Basic Practical Advice On Playing
The Medieval Harp
(Full text)
by Cheryl Ann Fulton (Illustrations available soon)

Recreating the sound of the late medieval harp is an exciting challenge to today's performer. The nature of the performance then, as now, depends largely upon the skill and inclinations of the performer, the technique used as well as musical originality and creativity, and the nature and quality of the harp itself. Precise information about exactly what harps were played in this period is sparse. The majority of what is known about the harps themselves comes mostly from indirect sources such as paintings and poetic accounts.

Since the harp during this period also had great symbolic significance, for example the association with the biblical figure of King David, consideration and care must be taken when interpreting iconographical and written evidence for practical application.(01) Asking the right questions becomes far more important than producing definitive, correct answers. One of the first questions that needs to be addressed is what kind of harp is most appropriate for which kinds of music from this period? If the intention is to try to meet the music on its own terms as much as possible, the attempt must be made to find the best reproduction of a harp from this period. This also involves considering the different types of harps used in which various geographic areas. Recent research has shown that the bray harp was probably used far more frequently than is evident in modern performances.(02) The wire-strung harp, the clarsach, must be considered particularly for music from the British Isles.

The structural characteristics of the harp influence the required techniques as well as the musical language and style. In the area of improvisation the harps themselves have much to say and reveal to the players. The instrument itself, a bray harp, wire-strung harp or gut-strung harp without brays, should play a major role in influencing the choices a performer makes. A performer may choose to perform this music on a much later style of harp and attempt to apply appropriate performance practise and stylistic ideals, but even the most learned and skillful attempt cannot compare to using the best possible harp for the given music.

Having established the need for an appropriate instrument, the performer must also enter into the mind-set of a musician from the period as much as possible. For musicians trained in later music this can involve a conscious recognition and analysis of set physical and mental patterns influencing the player's approach to both the music and the instrument. For example, studying rudimentary medieval music theory and rhetoric can influence the modern day performer's fundamental approach to the music.

There are no completely intact surviving harps from this period. With the exception of the Robert ap Huw manuscript (03), there are no technique tutors, no pieces designated as harp pieces and no indications in the music as to what a harp could or should play. Despite the lack of specific information on the harp, there is an abundance of helpful information to be found in theoretical treatises of the time, a careful study of the notation, iconographical sources, narrative and poetic accounts and descriptions, and the music itself. This essay will focus on outlining the fundamental characteristics of a gut-strung harp played without or occasionally with brays, including suggested stringing and tunings, and will briefly address playing technique.

Structure: Most of the harps depicted in 14th and early 15th century paintings are single strung. One piece of iconographical evidence shows that experiments with multiple rows of strings did begin at least as early as the fourteenth century.(04) The tall, slim "gothic" shape is the most common, built with a light construction as contrasted to the shorter, much heavier build of the metal strung harps. Generally the harps from this period could have been strung with anywhere from 10 or 11, to 25 or 26 strings.(05) They range in size from lap harps about two feet tall (ca. 60 cm.), to harps about 4 feet high (ca. 1 m.20). Some of the harps appear to have a box type construction, a three sided body with a flat soundboard, and others a carved body construction, a body hollowed out of one piece of wood with a carved soundboard on top. Beginning attempts at copying iconographical sources were often unsuccessful because the very thin, small boxes did not produce an adequate sound. Research into the use of bray pins has perhaps helped solve part of this mystery and the construction of carved body harps with paper thin but strong soundboards resulted in harps with very slender bodies but having a tone capable of good projection in appropriate acoustics.(06)

Many of the 15th century harps depicted do appear to be equipped with bray pins.(07) string in the soundboard and can also be turned and delicately positioned to touch the strings in such a way that a buzzing, humming sound results.(08) The bray pin changes the timbre and increases the volume of the sound produced. Paintings which show the gothic harp being played in an ensemble including shawms and other loud instruments become understandable if the harp being used is a bray harp. Bray pins can also be "turned off" and used simply as string pins.

String material:Documentary evidence suggests that many harps used in Europe during this period were gut strung.(09) Metal strung harps, some with strings said to be made of gold, were associated with the Celtic countries, particularly Ireland and Scotland. Horsehair strings were used later on Welsh harps and could have been used earlier as well. For the purposes of this chapter we will consider only the use of gut strings. Today's performer has the choice of nylon or carbon fiber strings as well as polished and unpolished gut. Although nylon and carbon fiber strings are less expensive and more durable, they do not provide an adequate substitute for the tone quality and feel of gut strings. Polished gut strings are generally better, last longer and produce fewer false strings than unpolished gut strings which tend to fray easily, wear out and go false more quickly.

String Spacing: A wide range of string spacings appear in iconographical sources. The spacing may be partially a function of whether the harp is being played with the flesh of the pads or the nails. Wire-strung harps, which are played almost exclusively with the nails, tend to have a much closer string spacing than gut strung instruments played with the finger pads.(10) Spacing is also related to the desired range and harmonic curve of the neck of the harp. Since no standard can be determined for harps of this period, it is advisable to play on a harp with comfortable string spacing which allows for a firm, full yet gentle contact with the string. One should not have to play on the very tip of the finger with a shallow, superficial touch, but should be able to have the string cross over the pad comfortably.

Stringing system:From the 16th century to the present day the majority of harps worldwide have been strung with a basic eight note to the octave, major scale system. Even triple harps and double harps, with their additional chromatic rows, have their diatonic rows strung based on this premise.(11) This stringing, naturally, reflects the practical and stylistic requirements of the music from these periods. One of the earliest diagrams depicting a diatonic octave stringing of the harp is given in Virdung's Musica getutscht (1511). The earliest full description of a specific diatonic octave tuning for the harp is given in Lanfranco's Scintille di musica (1523). He says of the harp: "...its tuning consists of eight tones, since from octave to octave (always returning to the repetition) the high tones derive from the low ones, as can be considered by these fifteen strings noted by the singing syllables, which can be found on them naturally." A diagram designates the first fifteen strings of the harp as: Base ut (tone), re (tone) mi (lesser semitone) fa, sol, re, mi, fa ut, re mi, fa, sol, re, mi, fa. He also notes that if the lowest string is C fa ut the b's will be natural, if from F fa ut the b's will be flat. The importance here is the emphasis on the sequence of tones and semitones which result in what we now call a major scale.

By the 16th century the syllables from Guido's gamut were being used by Lanfranco to describe a major scale, but what would these syllables have meant to a harp player in 1300, if anything? What would have been the framework, the context for music-making to a harper in the 14th century? Certainly not various keys in major or minor mode or thinking in terms of an eight note major scale. The musician's universe in the middle ages existed (at least from a theoretical point of view) within the hexachord system and the gamut described by Guido d'Arezzo, the 22 notes between G and e'' which includes two b flats. Within this creation is the realm of music vera or recta (true or regular music) composed of hexachords built on C's, G's and F's. Notes outside of this proscribed range and inflected, chromatic notes are conceived of as musica ficta or falsa (fictitious or irregular, false music). Excellent descriptions of this system can be found in various treatises describing the monochord.(12)

For a modern day musician one of the important concepts to grasp here is that the notes c, d, e , f, g, a, b flat, b, are of one order and compose the known or true cosmos in which b flat, (called b rotundum) and b natural (called b quadro) are two distinct, independent notes just as are e and f. Hence the hexachord built on F, which contains b flat, is called the soft hexachord, the hexachord built on G, which contains b natural, is called the hard hexachord, and the one built on C, with neither, is called the natural hexachord. The method of dividing the monochord includes deriving all the different pitches of the musica ficta from b flat and b natural. From b natural f#, c#, g#, d# and a# are derived, and from b flat eb, ab, db and gb.

Two diagrams from music theory treatises have been cited as proof that a diatonic tuning with eight notes per octave was used on medieval harps.(13) Although some harps certainly were strung with eight notes to the octave, both of these examples show how this stringing was derived from tetrachords and hexachords. More importantly, both diagrams are being used to illustrate Greek music theory. The harp in the Berkeley MS is described as being composed of a heptachord and a tetrachord producing an 11 note range, (labeled a, b, c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c, d) said to have been put together by Teulex of Egypt.(14) The heptachord was devised by Terpander of Lesbos who added a seventh string to the six strings representing the natural hexachord to establish a correspondence to the seven planets. Therefore these examples can be used to support the idea of approaching the stringing of the harp from the basis of hexachords and tetrachords and not eight-note, diatonic scales.

Diatonic tuning therefore in this context can refer either to a harp strung with only b naturals, one with only b flats, or one with both. Chromatic tunings would imply the tuning in of any notes outside the hexachord system. Much of the music from 1300-1450 which a harp can play requires that both b flat and b natural be easily available. The other commonly required ficta are f#, c#, g# and eb. If the harp is strung according to the musica vera system with separate strings for b flat and b natural other ficta can be obtained by fretting (see below). Not only does stringing the harp in this manner provide the harpist with the basic notes most frequently needed, but it also takes the harpist into the realm of the hexachord system. So, for example, a 22 string-harp could be strung as follows: c, d, e, f, g, a, bb, b, c' (middle c), d', e', f', g', a', bb', b', c'', d'', e'', f'', g'', a''.

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