Basic Practical Advice on Playing the Medieval Harp (Abridged)
by Cheryl Ann Fulton

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Recreating the sound of the harp of the late medieval period - the 14th and early 15th centuries - is an exciting challenge to today's performer. Then, as now, the nature of the performance depended largely on the skill and inclinations of the performer, the technique used, musical originality and creativity, and the nature and quality of the harp itself.

Man With Harp,1520
Precise information about exactly what harps were played in this period is sparse, and much of our knowledge comes from paintings and poetic accounts, although these cannot always be assumed to be accurate representations.

It is likely that three kinds of harps were in use: the bray harp (see more below), the wire-strung harp, and the gut-strung harp. What kind of harp is most appropriate for which kinds of music from this period? The wire-strung harp, or clarsach, must be considered particularly for music from the British Isles. The bray harp was probably used more often than we hear in modern performances.(1) The style of music helps determine which harp is preferable: bray harps are loud and strident, wire-strung harps tones are very long-lasting, gut strung are more mellow and of shorter duration. Whichever is chosen, it is important to use the best reproduction harp from this period.[See resources: harpmakers]

Angel with harp
Most harps in paintings of the period are single strung, and the tall, slim "gothic" shape is the most common. Generally they had from 10 or 11 to 25 or 26 strings (2), and were two to four feet high. Many harps in 15th century paintings had bray pins (3), which served the double function of holding the string to the soundboard and could also be turned and delicately positioned to touch the strings in such a way that a buzzing, humming sound resulted(4). The bray pins both changed the timbre and increased the volume of the sound produced, so that the gothic harps with very slender bodies and thin, small soundboxes had a tone capable of good projection in appropriate acoustics (5).

Strings in Europe of that time were likely gut (6), while metal or gold were used in Ireland and Scotland, and horsehair in Wales. Today's non-wire harps can be strung with gut, nylon, or carbon fiber strings. Becausethey are played with the finger pads, they tend to have a wider string spacing than wire-strung, which are played almost exclusively with the nails (7).

Stringing system: From the 16th century on, most harps worldwide have been tuned in the major scale system of tones and semi-tones, as in c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c. The 14th century harp would more likely have been tuned within the "hexachord" system, with the notes c, d, e, f, g, a, b-flat, b-natural, the two b's being distinct, independent notes just as e and f are. Other common chromatic notes, called"musica ficta" or "falsa" (fictitious or false music) could be made by fretting.

Tuning and temperament: For a harpist beginning to explore medieval music the use of a strict Pythagorean temperament,, with pure fifths and very wide thirds, helps to wakeup the ears (8). [See unabridged article for complete tuning system.]

Scordatura tuning: Scordatura tuning allows for achieving the desired accidentals in the range where they are needed. 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.

Fretting: Accidentals may also be made by fretting, which involves pressing, with finger or tuning key, the string against the neck of the harp under the tuning pin to raise the pitch a semitone. Another method is to push the string towards the belly of the harp just above where the string enters the soundboard. Many traditonal harps still use these techniques today.

Articulation and fingering: Articulation is a way of grouping or relating notes to each other to delineate music phrases. Different passages require different fingering choices which therefore should not be rigid, and can even change from performance to performance. Fingering choices can be highly personal, but the stylistic requirements of the music must be understood and honored (9).

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.
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Footnotes for abridged text:

1. S. Ron Cook: The Presence and Use of Brays on the Gut-Strung Harp thorugh the 17th Century: a Survey and Consideration of the Evidence. Histroical Harp Society Bulletin, Volume 8, No. 4. (Summer 1998) [back to paragraph]

2. Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) describes a harp strung with 25 strings in his poem Dit de la Harpe. [back to paragraph]

3. S. Ron Cook's extensive listing of iconographical sources is available throught the Historical Harp Society. [back to paragraph]

4. Later Welsh sources equate the sound of the bray harp with the buzzing of bees. See S. Ron Cook The Presence and Use of Brays on the Gut-Strung Harp through the 17th Century: a Survery and Consideration of the Evidence. [back to paragraph]

5. The medieval harps, both the gothic and Cythara Anglica models, built by historical harp builder Rainer Thurau of Weisbaden, Germany exemplify these characteristics and are among the finest medieval harps being made. [back to paragraph]

6. See Christopher Page, Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages (Berkeley, 1986) Appendix 4, String-materials in the Middle Ages: 210-242. [back to paragraph]

7. In 1460, the theorist Paulus Paulirinus describes a gut strung harp, probably a bray harp, being plucked with fingernails. See Judy Kadar, "Some practical hints for playing fourteenth and fifteenth century music," Historical Harps (Dornach, 1991): 130. [back to paragraph]

8. The use of an electronic tuner with variable temperament settings including Phythagorean may be advisable for harpists not familiar with or accustomed to temperaments other than equal temperament. Many might be surprised to find that their perception of a fifth is far from perfect! [back to paragraph]

9. For example, a modern day pedal or folk harpist whose fingers are primarily trained and accustomed to playing triadic chordal arpeggios and even, equally articulated scales will have mental and physical habits which neither easily apply to late medieval music nor facilitate an appropriate technique on historical harps. [back to paragraph]

For more about the early harp see Andrew Lawrence-King

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