The Louis XVI Harps (Abridged)
by Beat Wolf

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Note: This material is from a lecture given at the Historical Harp Symposium in Berlin, October 16-19, 1994

In the late 1700s Parisian harp makers were producing what are called the Louis XVI harps. [Louis XVI, King of France from 1774, and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, a harpist, died at the guillotine in 1793.] The harp that Riet Keppel played for the Symposium is a harp that I have built which resembles those from the 18th century, a single-action pedal harp with crochet [hook] mechanisms. It has 39 strings, from 6th octave F in the bass to 1st octave B in the treble.
Image of Louis XVI Harp

Woman with what is
probably a Louis XVI Harp

Most Louis XVI harps of 1770-1800 were staved-back with 7-9 sides, rather than rounded, with a maple box and a spruce soundboard. Unlike modern harps, there were round holes in the soundboard, but were none in the soundbox.

Accidentals were made with seven single-action pedals, attached by rods in the front pillar to hook (crochet) or pincher (Bequilles) mechanisms in the neck. In 1786 the forked disc mechanism was developed by Sebastian Erard, and by 1820 most pedal harps had it.

Decoration in the Louis XVI style includes an forward-turning spiral at the top of the pillar. The harp was usually varnished in brown, and had bouquets of flowers decoration the soundboard.

The sound of these harps provides a transition between the baroque and classical eras. They had a bright, brilliant and transparent treble, but a more powerful bass through the use of copper-wound bass strings.

Single-action pedal harps most certainly were not tuned to equal temperament, so that, unlike a keyboard, on the harp it was possible to differentiate between D# and Eb, and between G# and Ab.

There remains much to learn about these harps, since few are signed or precisely dated. I would be happy to advise a study group in this undertaking.

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