The harp’s origins are lost in the Mists of Time … so misty, in fact, that it is impossible to say when (or where) the first harp-like instruments were invented, what they looked like, or at what point these precursors became the instrument that we call the modern harp. But this lack of data has never stopped anybody from conjecture, so why should it stop me?
The first harp was probably the archer’s bow. At some point, some prehistoric genius put a second string on the bow, to have more than a single monotonous drone, and so became the first luthier. (A luthier is a maker of any stringed instrument, and not just lutes.)
Following the dictum that more is better (a philosophy not entirely unknown in our own time), more and more strings were added, and eventually it was found that by enlarging and hollowing out one end of the bow to fashion a sound-box, a greater volume and better tone would result. The result was the Egyptian bow harp, of which there are many examples in Egyptian tomb art and even fragments of the actual specimen.
While the Egyptians were perfecting the bow harp, the Assyrians were developing a version of their own. Their version was called the angle harp, and represents the next approximation to the modern harp. The angle harp differs from what we call the harp today in only two important respects: it lacked the front-piece we call the column (also called the fore-pillar), and it was played “upside down” from its present orientation, with the tuning pegs on the bottom. The Egyptians, recognizing a good thing when they saw it, started making angle harps of their own.
In other parts of the Mediterranean, other people were busy inventing the lyre and the psaltery. I mention these instruments only because they are often confused with the harp in literature, and writers of the time failed to distinguish exactly which instrument was being referred to. To complicate things, the names they gave their instruments are not the names we give those instruments today. (The words “psaltery” and “harp” both come from words that mean “to pluck,” so either instrument could conceivably be called by either name.) The best we can hope to do, then, is note what instruments are depicted in their art, and ignore the written record.
It was the appearance of the column that marked the advent of the modern harp. It solved two problems at one stroke. First, it allowed the harp maker to increase string tensions tremendously without distorting the harp frame. Secondly, it made the harp far easier to tune, because changing the tension of one string no longer affected the tension of all the other strings. Now harps could be built with more strings, and those strings could carry higher tensions, and thus deliver greater volume and sweeter tone.
When did this revolutionary change occur, and where? We don’t know. All we know for sure is that it first showed up in stone carvings in the British Isles around the end of the eighth century. It has been suggested that it was a Norse invention, because it appeared in various areas at just about the time that the Vikings were raiding those neighborhoods. But if that was the case, it is curious that we find no Scandinavian representations dating to that time, or for several centuries afterward. The earliest depiction of a harp that clearly shows a column is on a stone carving in Ross, Scotland, and dated to the second half of the eighth century.
The ninth-century Utrecht Psalter shows what appear to be harps with columns, although it’s hard to be sure. It’s interesting that when this scene was duplicated in the Harley Psalter, dated about two centuries later, the artist of the latter work found it necessary to show the harp with a column in a copy that was otherwise pretty close to the original. Perhaps, by that time, the column harp had become so prevalent that the copyist thought that the first picture must have been in error. It is certain that by the early tenth century, the angle harp had pretty much disappeared in most of Europe.
By the second millennium, this new-fangled column harp was being found on the Continent. In Germany, it was called a “Cythara Angelica” to distinguish it from the “Cythara Teutonica,” a type of lyre. (As you may expect, the name “cythara” was the root of the words “zither,” “guitar” and even “sitar,” none of which look remotely like a harp.) In form, it was essentially the harp we have today, except that the neck (the arm that the strings are attached to) was likely to be straight rather than curved. By the 11th or 12th century, the neck begins to assume the contours of what we call the “harmonic curve” which attempted to more closely match the string’s length with its frequency (or pitch. The harps in illustrations from the Continent were usually “high-headed” harps, where the head (the junction of the neck and column) is higher than the top of the soundbox. Those in the Celtic-influenced areas of the British Isles are usually “low-headed” harps, where the head is about as high as the body of the harp. This may have had something to do with the strings used.
There is a persistent conception that the British harps used metal strings and the continental harps used gut strings. There might be a germ of truth in this, as it might explain the difference in contours; metal strings typically run at higher tensions and therefore require a more robust and compact frame. But this is speculation. There are also references to “harps” strung with horsehair or flax, but remember that we can’t be sure that the writers were referring to harps instead of some other plucked instrument.
The oldest surviving instruments represent the Celtic branch of the family, and date from the 13th to the 15th century. They are low-headed harps designed for metal strings. An example is the “Brian Boru” harp now in the Trinity College of Dublin.
Medieval harps were probably tuned diatonically, without sharps or flats. By the end of the medieval era, this arrangement was not sufficient to play the music that was coming into fashion. The solution was to run another row of strings in a plane parallel to the first row, to handle the accidental notes. The “double-strung” harps became popular, and variations of them are still made today and figure prominently in traditional Welsh music.
It was not the ideal solution, but it sufficed until the 17th century with the advent of the modern concert harps, which used pedal-operated hooks (later cams) to change the string’s “sounding length” and vibrating frequency.
Another way to change the pitch of a string, first used in the nineteenth century, is to attach individual “sharping” levers to each string. Today’s folk harps commonly use such levers. They aren’t “period,” but they make it far easier to play in different keys, and with different instruments.