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Cross Strung Chromatic Harps

To the musical public, the image of a harp is that of an instrument strung with one single row of strings, tuned diatonically (the white keys of the piano) and capable of sounding accidentals (the black keys, in the case of flats) through complex mechanical apparatus such as pedals, sharping levers, blades or hooks or others. Mainstream harps all have something in common: playing chromatic music demands thoughtful planning, a trait which has traditionally placed significant limitations on what they could do.

72 string cross strung symmetrical chromatic harp designed and built by Philippe SRL Clement for a piano teacher in L.A. (USA). This harp features a compound curve soundbox.

Picture of a Contemporary Cross Strung Chromatic Harp:
The Gaelic Cross 37
Designed and Built by Philippe S.R.L. Clement

The "Gaelic Cross" is a 3 octave (37 string) instrument which provides a quasi horizontal and straight plucking line (that is where strings are crossing), almost at the eye level. It is perfect for the X-strung configuration, where you really want to see what your fingers are doing. Being able to reach "all bass and treble" strings from both hands is a fundamental feature of the Gaelic Cross. Three octaves (37 strings) may sound short a compass by harpers' standards... my design objectives were: simplicity of tuning (in particular for newcomers to the harp) and above all, the ease of reaching "all" strings from both hands. Pragmatically speaking, 3 octaves never kept other instruments such as the classical guitar to become wonderful interpreters of all kinds of music, early, baroque, classical, folk, etc, and to achieve an international profile. The Gaelic Cross is strung with wire or nylon and can be built to receive 4 octaves. I have also built classical looking cross strung chromatic harps up to 5 octaves (see pictures) .

Playing the Cross Strung Chromatic Harp

The cross strung chromatic harp is different from other harps in that it involves two rows of crossing strings. One row features diatonic notes only, usually attached to the left side of the soundboard; the other one features sharp notes only. The arrangement looks like that of a piano or harpsichord keyboard with white and black keys. Black strings on the cross strung chromatic harp are just as easy to sound as white strings. Since the two string plans are crossing, both hands can play the white strings or the black strings. Since no special effort, nor apparatus are involved in the production of accidentals, the cross strung chromatic harp is a fully chromatic instrument, permanently tune in the key of "C" (like a piano). From the construction point of view it is also a well balanced design, because strings are pinned to the neck on either side (except in the case of some Spanish Arpa de dos ordenes), the instrument has a better string tension distribution than single rank harps. From a musical stand point, compared to other harps, this instrument is suitable to play a wider and more diversified repertoire, that is virtually all string music, except when glissandi in keys other than "C" and "C#" are required.

The playing technique for the cross strung chromatic harp involves a distinct approach and attitude. According to Ben Brown, a teacher and performer of this instrument (see: "Introduction to multicourse harps" a video by Ben Brown and Laurie Riley, available at Laurie Riley, Box 249, Vashon WA 98070) this technique involves alternative fingering techniques (independence of the hand, non-consecutive fingering and anticipation. Such techniques have been described in various available methods (See Ben Brown (in English), or Odile Tackoen (in French)).

Sharp strings (which are easy to see because they are set in groups of two (c#,d#) and three (F#,g#,a#) and can be colour coded accordingly, are plucked with the left hand above the crossing line and with the right hand below the crossing line.

Players of this instrument do not think that playing the cross strung chromatic harp is more difficult than other harps. This is, I believe the opinion of professional teachers. This view is not shared by every one, however. The cross strung chromatic harp is based on twelve tone octaves as opposed to seven tone octaves. In that sense the fingering may be more complex. Comparing the cross strung harp to the ordinary diatonic harp is a bit like saying that a piano with white keys only would be easier to play... The object of the comparison itself is absurd. The bottom line is that most Western music is based on the 12 tone chromatic scale, not on the 7 tone diatonic scale, therefore, diatonic instruments are a bit of a musical paradox, in the "big picture".

What you will need to learn in order to play the cross strung chromatic harp is indeed a new fingering. Your fingers are used to pluck seven strings per octave, they will have to get used to plucking twelve strings. According to teachers, with a little practice, this will become natural pretty quickly!

The main difference in cross strung harp fingering is that fingers often depart from consecutive sequences: 1,2,3,4...4,3,2,1. In order to be able to reach strings above or below the crossing line, fingers are called to pluck the strings in a non-sequential fashion...

Whereas a "C major scale" (no sharps- would be played: 4,3,2,1, 4,3,2,1 on a cross strung harp, just as you would on an ordinary harp... a "G major scale" (because of the situation of F#) would be played: 3,2,1, 3,2,1, 4,3 from the right hand and... 3,2,1, 4,3,2, 1,3 from the left hand. A "D major scale" would be played: 2,1,4, 3,2,1, 3,2 (RH); 3,2,1, 4,3,2, 1,3 (LH), etc.

Remember that when playing with the right hand, sharps have to be plucked in the row below the crossing line, this is why here the 4th finger is the most appropriate to pluck F# in a G major scale! When you play with the left hand this is the opposite, sharps are above the crossing line and... dictate a different strategy.

More Background on Multicourse Harps

Multiple course harps such as the double harp and the triple harp are also capable of producing chromatic music without particular mechanical devices. The double harp (see Laurie Riley's video on this too) has two rows of parallel strings and can be made to play chromatic music by tuning one row of strings to the chromatic scale, while tuning the other one to the diatonic scale. On these harps, one hand plays the chromatic scale, whereas the other hand plays diatonic notes only. This order cannot be switched, while playing. With the Italian Arpa Doppia type, however, the two rows of strings are attached to the same side of the neck and the lateral distance between strings, which is minimal, allows the player to reach the opposite row by sliding his-her fingers through the strings.

A NEW BREED OF TRIPLE HARPS Traditional triple harps are less popular than they used to be. In previous centuries they were played essentially in Wales, Ireland and Italy. Today, only a few players and builders of this instrument are still to be found in the British Isles. The triple harp is a complex instrument to play and arguably difficult to build too. It is a harp with three rows of parallel strings two that are tuned to the diatonic scale and a third one in between which is tuned to the pentatonic scale (sharps). The player plucks diatonic strings like an ordinary double harp and his fingers have to reach in between diatonic strings to sound sharps. This arrangement is not the most conducive to chromatic music playing and this may explain why the traditional triple harp has almost disappeared. The CROSSING TRIPLE is a new approach to the triple harp. Or at least I am not aware of any precedent to its design. It is essentially a double harp (two ranks of parallel diatonic strings) with a third crossing row of sharps. i.e strings of the third row are not parallel to those of the diatonic rows as was the case of the traditional triple harp, but instead they intersect both rows of diatonic strings. In this arrangement, some sections of the sharp strings are outside the planes of diatonic strings and the player can reach them easily from both hands. This arrangement, of course, is reminiscent of the cross strung chromatic harp. I have built this instrument and I believe that the proposed string configuration could be managed by any player of multi-course harp, with a short transition. The advantages of such a triple harp are obvious: a permanent chromatic instrument comparable to the cross strung chromatic harp and... all of the wonderful assets of the double harp...doubling the melody, splitting the melody between two hands, etc without having to lift or lower sharping levers. As is the case for all triple harps, the main disadvantage of this instrument is the number of strings (and tuning time). The prototype (see pictures below) was built with a C2-C5 3 chromatic octaves range...that is 61 strings. With a little practice it can be managed. A four octave instrument would have 78 strings, (by-the-way) just the number of strings of the Pleyel full size Concert cross strung chromatic harp.... The construction of the CROSSING TRIPLE will be the subject of an article in the Fall Folk Harp Journal.

Arpa de dos ordenes

According to Cristina Bordas ("The Double Harp in Spain from the 16th to the 18th Centuries", in Early Music, May 1987,p 152) formal references to the Spanish cross strung chromatic harp date back to 1616. The Arpa de dos ordenes appears indeed to be the mother of all cross strung chromatic harps. The Arpa de dos ordenes was a harp equipped with two ranks of crossing strings and was created sometime at the end of the 16th Century. According to Cristina Bordas , (op. cit. p 148), at the dawn of the 17h Century the cross strung chromatic harp had already "developed a separate identity". Cristina Bordas also states that all the surviving instruments were made in the 17th and early 18th centuries and that they were all built following specific rules of proportions established by the Franciscan Pablo Nasarre. The strings (commonly gut, but occasionally metal) were all attached from one side of the neck, forming two rows of pins set at distinct levels. This pin level difference was a fundamental characteristic of the Arpa de dos ordenes; it was what would cause the strings to cross, somewhere close to the neck and what would allow both hands to play either the chromatic strings or the diatonic ones. The playing position of the fingers was in the upper part of the strings, near their crossing point. The Arpa de dos ordenes had a straight round pillar, small holes on the sound board. The neck was thin and of an even thickness, its harmonic curve was of a single gentle curve type, providing a rather flat plucking line. Such harps were built in various sizes. Some were made of walnut with a spruce soundboard; the soundbox was of light construction, compared to northern Europe harps, the back was reinforced with up to seven longitudinal and up to four transversal braces. The fame of the Arpa de dos ordenes in both liturgical and profane music peaked at the end of the 17th century. It started declining in the 18th century. In the second half of the 18th century it had fallen into disuse, progressively giving way to the new pedal harp.

Today, however, historical replicas of the Nasarre based Arpa de dos ordenes are still being built in Spain by a violero called Pedro Llopis Areny. Mr Llopis Areny has dedicated 18 years of his career to the research and documentation of these instruments. His fac simile harps all follow strict historical rules of proportions, which are the fundamental requirement for building authentical Arpa de dos ordenes. Mr Llopis Areny builds various sizes of Arpa de dos ordenes, up to 52 strings. The Arpa de dos ordenes is also taught formally in Spain. In October 1996, Nuria Llopis Areny is opening the Escuala de Arpa Espag ola which will focus on the teaching of this wonderful instrument. (Nuria's address can be found in here). 21)

The Pleyel harp was born in Paris at the end of the 19 century. According to the music historian Hannelore Devaere who produced an excellent university dissertation titled: "La harpe Pleyel: origines, construction, technique, accueil". (also available in Dutch) Université de Louvain. 1988, chromaticism was becoming an important part of the music written in that era, and this new fashion was putting unprecedented demands on pedal harps. In essence, the pedal harp (even the dual action type) was experiencing some difficulty in keeping with the demand of a new music such as that of Wagner, Liszt, D'Indy, Charpentier, Faure, Richard Strauss and Debussy. At the turn of the 20th century, Gustave Lyon, who was the Director of the Pleyel & Wolff Company, manufacturing pianos in Paris, reflected on these problems and proposed the cross stringing solution.

The cross strung configuration was adopted by Pleyel as a means to provide for a row of sharps and a row of diatonic strings. These were attached on either side of a neck, widening from the soundbox to the pillar. This setting would allow the player to pluck diatonic notes or accidentals on either side of the neck. The "Pleyel harp" was in fact a long series of harps in constant evolution over thirty years. The Pleyel harp was a rather heavy instrument, most of these harps were generally of the size of a full size concert pedal harp. Some of them were actually heavier, because they were equipped with a metal neck and pillar. The strings crossed half way.

A modest number of music compositions were produced for the instrument. The best known of these compositions is the "Danse avec double quatuor cordes: Danse sacree, danse profane", by Claude Debussy, 1904.

The Pleyel harp met some success in Europe at the turn of the Century. The Pleyel Company built 930 chromatic harps until World War Two. La "harpe chromatique" never reached the fame of the pedal harp, as some observers of the time, and its designer Gustave Lyon, expected. Several factors militated against the Pleyel chromatic harp. The harpist community, instead of looking at the Pleyel harp as a convenient alternative to play fast chromatic passages, common in the 19th Century music, remained sceptical. Although it was in many respects more suited to the 19th Century music than the pedal harp, the Pleyel harp was not as versatile an instrument as Gustave Lyon would have hoped. Because of its considerable string tension and the great number of strings (78+) maintaining the instrument in tune was a challenge. The volume of the instrument, perhaps because of its heavy construction, was never as strong as the pedal harp's. Glissandi, which is a characteristic of concert harp music could only be executed in the key of "C" in which the chromatic harp was always tuned. The "Harpe chromatique" remained a marginal instrument, it was however taught in conservatories in France, Belgium and probably Germany. Today, the Pleyel harp is still taught formally in Belgium. Mrs Odile Tackoen, who dedicated a lifetime to the teaching of this instrument, has published a well thought out method called "Approche de la Harpe chromatique, son histoire, sa technique, son r pertoire. Exercices et morceaux divers pour d butants"