A musician and her harp - Tristan Loper - cc

The harp

A musician and her harp - Tristan Loper - cc

The harp is a musical instrument particularly prized in Celtic culture. Mainly played in Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and Wales, the origins of this instrument date back to 2,800 BC. Here is a short presentation of the harp, the Celtic instrument that today has become one of the very symbols of the Republic of Ireland!

History of the Celtic harp

An ancient instrument that was revived in the 11th century

The first Celtic harps would go back to the 11th century, and would be a declination of the ancient harps coming from Mesopotamia, Greece, and Egypt (in 2 800 B.C.) as well as the medieval triangular harps.

Often carved in metal, wood or stone, the first Celtic harps are said to have been designed in Scotland, then widely spread in Ireland, under the Gaelic name “Cláirseach”. It was at this time that many Irish luthiers emerged, producing many Celtic harps. The main Irish harpists were then from the nobility: the harp being a particularly expensive instrument, it was unlikely that simple peasants would be able to own one. However, the vast majority of harpists were often blind: they could then develop a very fine hearing, and composed marvellous pieces. Among the best known of this period are Turlough O’Carolan and Ruairi Dall O’Cathain.

At that time, the Celtic harp was taught in bards’ schools, a place where Irish Gaelic culture was widely celebrated in accordance with tradition. Among the oldest Celtic harps is the magnificent 15th century Brian Boru’s Harp, on display in the old library at Trinity College. This harp is made of precious wood and is about 80 cm high, with no less than 30 strings of sheep gut. At that time, harps were small, not exceeding 90 cm, but it was in the 17th century that harps grew a few centimetres, sometimes reaching 1.5 metres.

The future of the Celtic harp threatened as early as the 17th century

Unfortunately, the war in Ireland in 1607 heralded the fall of the Gaelic order, forcing the closure of these cultural establishments. The harpists, then neglected and mistreated by British society, became itinerant musicians, going from village to village to play a few pieces in the company of other musicians. However, the latter were less and less numerous from the 18th century onwards, and risked dying out with the Celtic harp itself.

Faced with this situation, a few attempts were made to improve the quality of the harp, with a harp festival held in Belfast in 1792. Only 10 harpists showed up to win one of the 3 best places. It was at this time that Edward Bunting, a talented harpist, produced a complete work on the Celtic harp, including design plans, courses on playing techniques, etc. It was thanks to this work that the Celtic harp did not fall into oblivion.

From the 18th to the 20th century, the Celtic harp was often despised, but it was revived in the 1950s, when many classical harpists began to rediscover the instrument. Since then, the Celtic harp has seduced many musicians such as Derek Bell of the Chieftains, or Alan Stivell.

Presentation of the Celtic harp

Characteristics of the Celtic harp

The Celtic harp is structured by a hollow triangular wooden frame, crossed by nylon, steel or gut strings stretched by a metal key system. These clefs, called “cleats”, allow the tension of the strings to be adjusted, and thus the tonality of the notes to be modified. Like the Scottish bagpipes, the Celtic harp is played in B flat, and has very different playing techniques from that of a classical harp.

Very often used to evoke enchantment and joy, the harp is an instrument with a very soft sound.

The purchase price of a harp can go from 500 to 3000€ depending on the quality desired.

So much more to discover...

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