, the harp about 150 to 160 cm high. By the time the
increased to 36 or 37 strings G1 - g3 or a3,
the height of the harps around 1780 was about 165 cm.
By 1790 certain standardization of the
Louis XVI - harp can be noted, the compass reaching F1 - b3
with 39 strings, the height 160 to 170 cm. Some harps are found with the
"renforcement" shutters (invented 1785 by Krumpholtz) built in
the harps back and operated by an eighth pedal. Few preserved harps by
Naderman are equipped with the “sourdine”, a damping rail
on the soundboard, also invented by Krumpholtz, whose effect might be
compared with the lute stop on the harpsichords. The shutters were in
use until well into the 19th century. The orphaned back holes
on today's harps even recall them, but the real sense of these holes
is hardly ever recognized by today’s harpists.
C Sound box
D Sound board
F Bridge rail
G Sound holes
H Volute (head,
K Base of
Pedal box (socle)
Picture 1: Harp Terms
All old musical instruments are
designed according to basic geometric construction with simple musical
proportions and compass points. I have attempted to reconstruct a
possible general building plan for this type of harp and have arrived at
the diagram shown in picture 2.
Many Louis XVI harps fit surprisingly well into this geometry.
For successful harp makers in
Paris before 1800 I can mention Jean LOUVET, Jean-Henri NADERMAN and his
son Henri, HOLTZMAN, RENAULT & CHATELAIN, COUSINEAU père et fils,
WOLTERS, further ZIMMERMAN, LEJEUNE, HURBZ, KRUPP and some more; in
Strasbourg STORCK and in Nancy CLERMONT.
Many of these names
indicate immigrated German craftsmen.
Not least because of the French
Revolution before 1800, the Louis XVI style was replaced by the
Empire style, imitating ancient ("Greek") ornamentation. The
and size of the harps were enlarged. After 1800 the measure of stringing
signaled a clear change toward a softer sound by shortening the descant
strings, with more attention to the bass area, side by side with
pitch-raising in Paris (to about 430 Hz).
Picture 2: Harp Building Plan
measure I mean “stringing proportion” (as defined in the case of
keyboard instruments) above all the string length which
determines the curvature of the harp's neck and, together with the choice
of string gauge or thickness, greatly influences the tone quality
and sound colours
throughout the entire range. The lightly built body shell with thin
staves ensures optimal sound performance and gives a surprisingly strong
carrying tone, even with very light strings. In terms of sound I put the
Louis XVI harp in the transition from the Baroque ideal to early
Classic. It still has the long measure of the Baroque period and
therefore the bright, brilliant and transparent treble, but has a more
powerful bass, strengthened by the use of copper-wound bass strings. It is evident, that early neck curves are
forming some kind of a stretched S, while later ones – and
especially such after 1800 – describe a marked S curve because of
the shorter treble. The diagram (picture 3)
shows three neck curves.
Red: Wolter-harp c.1780; blue:
Wolter, c.1810; yellow: modern double-action harp, Erard, 1905.
Picture 3: Neck Curves
The single action pedal harp has a
diatonic tuning. Each string can be raised for a semitone by engaging a
pedal, situated in the base of the harp. This pedal affects all strings
of the same name. Based on a standard tuning of E-flat-major, seven
pedals are able to produce the most important keys from three flats up
to four sharps.
The single action mechanism was mainly
executed as crotchet system (pulling crotchets) and is hidden inside the
hollowed neck on the right hand side, closed by a lid. On the left hand
side, the crotchet pulls the string against the neck onto the
semitone-nut. This type of mechanism supported the pedal harp well over
60 years, almost unchanged. See picture 4.
The really perfect harp of Hochbrucker
from 1720 acted upon the strings by turning crutches. A pedal harp in
the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg (built in 1755 for or
after Seb. Lang), shows an early type of pulling crotchet;
whether Goepfert was its builder is not known.
2 Bridge pin
4 Thread stick
4 + 5 = Crotchet
6 Semitone nut, slider
Picture 4: Crotchet Mechanism
used the crotchet-mechanism, and from about 1780 as well the “béquilles”
mechanism after his own invention. He made many other inventions
too. In 1782 he doubled the number of pedals from 7 to 14, to reach
all keys playable. Unfortunately the harpists of the time did not
give much attention to this forward-looking invention of the double
action harp. Later – back to the single action harp – he invented a
system producing the semitones by turning tuning pegs (chevilles
tournantes). Some of these harps in the Empire style are
preserved. Unfortunately, the strings tired very quickly by the
frequent change of tension.
Erard revolutionized the harp with the invention of his forked
disc mechanism (patented 1794) and his new construction of the body
(round shell), which changed the former bright baroque sustain to a
softer, dark and romantic sound, and also allowed (and required) a
higher tension of the strings.
acoustic perspective, the crotchet mechanism is the most perfect
solution, because the shortened string vibrates from the nut which
is firmly anchored to the neck; thereby the tone colour stays almost
unchanged. With the "béquille" mechanism the
"squeezing" of the string
happens a little
outside the neck’s surface, thus a significant loss of energy is
noticeable on the shortened vibrating string. The same also applies
to Erard’s disc mechanism.
that Erard describes the crotchet mechanism as outdated and full of
errors in his advertising brochure turns out to be a gimmicky
lampoon (P. Erard, "The harp in its present improved state ..."
London 1821). These false remarks keep persisting still today.
On the other
hand it is true that - with the disc system - Erard paved the way
for the triumph of the double action harp. Charles Groll
patented a double action harp already in 1807. Obviously Erard had
to buy Groll’s patent. Although Erard had not actually invented the
double action harp, he finally won the race commercially.
In Paris the usual tuning
pitch before 1800 was around 405 - 415 Hz. Several instruments
around 1770 show very long measure (string lengths), for which even
a lower pitch is recommended, so that the treble strings do not
break („ancien ton de l’opéra“ around 392 Hz).
For practical reasons the
music scene committed itself to a pitch at a1 = 415 Hz
for the music of the 18th century; this is a half-tone
lower than the today's “official” pitch. Unfortunately even this
415-norm today is frequently raised: 430 Hz seems great “fashion”
today. However there is hardly an original harp that could be used
at such a high pitch. This fact must put in doubt the authenticity
of a performance at 430 Hz: For example W. A. Mozart wrote his
flute/harp concerto 1778 for an aristocrat’s daughter in Paris; to
sound authentic it would have to be performed at 415 Hz or even
It is very interesting to
explore the usual temperaments on 18th century
harps. As I was able to learn by measurements on original Louis XVI
harps, the semi-tone nuts (sillets) were always set evenly,
i.e. the pedal-increases produce the same amount for all tones.
However, different temperaments are shown (independent from any
chronology) from harp to harp. Essentially we may notice three main
temperament: This tuning
corresponds about to the one, that the organ maker Gottfried
Silbermann used for his organs in the middle of the 18th
century. Here, each pure fifth is reduced by 1/6 of the Pythagorean
comma. The strings are tuned with fifths of 698 cents each.
All pedal-steps measure 86 cents. This temperament sounds in very
clear chords in all keys used on the harp. Between d# and eb (and g#
and ab) is a difference of 24 cents, so they would not serve as
pedal-increases measure 93 cents. Here, each pure fifth is reduced
by 1/8 of the comma. The strings are tuned with fifths of 699
cents each. This moderate temperament still sounds with weak
thirds in all keys used on the harp. Between d# and eb (g# / ab) is
a difference of now only 12 cents.
temperament: All pedal-increases measure 100 cents. The
strings are tuned with fifths of 700 cents each; these fifths
are 2 cents smaller than pure fifths. The tones d# and eb (g# / ab)
are identical. Against my earlier opinion the equal temperament was
amazingly often applied to both older (Naderman 1771) as well as
later harps of the Louis XVI period.
A brief selection
of “Méthodes” of the 18th century:
J. Ph. MEYER,
« Essai sur la vraie manière de jouer de la harpe » 1763 and
« Nouvelle méthode… » 1774.
F.-V. CORBELIN, « Méthode de harpe… » Paris 1779
J. B. CARDON, « L’art de jouer… » 1784.
L.Ch. RAGUE « principes… » 1786
J.-B. KRUMPHOLTZ, Paris vor 1790 « Principes pour la harpe... «
J.-G. COUSINEAU, « Méthode » Paris 1784 and 1803
Comtesse de GENLIS, Paris 1811. « Nouvelle méthode...
A brief selection
of harp compositions:
Johann Baptist HOCHBRUCKER „Six
Sonates pour la harpe“ op.1 in1762 and other 6 S. op.6, 1779.
HOCHBRUCKER „Six Sonates pour la harpe“ 1771
„Sonate G-Dur für Harfe solo“ c.1762
P.J. MEYER, div.
Ch.W.GLUCK, Oper «Orpheus und Eurydike»
A. ROSETTI « Six Sonates … harpe ou clavecin… » c.1784
J. B. KRUMPHOLTZ
div. « Sonates… » until 1790.
L. SPOHR «Fantasie op.35» «Sonate op.113 Hf & Vl» 1806 ff
Because harpsichord music fits quite
well on the harp, the entire wealth of sonatas for melody instruments is
open to be accompanied nicely on the harp. Of course this provides the greatest
pleasure when it is not simply played from a written version; in fact
only the left hand is
in continuo, but your right hand has the full freedom of your own
imagination, where you may improvise, imitate, support, surround the
melody line etc. Less is often more.
My own model
My own recreation of a Louis XVI harp
follows the usual requirements in size, compass and construction of
around 1790, like those I found by Naderman and other masters. In large
parts a harp by Renault & Chatelain (dated 1791) served me as a
model. With my own measure I have kept the baroque-like sound of the
period with bright treble, powerful middle and warm bass. With the
well-balanced stringing and the quick response I can reach the typical
transparency of the baroque ideal. The compass of 39 strings from F1 to
b3 enables one to play the entire French repertoire of
the late 18th century. See picture 5.
To see where these names fit in the harp's chronology, please see the
that Beat Wolf created for a single-action symposium led by Mara Galassi
in Milan in 2002 and updated in 2008 and 2009 with the results of Beat Wolf's
latest research. It is a summary of all his research into and
experience with the single-action harp in the 18th century, and we are
very grateful that he has offered to share it with us and with you.
Please note that it is copyrighted and protected from any commercial
use. It is a PDF format file, and you will need the free Adobe Acrobat
reader to view it.
© 2008, 2009, Beat Wolf, harp maker and
sources: Mme de Genlis 1811, Ludwig Wolf 1985, Droysen-Reber
Picture 5: Beat Wolf harp