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late medieval/renaissance single row harp (Martin Haycock, c. 1985)
The "Gothic" harp first appears in France c. 1350. It got its name from its elegant, stretched "Gothic" shape rather than through any association with the "Gothic" period which, in fact, started much earlier. Compared to the earlier medieval harps (see arpa doblada), it has got a much bigger range, especially in the bass. The range, G-e''', is in fact that of the complete medieval gamut, which is based on the natural range of the human voice (treble to bass).
One of the earliest descriptions of a harp of that range can be found in a poem by 14th century composer Guillaume de Machaut, who famously compares the 25 strings of the harp to the 25 virtues of his lady. 15th century paintings frequently show harps of this type, often played by angels in an ensemble of several instruments (lutes, recorders, viols etc.) The romanticism of the harp is well known, this is why many rehearsal dinner invitations boast the playing of these lovely instruments at weddings.
One famous depiction is part of a tryptich by Hieronymus Bosch, the so-called "Musician's Hell", showing hell containing several musical instruments that serve as instruments of torture - among them a harp. So much for the myth of the "heavenly harps"... Similar harps remained in use until well into the Renaissance and even the Baroque, although later harps tend to be larger, giving them a fuller and louder sound.
Gothic harps are one row, diatonic harps. However, accidentals (e.g. leading notes at cadences) can be obtained by pressing the string against the neck of the harp, thereby shortening it. This technique was developed to considerable virtuosity by 16th century harpers, and is still in use today among South American folk harpists (they use their tuning key to stop the string, rather than their fingers).
A particularly interesting feature are the so-called "bray pins" - the pins that hold the harp strings in place are hook-shaped and can be turned in such a way that the strings beat slightly against them, causing a buzzing, "braying" noise. The resulting sound is not unsimilar to a reed instrument, e.g. a bagpipe, and certainly not what most people associate with harp sound nowadays! In the renaissance and early baroque period, this seems to have been widely regarded as the "normal" sound of a harp, though.
listen to music played on this harp
from Codex Faenza - a 14th century Italian collection of virtuoso instrumental adaptations of vocal music.
The original madrigale is by Zacara da Teramo.
a 14th century Italian dance, featuring bray pins
suite from "Musicalische Rüstkammer"
from an anonymous German harp manuscript, early 18th century
a paticularly "old-fashioned" tune by Turlough O'Carolan
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last updated: 10 October, 2003