The Joy of the Harp

The Link, Winter 2017
| by Gail Corbett |

In this winter season, the sound of the harp brings celestial thoughts and warms the heart. We make festive visits and, if we are lucky, we may hear a harpist by the hearth singing and plucking life from cold steel strings. Gentle sounds, sparkling like icicles.

Since the 1970s, there has been a revival of harping. Three of my friends play harps: Celtic lap harp, Celtic standing harp and autoharp. Harps are stringed instruments of various size, shape and construction. They are the most ancient instruments in the world.

“…the harp brings celestial thoughts and warms the heart.”

Greek legend says that Apollo, the god of poetry and music, killed an ox and from its horns strung gut across a tortoise shell and, plucking the string, made it sing. Some scholars say the idea for the harp came from the twang of a hunter’s bow. Early bow harps from Egypt were brought to Europe as trade items. Paintings and carvings from around 2000 BCE show a basic triangular shape with strings.

Old legends speak of the harp shaped like a human breastbone. In Finland, a god made a harp from the bones of fish. In Norway, Oden played the harp in the depth of the ocean and in the tops of trees. The Greeks named the Aeolian harp after the god of the wind. In 1000 BCE King David hung his harp in an open window. As a shepherd, he composed psalms and played the harp to comfort Saul. Ancient peoples saw the harp as a door leading to other realms.

In Druid tradition, only the priest could play the harp. However, in Wales in 945 ACE the law stated that every gentleman should own a cloak, a chessboard and a harp. King Griffith of Wales employed many harpists in his court. In Ireland, in 540 BCE, the harp was carved from the sacred willow and warriors carried harps to inspire and celebrate. In the 4th century, in the Christian church, the harp was one of the few instruments permitted to accompany voice. Monks played the harp to assist the dying and the vision of angels playing harps is popular. Today the Irish harp is familiar on coins and on the Irish flag.

Early harps and lyres were strung with sinew (gut). The frame harp appeared in Medieval Europe in the 8th and 10th centuries and had 10 or 11 strings but from the 11th century on iron, brass, silver and gold wires were used. In Ireland and Scotland in the 14th century, the first sound box appeared with 36 brass strings. In 1720, five pedals were housed in the bottom of the sound box, creating versatility. By 1800, the harp had two necks, two bodies and two columns, each double-strung with 40 strings. This was abandoned in the 1950s. Over the ages the harp has evolved but the basic shape is triangular. The lap harp sits on the harper’s lap. The standing harp has pedals and pillars and is upright.

Whatever the harp, whatever the season, Lord Tennyson wrote: “Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might.” Held close to the heart, the harp and harpists drive the cold away and fill the listener’s heart with songs for a cold winter’s night.

Gail H. Corbett is an author and freelance writer who lives in the village of Lakefield.