top of page

The harp is said to be among the oldest musical instruments. If by a ‘harp’ one means a musical instrument consisting of a resonator as part of an open or closed frame, where numerous strings of varying length are attached more or less perpendicular to the resonator and plucked with the fingertips (either the fleshy part or the nail), then this statement is probably correct. But if one thinks of a harp only as an instrument six feet tall, weighing roughly eighty pounds, with 47 strings and seven pedals, it is time to take a closer look.

Gothic Harp - Arpa de dos órdenes - Arpa doppia - Davidsharfe

I concern myself with various gut-strung harp types from the European continent, from – roughly – the late Middle Ages until the mid-18th Century. This in itself is a huge range and any attempt to categorise these instruments (e.g. chronologically) is likely to be imprecise and to interfere and overlap with other possible categorisations (e.g. geographically). I will take the issue of the semitones as a guiding principle as I present my harps to you.

Gothic Harp

My earliest instrument is a Gothic harp, though its name is 20th Century, referring to its design and its resemblance to Gothic architecture. It is a copy by Claus Henry Hüttel of the so-called Wartburg harp, which was probably made around the year 1400 and which might have belonged to the late Minnesänger Oswald von Wolkenstein.

Constance & harp.png

Gothic harps are braying harps. The braying is caused by L-shaped pieces of wood, aptly called bray-pins, which not only secure the strings to the soundboard, but also lightly touch the strings as they vibrate, thus causing exactly the kind of buzzing which classically trained harpists try to avoid! If well adjusted, they yield a lovely purr and amplify the harp’s sound so it stands a fair chance when playing together with singers, fiddles, or a portative organ.…

My Gothic harp is tuned diatonically to a C major scale, with an extra b flat string inserted in the middle two octaves. Any other accidental needs to be made by retuning a string (and sacrificing the note which this string was tuned to previously) or by fretting the string against the neck of the harp to shorten it by a semitone. The fluted shape of the neck allows this fretting in the middle range only. Harps of a similar design (long, narrow body carved from one piece of hardwood, sharp angle between string and soundboard) and with similar musical characteristics and possibilities were made and played well into the 16th and even the 17th Century, though the bodies of harps gradually became larger and the angle and spacing of the strings wider.

No specific repertoire survives for this instrument; the Gothic harp was used to accompany song, to play one part in a polyphonic piece and many other things which were not explicitly written for harp, or not written down at all. Also, some lute and keyboard repertoire from the Renaissance (e.g. intabulations of polyphonic songs) is playable on this instrument without too many changes.

To hear this harp, click here; for a video where fretting of semitones is done more visibly (albeit on a slightly more modern Renaissance harp) click here.

Arpa de dos órdenes

The Spanish friar Juan Bermudo (1555) describes the necessity of fretting the semitones as an imperfection of the harp, much though he admires a certain Ludovico’s dexterity at doing so. The remedy, Bermudo says, is to add more strings to the harp.

3 harp nek VdH.jpg

In 1557, Luys Venegas de Henestrosa depicts the neck of a harp with two rows of numbers where the tuning pins would be, the numbers referring to the tablature symbols of the corresponding strings. Clearly above the ‘diatonic’ row of numbers, we find a row with flat fours and sevens: the flat b’s and e’s. Since sharps can be made by fretting, it makes sense that the first chromatic strings which were added were flats, but it probably wasn’t long before the number of chromatic strings per octave reached five, as on the keyboard. Thus the arpa de dos órdenes, the ‘harp of two rows’, rid itself of what the friar had called an imperfection.
The particularity of Iberian chromatic harps is that the two rows of strings are crossed, intersecting at about two thirds of the string length (counting from the soundboard). In order for the two rows to intersect at an angle which makes playing possible, they need to be wide apart where they attach to the soundboard. The necessary width of the soundboard and the depth of the harp’s body make this a loud instrument, which in the 17th C. could fulfil the role of the organ in church. I don’t know of any extant arpas de dos órdenes from the 16th C, but the large tonal range which the music requires at this time already, makes me think that the design of these instruments did not change much between then and the 18th C.


Compared to other historical chromatic harps, both the life-span and the surviving repertoire of the arpa de dos órdenes are enormous. Two methods were written for this instrument (Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz, 1677 and Diego Fernandez de Huete, 1702-04), digital copies of them (as well as several manuscripts of harp tunes and both the Cabezón and Venegas de Henestrosa books) can be found here. Also, it was used as an accompanying instrument for tonos (songs) and in zarzuelas (musical comedies) and operas.

My arpa de dos órdenes was made by Claus Henry Hüttel after an original by Pere Elias (Barcelona 1704) for a dear friend of mine. I feel grateful to be playing new life into her harp after Margreet’s untimely death. You can hear this harp by clicking here.

Arpa doppia

In Italy, the multiple rows of strings remained parallel. Whether this originated from a desire to keep the narrow soundbox design of the Renaissance (like the so-called ‘Este’ harp, which was played by Laura Peverara at the court of duke Alfonso in Ferrara in the last two decades of the 16th C.) or for other reasons, I don’t know… Even when the harps became too big to carve the soundbox from one piece of wood, the Italian soundboards remained noticeably narrower than the Spanish, sounding more delicate.

Playing on two parallel rows becomes problematic as soon as both hands play in the same register: one of the hands will be on the ‘wrong’ side. This problem was solved, possibly in Naples in the first or second decade of the 17th C., by the addition of a third row. With both outer rows tuned diatonically in unison, both hands have equal access to the most important notes. Reaching the accidentals in the middle row demands a bit more precise effort, but the tonalities used at the time rarely had more than one flat in the key signature.

The name arpa doppia is used for both double and triple harps and refers not only to multiple rows of strings, but also to the harp’s bass register (cf. ‘double’ bass).

For this harp, only a handful of solo compositions survive, all of them testifying to the dazzling virtuosity of the harpists of the time. A historical method and pieces for harpist beginners have yet to be rediscovered, but one can always borrow and improvise as I am sure harpists must have done, just like any other musicians.

My Italian double harp was made by Tim Hobrough and has a lime (linden) soundboard which yields a warm, well-defined sound; Claus Henry Hüttel made my two triple harps, which, with their spruce soundboards, sound crystal-clear and shimmering. The large one can be heard here.


Davidsharfe is the name of any gut-strung German harp in the 17th to 19th C., to distinguish it from the Tisch- or Spitzharfe, a kind of metal-strung double zither. When we find the name Davidsharfe in a 19th C. text, it usually refers to a smallish (four to five feet) diatonic harp with or without some brass hooks in the neck, with can be turned onto the strings to shorten them by a semitone. But in the 18th C., Davidsharfe can also mean a tall (almost six feet) chromatic harp with two parallel rows of strings. The most striking feature of German baroque harps is that they retain their bray-pins long after these have been abandoned elsewhere in Europe: my large Davidsharfe is copied after an instrument made by Johann Volkman Rabe in Nordhausen (Thuringia) in 1740 and has a complete set of bray-pins. Although no harp music by Johann Sebastian Bach survives, this instrument brings us as close to his world as is possible on a harp!

In 1738, Philipp Eisel writes as the very last paragraph of his Musicus Autodidaktos: “Can’t the Davidsharfe be played in any different way too? Yes, for if one pulls the bray-pins (which otherwise cause the braying) away from the strings, it will yield an even, ringing lute-like sound.” His formulation clearly implies that braying was still the norm, not the exception!

The German chromatic harp was used both as a solo instrument and for accompaniment. A few obbligato harp parts in operas and church cantatas survive, but the largest body of extant repertoire for the chromatic Davidsharfe is a manuscript from Leipzig known as the Musikalische Rüstkammer, dated 1719. It must have been the personal notebook of an opera-loving amateur harpist, as it contains a hundred simple harp arrangements of popular dance tunes and arias from the Leipzig opera. This manuscript might be the 18th C. equivalent to a spotify playlist… Here is where you find it!

Claus Henry Hüttel is the maker of both my big and my small Davidsharfe. The big one can be heard here.

My small Davidsharfe is a hook-harp, also called Hakenharfe in German. Though its set-up, with five semitone-hooks per octave, is a rather 18th C. one, the unsigned harp which it was copied after (now residing in the Hessisches Landesmuseum) is probably of early or mid-17th C. making. The presence of hooks does not exclude the possibility (and often necessity) to fret semitones with the left hand. How this is done on my lovely little hook-harp can be seen and heard here.

CPE Bach’s famous Solo für die Harfe may well have been intended for this type of harp, with basso continuo accompaniment. The fact that the composer does not state which type of harp is meant, implies that it would be the most common harp type, which at that time was… the hook-harp. During two or three centuries, it was played by people in more or less all walks of life, from merchants and artisans to clergymen and from court musicians to groups of travelling girls poetically known as Wandernachtigalle, roving nightingales.

It is from the hook-harp that the first pedal harps were developed in the 18th C., by connecting the hooks in the neck of the harp to pedals in its base so that they could be operated by the player’s feet.

The others...

I do have an ancient pedal harp, an 1820s London Erard, but she is in a rather sorry state… good enough for me though, as I don’t play her professionally. Sometimes I wonder why these harps are not being made any more. With a thin soundboard of 19th C. design and accordingly thin strings, but with a solid modern mechanism, they would be absolutely perfect: their smaller size and lower tension (still rather high to my ‘baroque hands’...) makes them much more comfortable to play than any modern harp, and they are responsive and sound lovely.

The ‘old lady’ can be heard here.

My other harp which I don’t play professionally is a clarsach, an ancient Irish harp. It was made by Denis Brevet after the ‘Castle Otway’ harp (probably early17th C.) and is strung with brass and bronze. I love the sound of the clarsach but I’ll never be able to grow my fingernails long enough to play it properly. So I try to enjoy whatever it is that I manage to play on it (left-handed, the historical way!) and not to aim any higher.

More information about the clarsach can be found here and here.


It is out of a combination of the clarsach, the 19th C. pedal harp and the hook-harp that the present-day Celtic harp, popular in the folk scene and in music schools, was born. In the 19th C., while the clarsach was practically extinct, some Irish romantics with nationalist ideals found that they could not live without the harp of their ancestors after all so they re-invented it. The result was a portable instrument designed to resemble the clarsach, but with the body and (gut) stringing of the pedal harp, adapted to the ears of the time. And of course the semitone-levers which we use on Celtic harps nowadays (some of which are extremely sophisticated!) have their origin in the brass hooks of the Hakenharfe.

bottom of page