The tangible and the transient: (re)constructing musics of the harp

What follows is one half of a joint paper that Lewis Jones and I delivered as part of The Cass Research Seminar series, London Metropolitan University, on 21 November 2019. Lewis spoke on the transient aspect of the historical harp, and I spoke on the tangible, in this case that of a harp by Jakob Hochbrucker (dated 1728) at Musée de la Musique, Paris.


My thanks go to Beat Wolff for his generosity in sharing information about this harp (and many others), and to Thierry Maniguet, Curator at Musée de la Musique, Cité de la Musique, Paris, for allowing us to examine said Hochbrucher harp.


This talk is the third stage in a larger project, the first being the examination, measurement, and photographing of the harp in Paris, a couple of weeks ago, and the second, analysing the information gathered, to make a working drawing, which we started last week. This evening is partly a presentation, and hopefully an open discussion around the project. It is also an opportunity for me to present the early stages of a musical-instrument-making project which, I suppose, makes me a residual entity, a vestige or remnant of 100 years of training of musical instrument makers here at London Metropolitan University and its predecessor establishments.


In my part of this presentation, I will do three things. Firstly, I will place this project and the instrument in context, next I’ll talk about the importance of this instrument and its place in the long chronology of the harp, then I’ll talk about the harp itself, and what we’ve learned from a detailed examination.


This project arose after I won the 2019 Terence Pamplin Award for Organology from The Worshipful Company of Musicians. The Terence Pamplin Award is made every other year to encourage excellence in research in organology and musicology as it links to acoustic music instrument technology. Organology – for the few of you who may not have heard of it is the science and history of the development and construction of all acoustic musical instruments, and their use. Terry Pamplin, formerly of this establishment, was for many years a stalwart in the late, lamented department of musical instrument technology, and a well-respected organologist. The award has been running since 2005, and during this time has been won by three former London Met students, I am the fourth. A condition of the award is that a piece of original research is undertaken on a musical instrument.

Within Western music there are many aspects of classical and folk music traditions that remain unresearched. More widely, ethnic musical traditions are under threat of extinction in many parts of the world, and musical instrument making, in particular training and apprenticeships within the field, are becoming rarer. In the U.K. musical instrument making is now classified as an endangered trade. The Pamplin award is designed to encourage research into early organology and playing techniques of acoustic instruments within the mainstream of Western musical tradition and oral traditions in world ethno-organology, at any period of history, and to record them before they are lost to scholarship for ever. The geographical scope of the award is global. The research project can include making, playing or recording musical instruments. The award specifically excludes electronic or computerised digital instruments and electrical amplification. I will be using the award to deepen my research into harps by examining and copying an instrument to test the methodologies of a little-known but important maker – more on that shortly.


We are in discussions with a leading early pedal harp teacher at a London conservatoire. A finished instrument will be likely be shared between harp students at three London institutions, where they will be encouraged to research the now-lost early pedal harp repertoire and technique, hopefully not only revealing the sound of this instrument type to the modern ear, but restoring lost repertoire to the harp canon.


The pedal harp, as its name suggests, has pedals. These are part of a complex machine which enable the player to alter the pitch of a string or strings. The depression of a pedal in the base of the instrument passes movement by a rod or wire housed in the pillar or body of the harp, which in turn acts on the machine housed in or below the neck. Here, the stopping devices, the type of which depend upon the type of harp, are brought into contact with the string, raising the pitch, in the case of the single-action harp, by a semitone, or on the double-action, by two semitones steps.




The pedal instrument was developed from the central European hook harp which was fitted with hooks that could be turned by hand against the strings. Single-action pedal harp stopping devices, in chronological order of use, include the lever, the crochette, the bequille and the fourchette; double-action instruments were predominately fitted with fourchettes.

There has been some debate over who invented the pedal harp. Attributions range from Jacob Hochbruckerof Donauworth in around 1690, to Simon Hochbrucker (Jacob’s son), Paul Vetter of Nuremberg, Geog Goepfert of Saxony (later Paris), and Johann Hausen of Weimar.’ Simon Hochbrucker, writing in the introduction to an undated collection of Ariettes, claims that his father Jacob invented the pedal harp in 1697, but that it was he (Simon) who introduced it to Vienna in 1729 and Brussels in 1739, and it was Goepfertwho introduced in Paris in 1749. Contemporary newspaper reports show that a Mr Hochbrucker, probably Simon, introduced his harp to London in 1743, offering to teach young gentlemen and ladies to play upon a ‘new-invented Pedal Harp’; in London, played a harp concerto in a benefit concert for the flautist, Mr Balicourt. The Hochbruckers later took the new instrument to Paris, a city whose artisans would lead European harp making during the second half of the 18th century.


It is generally now accepted that Jacob Hochbrucker was the originator of the pedal harp. Though very few Hochbrucker instruments survive, and little is known about players and repertoire, it’s Jacob’s innovation that’s the direct ancestor of the modern orchestral instrument.


The next iteration of pedal harp, the French instrument with either bequille or crochet actions, first appeared in the second-half of the eighteenth century, and it was these instruments, heavily influenced by Hochbrucker’s, that entered popular use amongst the amateurs and dilettante of the French, and later English, upper classes. A boom in harp consumption gave rise to Jean Henri Naderman and Georges Cousineau, the leading makers of the day, and others, such as Salomon, Saunier, Louvet, Holtzman, Wolters, and Renault and Chatelain.


In its simplest form, Hochbrucker’s pedal harp is a mechanized version of the European hook harp. The earliest instruments had two to five pedals but seven soon became the standard (one for each note of the diatonic scale) allowing the harp to be placed at will in eight major and five minor keys without the need to retune or remove hands from the strings.



Three Hochbrucker’s harps survive in European museums though none are in playable condition. We don’t know how many harps Hochbrucker made, nor how successful they were. However,that a Hochbrucker harpis depicted in Angelica Kauffmann’s portrait of Elizabeth Ewer (c.1768), shows that these instruments were still in use at that date.


Research into the likely scope of the repertoire, the tail end of which, in the 1760s and 70s, is represented by published and manuscript music by at least three later members of the Hochbrucker family, indicates that a wide range of keyboard music might have been played, and there is reason to propose that the repertoire was as eclectic as that drawn upon by Welsh triple harpists, including Corelli sonatas, Vivaldi concertos, opera excerpts, dances, and song accompaniment. Surviving works by the Hochbruckers demonstrate the complexity of early harp music.


Hochbrucker’s invention, a major technological and musical advance, was doubtless driven by the need to play chromatically, and to modulate into all the common keys, without the severe constraints of the triple harp. One way of better understanding this instrument (and the music performed on it), is to build one and to place it in the hands of early harpist and interested others.


The 1728 Hochbrucker harp was unknown in harp circles until February 1992 when it was bought by Beat Wolff, a renowned maker and restorer, who acquired it after it was sold in the liquidation of a music shop in Uster.


Intially, although he recognised the instrument as both interesting and important – the work is of a highly skilled and innovative craftsman, Beat was unable to attribute it to a known maker. In 1997, whilst writing a book on harps, Beat examined another instrument in a Vienese museum, which, although externally different, bore convincing parallels to his unknown instrument. The Vienna harp was helpfully labelled, "Hochbrucker, Donauwörth 1720".




Beat found that:


· The mechanisms are the same and of the same material

· The necks on both instruments show the same, unusual, stepped cross-section

· Both harps have identical brass tuning pegs (brass was and is rarely used for tuning pegs on harps – steel is preferred for strength).

· The internal pedal connections are the same.

· The pillar designs are very similar.

· The body shell to soundboard joints are both reinforced with linen bands.


A third harp, this time in Zurich, sits somewhere between Beat’s instrument and that in Vienna, indicating that the Zurich harp may have been modified after construction. Together, these two instruments offer sufficient evidence justifying an attribution to Hochbrucker.

Turning to the harp, it is in excellent condition, having been restored by Beat Wolff before its sale to Musee de la Musique.


The body is straight and the soundboard, flat, and the mechanism responds easily to pedal action. The restoration process saw the bridge being reaffixed to the soundboard; it had been torn off and was broken in the lower part. The soundboard itself, was fortunately undamaged. The metal parts of the harp are complete. Beat cleaned the brass parts, which were a little oxidised; the iron parts were free from rust. He also cleaned and restored the varnish which was dusty and had worn through in a few places.


The neck and pillar are in excellent condition and show little sign of twisting. The neck has a curious cross-section. A cavity is cut out to house the mechanism and the tuning pins are recessed. The pillar has a D-shaped cross section which tapers from top to bottom.


The body shell is pentagonal in section; one face (the soundboard) is made of 2 long-grain spruce boards (approximately 2mm thick) joined by an H-shaped bridge. The bridge itself is made from poplar, the outer face coated with snake-wood, thus preventing the strings cutting upwards. It is finished with maple and ebony fillets. The internal part of the bridge rail is cut out flush between the strings at soundboard level, where willow ribsrun horizontally, carrying the string load.


Four curved staves, shaped from maple-veneered poplar wood, complete the body shell. The overall thickness is about 5 mm, and varies greatly; the maple surface is about 2 mm thick.


The pear wood top block is glued into the shell as a long wedge; it has an opening right side for the pedal wires. Thebottom block (also of pear wood) is in one piece; 7 holes are spread symmetrically on the outskirts to accommodate the pedal wires.


The neck to pillar, pillar to body, and body to neck joints are all fixed with square-headed bolts. As such, it is possible to dismantle the harp in to components, rendering packing and travelling with the instrument easier. The reconnection of the pedal rods to the mechanism, as Beat Wolff found, is, however, challenging.


During the dismantling of the mechanism, three signatures were found. The most important one – because it bears a date – appears in the fifth link rod (counted from the outside) on the piece which connects to the spring. It reads “G O' do '1728 L”. The mechanism is made of thin, blue spring steel, and is regulated with tiny adjusting screws. The quality of the work is excellent suggesting that it was made by a watchmaker or similar. Such as division of labour, where one person made the woodwork, and another the metal, was common and where guilds were established this arrangement was highly regulated.

A further signature, Blakey, is visible on the back of the first linkage, engraved by a practiced hand. Beat Wolff identified a maker of watch springs named Blakey, the name suggesting that the materials used were imported, possibly from Britain.


The pedals are connected by rods which run through the sound box, acting on cams which in turn communicate movement to the linking rods, hidden in the hollowed neck. Each linkage consists of several sections of blue spring steel connected to the brass levers, whose axles pass through the neck where the act upon the strings. so the crutches itself limit the vibrating length of these strings.


The pedal parts are forged of iron and marked, left to right, with roman numerals 1 to 7. Interestingly, the pedal layout differs from that of later harps, being arranged B, C, D, E, F,G, A, from left to right. This layout matches that of the Hochbrucker harp in Zurich, while the Vienna harp shows the order as used on later French, English and modern instruments, this being D, C, B, E, F, G, A, the B and the D being swapped.


We intend to complete our working drawings over the next few weeks, after which we’ll prototype the mechanism, the dimensions and accuracy of which are critical to the success of the harp.






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