The Tudor Harp

Historical performances and sheet music by Sarah Deere-Jones, based in the south west of the UK

A brief history of the Tudor harp

The harp in England by the end of the 15th century was alive and well, indeed it was one of several instruments taught to the sons and daughters of wealthy families, while minstrels travelled around the country playing for castles and manorial estates for banquets and festivities, using the harp as an accompaniment to singing and storytelling, during mealtimes and for dancing. From Henry IVth onwards it was firmly established in the Royal household, perhaps its most famous player being Henry VIII himself and his ill fated wife Anne Boleyn who were both harpists.

Harps at this time appeared in two different forms; the small lap type which was had few strings and was short and light enough to perch on the knee, as can be seen in the painting above of Henry VIII taken from 'Henry's psalter' in the British Library. But there was also the Gothic style, where they became taller and more slender with more strings, such as Sarah's reproduction Gothic harp above.

 

Here are three images of harps from the 16th century, left from Cotehele house in Cornwall from about 1550, centre from an early 16th century woodcut by Albrecht Durer, and right from a Manchester misericord dated about 1505.

For more detailed information about the history of the harp in England please go to the link at the bottom of the page-

None of these harps had the ability to change the pitch of the string in order to gain accidentals, although on the Gothic harp it is possible to push on a string at the very top with the left thumb to raise the pitch. Gothic harps also had Bray pins, which were small wooden plugs used originally to hold the strings into the soundbox, but when swivelled so that they touch the strings can create a buzzing sound, similar to that used by Hurdy Gurdy players. It is an odd effect but can be satisfying when used to accent a beat especially during dance music.

This 15th century document from the Western Manuscript in Trinity College library, is entitled 'To set a harp' and contains detailed instructions on how to tune a harp. For a full translation please go to the 'History of the harp in England' webpage on the link at the bottom of this page, but basically it explains to the harpist how the harp should be tuned using the intervals of a 5th and an octave - exactly as harps are still tuned today!

There were harp makers across England at this time supplying and maintaining the instruments played by the nobility and the working minstrels. Records remain of several makers associated with the Oxford colleges, where instrumental music was a popular pastime for the students. During the late 15th century, Thomas Briker, John Harryes and Robert Smyth were making harps in and around Oxford.

Henry VII made a payment on May 8th 1492 of 1 for 'making a case for the kings sword and a case for James Hide's harp'

By the mid 16th century the Arpa Doppia evolved out of the need to solve the problem of changing key quickly, which could not be done on the above harps without re-tuning. Another parallel row of strings was added to the other side of the string arm and then crossed over so that it was accessible to both side of the harp, this way one row could be tuned to the accidentals and accessed by either hand. The Arpa Doppia was a successful development, and the Italian composer Monteverdi used one in his first orchestra during the opera Orfeo in 1600. Later another row was added creating the triple harp, which was widely used in Italy and the rest of Europe and later became the national instrument of Wales.

Sarah's performances consist of a variety of repertoire from the Tudor period, from the late 15th century to the first half of the 16th century. From Rondeaux, Ballades and Virelais through to stately Pavannes and faster Galliards and Allemandes, to lively Saltarellos and Courantes. There is also a selection of songs, some of which are attributed to King Henry VIII himself.

She performs for historical events, arts organisations, schools, film and TV and festivals.

Please e mail sarah@trehawsa.com for enquiries.

Sarah likes to encourage others to get involved in historical music, and the harp is the perfect instrument, covering all bases! She has published two books of Tudor and Medieval music for harpists and other instruments, and also holds weekend courses and on-line harp lessons for complete beginners to start learning from her home in Cornwall. For more details of music and courses see www.cornwallharpcentre.co.uk

For more information about Sarah's Tudor harp performances and Tudor music, contact sarah@trehawsa.com

For more information on the history of the harp in England please click here- http://www.cornwallharpcentre.co.uk/history.htm

 

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