Practical Advice On Playing the Medieval Harp (Full text-p.2)

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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 for 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 a finger

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 honored.(24)

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

Video link

Cheryl Ann Fulton (harp) & Peter Maund (percussion)

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