Monday, 16 November 2015


Tangential connection to previous post: harps.  I've played the harp for about 25 years now.  I think that I chose it originally partly because of Welsh connections, but mostly just because I loved it.  It's a wonderfully responsive instrument to play.

(source: Wikipedia)

I come across harps quite a lot in the sources for the later Middle Ages.  There are plenty of examples of enthusiastic aristocratic harpists, not least among them, Henry V: Malcolm Vale has found receipts for payments for new strings, and eventually for a new harp for the king.  There are examples of medieval women who played the harp (Valentine Visconti played the harp, and accounts for the repair of her two instruments survive; Charles VI of France's daughters Isabelle and Catherine both played the harp; the fictional Isolda played the harp) and there are a few hints that it was deemed to be an appropriate instrument for young ladies: in the early fourteenth century, Francesco Barbarino said that the harp was 'appropriate for a great lady'.  More commonly though, the instrument seems to have been most popular amongst young men.  My favourite reference to a medieval harp comes in the tale of Aucassin and Nicolette, a twelfth/thirteenth chante-fable (a sung, verse story) about a young nobleman and his particularly feisty young lover.  At one point, Aucassin, berated by Nicolette's adoptive father, says that in any case, he'd rather go to hell, for 'There go the harpers and the minstrels and the kings of the earth. With them will I go, so I have Nicolette my most sweet friend with me'.  (Incidentally - it's the most brilliant and intriguing story - crossing gender and racial boundaries in intriguing ways).  Hell sounds a lot more fun - and harps are most certainly not associated with heavenly angels, but with hedonism, masculinity and hell.

So when did the harp become so feminised?  I should add straightaway that it isn't entirely feminised - many of the classical music world's most wonderful harpists are men (eg. Xavier de Maistre; Emmanuel Ceysson).  And in Wales, where Henry V's interest in the harp may well have come from, there is little sense that this is a particularly female instrument.

I have just read an extremely interesting article by Hannah Lane (Cerae 1, 2014), which provides a rather convincing answer to this question.  She discusses the introduction of the single-action mechanism in around 1720 (for harp nerds, these innovations are absolutely fascinating - harp-makers have always had to find solutions to enable the production of semi-tones on the harp, and the single-action pedal mechanism, succeeded by today's double-action pedal mechanism, is one solution).  These new harps were more dynamically expressive, and the new chromatic possibilities led to a whole new repertoire which focused on the Empfindsamer style, which privileged emotional sensitivity.  The single-action mechanism made possible, in particular, rapid or continuous arpeggiation - probably now the sound most associated with the classical harp and alternately tender or delicate, and stormy.

And this was a moment at which this kind of emotionalism was being more explicitly associated with femininity.  To weep sweetly was women's work.  An entry in Diderot's Encyclopedia in 1767 claimed that the single-action harp 'has become an object of amusement for the sensitive sex, who, far from depriving themselves of the emotions that the harp can excite in our souls by it sweet harmony and mellifluous sounds, lend to it even more favourable assistance in order to increase its charm' (Lane, p. 82).  Emotional expression is clearly gendered in particular ways in particular periods, and to find that such labels might have shaped a long-standing perception of a musical instrument is very striking.

A concert grand pedal harp now holds about two tonnes of tension in the strings, and is capable of an enormous dynamic range.  But throwing off the rather vapid 'feminine' associations is a slower process.  The harp is not an instrument for lacy frocks, but powerful and expressive and as interesting and many-faced as we know gender to be.

If I were a millionaire - I would buy the Salvi scolpita... (image source: salviharps) - although this seems a little disloyal to my own harp, the unoriginally named Orpheus 47 - it's a Japanese Aoyama harp, made of maple, and with a lovely bright tone.


  1. Hi Hannah,

    Thanks for this - I enjoyed reading it. I was reminded of a set of Gillray caricatures which I rather like, 'Harmony before Matrimony' and 'Matrimonial Harmonics'.

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