Cross-Strung Harps

 “The contemporary cross-strung harp belongs to the “multi-course harp” family, meaning it has more than one set of strings (the terms “rows” or “courses” of strings are also used). This family includes the historical and contemporary double-strung harps, the historical and classical cross-strung harps, and the historical and traditional triple-strung harp” (Tashe, Harper).  While the two rows of strings intersect, they do not touch.  The multiple rows of strings allow the harp player to play the chromatic scale without the use of either pedals or levers.

Development

The first cross-strung harp is believed to have been created in the late 16th century in Spain and was known as the “Arpa de dos ordenes”. Its identity as an instrument was established as soon as the early 17th century and was used in both liturgical and secular music. Its popularity reached its peak in the late 17th century, and its popularity declined into the early 18th century. The reasons for its decline are complex, including the cultural displacement of Spanish music and musical instruments at court (such as the arpa de dos ordenes and the vviheula) in favor of Italian and French music and instruments (violin, harpsichord, lute, etc.)” (Wikipedia)

In the late 19th century Pleyel & Wolff Company in France developed a cross-strung harp aimed at surpassing the limitations of the double pedal harp for complex chromatic music.  “The Pleyel harp was built like a pedal harp: fitted with heavy gut strings for most of its range, it produced a big and fairly “dark” sound very well suited for Romantic-era symphony orchestras and as a solo instrument in large concert halls. The Pleyel cross-strung was manufactured until 1930, but the factory did not survive World War II” (Tasche, Harper).

“The largest resurgence or reinterpretation of the cross-strung harp began in California in 1987, when luthier and folk harp enthusiast Roland “Robbie” Robinson was presented with a cross-strung harp needing repairs. This harp is believed to have been made by Welsh luthier John Thomas as a student instrument for the harpe chromatique program at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles. Robinson published a description and drawing of this instrument in the Folk Harp Journal (the magazine of the International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen). Emil Geering (now deceased), a retired machinist in British Columbia, began building cross-strung harps based on Robinson’s rough plans. Ben Brown, a musician from Michigan, obtained one of Geering’s harps and subsequently persuaded American luthiers Dan Speer and Pat O’Laughlin (retired) to build models of cross-strung harps. Harper Tasche, a Washington State musician, developed a five-octave model of cross-strung harp with Blessley Instruments in Vancouver Washington, and subsequently recorded the world’s first CD completely dedicated to the cross-strung harp in 1998” (Wikipedia).

Construction

“The most common type of contemporary cross-strung harp is strung with nylon, and is built with a “7×5″ string configuration: each octave contains the seven notes of a diatonic scale on one set of strings, and the five “accidentals” per octave on the other set of strings. The layout is similar to a keyboard. Like a keyboard, each major scale has its own fingering pattern, and basic chords fall into pattern shapes or groupings. The advantage of this layout is that it provides a familiar concept (diatonic and accidentals) to the player, and is easier to learn due to the presence of the diatonic “home row” of strings” (Wikipedia).

Other types of string configurations are available such as the “6×6”, which is tuned to a whole-tone scale. “The advantage of this layout is that only two sets of fingering patterns are required for major scales, one set when the root of the key is on the left strung strings and the other for the root on the right strung strings (though there is no advantage in fingering for chords, as the 5×7 and 6×6 configurations use the same number and types of pattern shapes to produce major, minor, augmented and diminished triads) “ (Wikipedia).

Technique

Because a cross-strung harp does not utilize levers or pedals to play accidentals, the hands do the work instead by virtue of their positioning and placement on the strings.  The hands reach  to the upper portion of the strings to play naturals and to the lower portions of the strings to play flats.  While this provides access to all notes, the span required for the fingers to reach is often wider.  This also means that fingering is very different from pedal or lever harps as well.

“Given that fingerings for the cross-strung can be far more complex than for other types of harps, many people wonder what makes this instrument so compelling. The answer is very simple: possibilities! Imagine having the freedom to play the incredibly chromatic music of J. S. Bach or Debussy, or the lush chords and adventurous melodies of jazz, or popular music with its quick modulations, or multi-modal traditional songs and dances …without ever thinking about flipping a lever or changing a pedal. Then imagine doing all of this with a harp which is compact and lightweight enough to go in the back seat of the car, or easily carried upstairs, and you may understand some of this harp’s wonders” (Tasche, Harper).

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Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune. (Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)