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Thy Trembling Strings
The Regency Harp and Harp-Lute
& their context in English social history

Review of the lecture given by Sarah Deere-Jones on March 22nd 2017

Sarah, who was suffering three broken fingers this evening, explained that she had refurbished a harp bought at an auction, which was built in 1820.  Harps in the 19th Century were highly decorated and perfectly engineered.  The questions posed were what did they mean to their owners, why were they so highly decorated and who bought them?

She proceeded to demonstrate the quality of the harp by playing three Quadrilles from James Paine of Almack’s  – he was leader of a “Dance Band” at the Carlton Club during the 1800’s.

Evidence of the earliest harps was found in Mesopotamia as early as 3000BC.  By the Middle Ages, they were used in Europe, albeit of a simple structure.  The French introduced changing mechanisms and foot pedals in the 18th Century, and in the next century such luminaries as James Watt, of the steam engine fame, used his engineering skills to create advances to the harp’s mechanism.

The next development was the creation of double action harps and pedals by Sébastien Érard, who fled the French Revolution as he made them for the nobility.  After this invention, high ranking ladies became accomplished harpists.  Harps were expensive, and ownership therefore signified wealth and status.  However, musical ability was a prerequisite for progress in Society, particularly in the marriage stakes, and so music lessons were commonplace and practice essential; up to 4/6 hours per day!  In 1814, a bracing device for the hands was invented to assist young ladies in their practice.

Sarah demonstrated scales and key changes composed by William Lytton Viner.

As harps proved cumbersome, Edward Light, a guitar maker, invented in 1805 the harp-lute, which was easy to transport.  Each was beautifully decorated, and no two were identical.  They were intended to accompany other instruments or singers, and Sarah demonstrated with a song entitled “Last Rose of Summer”.

As well as the occasional infant prodigy (“The Infant Lyra” performed at 4 years’ old), street urchins used harps as their instrument of choice for begging.  Italians in particular were evident, and some of these child musicians walked from Europe to London.

In essence, the harp became a fashion statement for wealthy ladies during this century, and wives were frequently painted accompanied by a harp, to show off their status and the wealth of their husbands.  In addition, the musical ability of eligible young ladies allowed them to express their emotions and preferences for potential suitors; equally, page-turning by young men demonstrated their interest in the lady harpist.  At social soirées, pressure on a harpist would be paramount in the search for a prospective husband, to provide security for both lady and her family!

Sarah talked briefly of the popularity of the quirky Aeolian Harp, which fascinated musicians, poets and scientists, as it was placed close to an open window, and was played by the wind!  She had a recording of the sound of this strange instrument.

Whilst I found some of the technical elements of Sarah’s talk slightly confusing, the general timbre was fascinating.  This was enhanced by her wonderful playing of both harp and harp-lute, which I found enchanting and soothing.  Her delivery and knowledge were excellent.

Philip Akroyd

Related Link (opens in new window):

Sarah Deere-Jones' website