West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
Thy Trembling Strings
The Regency Harp and Harp-Lute
& their context in English social history
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
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
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