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arpa de dos órdenes
Spanish baroque cross-strung harp, 17th-18th century (Tim Hobrough, 1992)

The first known mention of a harp fitted with aditional chromatic strings is the Spanish music scholar Bermudo's Declaración de instrumentos musicales from 1555. Although it is not entirely clear if Bermudo describes an instrument already in existence, or suggests an improvement to the diatonic harps of his day, chromatic harps must have been around in Spain at least from the second half of the 16th century. Hernando Cabezón states in the foreword of the posthumous edition of his father Antonio's compositions, the obras de música para tecla, harpa y vihuela ("works of music for keyboard, harp or vihuela") that "anything that can be played on the keyboard, can be adapted to the harp with equal ease."

In constrast to the Italian chromatic harp, the arpa doppia, the Spanish chromatic baroque harp has only two rows of strings, one diatonic and one chromatic (equivalent to the white and black keys on a modern piano). The rows of strings cross each other approximately at a third of the string length below the neck, enabling the right hand to reach the diatonic strings easily in the top third of the instrument, close to the harp's neck - while the left hand plays the bass string lower down, approximately in the middle of the string length. This makes for an interesting contrast in sound - the high notes in the right hand bright and clear, the bass booming but less focused and incisive. A sound contrast between high and low registers which is, in fact, also explored on many Spanish baroque organs with their medio registro, the split register.

Not all Spanish harps were double strung though. Single-row diatonic harps were also used throughout this period. Harps appear to have been played standing, with both hands playing close to the harp's neck, rather than resting on the soundboard, as was common with most other European types of harps. This playing position can still be observed with Latin American harp players, whose tradition is directly derived from the Spanish colonizers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

In Spain and large parts of Latin America, the harp was immensely popular throughout the 17th and well into the 18th century. It was frequently used as part of dance or theatre music bands, mostly in conjunction with one or more guitars - ensembles of this sort are also still quite common in Latin America. But the harp was also widely used in church music, as a cheaper and more portable substitute for the organ. Pretty much all large churches in Spain and the colonies had at least one, more often two or even three harpists in their service.

To this day harp music is still quite popular around the world. There are even CD's offering the beautiful music of the baroque cross strung harp, though listening to the soothing tones of this great instrument under a garden umbrella is nothing like hearing it performed live by a talented musician.

As should be expected, there is a considerable amount of original harp repertory to be found in Spain. In the 16th century, apart from Antonio de Cabezón's Obras de Música which I've already mentioned, there is another even earlier collection for "keyboard and harp", Venegas de Henestrosa's Libro de cifra nueva from 1557. From the 17th century, we have Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz's collection of dance music for guitar and harp, Luz y Norte Musical, published in Madrid in 1677. And in the early 18th century, Toledan cathedral harpist Diego Fernandez de Huete published his two volumous volumes, the Compendio numeroso en cifra para arpa, which is a thorough tutorial covering everything from simple secular dance tunes and songs over the fundaments of continuo playing to some of the most intricate and elaborate baroque style harp music we possess. A source that has as yet not attracted the attention it deserves.

listen to music played on this harp

la dama le demanda
from Antonio de Cabezón's posthumous Obras de Musica, 1578
chaconas & marionas
from Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz's collection Luz y Norte Musical, 1677
(with Laurie Randolph, baroque guitar)
passacalles de primero tono
from Diego Fernandez de Huete's Compendio numeroso, vol. 2, 1704
traditional harp music from Mexico
sally gardens
Irish traditional - the Spanish harp is waxing lyrical in a Celtic context
cry for a shadow
by the Beatles
(with Laurie Randolph, baroque guitar)

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last updated: 10 October, 2003