Common Myths About the Harp

Is the folk harp exclusively Celtic?

Irish-Americans have had a great deal of success in claiming their musical heritage, and they are to be commended and admired for doing so, and for building a proud and healthy self-identity rooted in the rich artistic achievements of their ancestors. So brilliant has their success been that the folk harp in the United States is today often called a “Celtic harp,” and their hard work has laid a foundation that makes it possible for anyone interested in the folk harp of today, no matter their ethnicity, to find the necessary resources to learn how to play this instrument.

However, while today’s folk harpers may rely on the valuable resources created by Celtic harpers to learn to play the instrument, there is a less well-known but equally rich universe of folk music waiting to be learned that speaks to the traditions of southern Italy as well. The harp has been a folk instrument in Italy since ancient times, especially in certain areas of Basilicata’s Val d’Agri, specifically the towns of Laurenzana, Marsicovetere, Marsiconuovo, and Viggiano, and their environs. Other towns in that area of the Apennines boast a proud and creative harp heritage as well.

In fact, in the mid-to-late 1800s, the harp (and violin as well) was so much a part of the culture of these towns that it became a major export of sorts as Italians emigrated from these towns to nearly every continent on Earth. In cities spread as far apart as New York, Paris, and London, the sight of Italian street musicians playing harps and violins became so common as to elicit a great deal of commentary, both positive and negative.

The kind of harp still created today by local luthiers is referred to as an arpa viggianese or “harp from Viggiano.” Another, a portative harp meant to be played while standing or strolling, is called the arpicedda, the pronunciation of arpicella or “little harp” in the local dialect. Both were used to perform sprightly, energetic music that accompanied the dancing of tarantelle and quadriglie during fairs, festivals, and other local celebrations.

The summer harp festival held in Viggiano, Rassegna dell’Arpa Viggianese (Exhibition of the Viggianese Harp) is an excellent example of the vibrancy of today’s folk harp culture in southern Italy. A well-attended annual showcase of harps, folk music, and instruction, the festival boasts some of the greatest luminaries of the arpa popolare or folk harp genre, including renowned harpers like Luigi Milano, local master luthiers like Massimo Monti and Giovanni Ierardi, harp instructors at La Scuola di Arpa Viggianese Lincoln Almada, Daniela Ippolito, and Anna Pasetti, and many others who have dedicated themselves to the tradition of folk music in southern Italy.

Is the harp only for women?

In western Europe, the harp has historically been seen as a women’s instrument, similar to the piano (yes, centuries ago the piano was seen as exclusively female!). Since both instruments were large and not very portable, they were associated with domestic and family music-making and hence seen as the province of women, with their talents in that area making them more marriageable. In addition, the modern concert pedal harp as seen in today’s symphony orchestra was perfected in France, where the harp had previously been a favorite of Marie Antoinette before her execution. As with anything the royals made fashionable, the harp’s popularity spread among the other women in the French court prior to the revolution, cementing the harp’s status in western Europe as the instrument of choice for highly placed women.

However, this was not the case in either the remote northern or southern hinterlands of Europe, including both southern Italy and Ireland, where the harp has always been seen as an equal opportunity instrument and perhaps even slightly more suited to men: the portability of both the arpicedda and the Irish lap harp made it possible to bring music-making beyond the home, including into taverns and public houses. In Italy, performing music in public was also viewed as a hand-to-mouth existence superficially similar to panhandling.

Both facts made public performance of music challenging for women in the 19th century and earlier, although women rapidly made gains in these areas from that time forward until men and women are now on equal musical footing with one another, and all instruments welcome both genders, including the harp. The blind orchestra audition has had a great deal to do with this, where musicians auditioning for an opening will perform for a panel of judges from behind a screen, leaving the judges to select the best performers judging by sound alone. Since the implementation of this innovative means of selecting new members during the last century, orchestras in the United States quickly became far more diverse, until today they are not only some of the most diverse in the world but also some of the most universally admired, as they select for talent alone.

Is the harp only for rich people?

When looking at the modern concert pedal harp and its hand-painted soundboard and hand-carved gold-leaf decorations, and learning of the daunting price of such instruments, one can be forgiven for concluding that the harp is the ultimate aristocratic instrument and has no place in the lives of the working or middle classes.

However, the harp world is sometimes too enamored of the $50,000 pedal-driven concert grand harps made by the biggest names in harp manufacture, such as Erard, Wurlitzer, Lyon & Healy, and Salvi — the equivalents of Steinway and Bosendorfer grand pianos, and played only by the best of the best. The history of the many unknown luthiers (makers of stringed instruments) of the 19th century is much less well understood, yet these artisans created thousands of less lofty instruments that found their way second- and third-hand into the lives of many peasants in southern Italy and hence anywhere touched by the Italian diaspora of the Great Migration. These were usually the instruments played by our grandparents or great-grandparents and are sometimes still found in the attics and basements of modest urban homes in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, and any other American city that opened its gates to the Great Migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Most people are less familiar with today’s high-quality yet more affordable folk and lever harps, excepting again those who are part of the vibrant and ongoing Celtic harp renaissance. While such instruments are still not pocket change, they are much more within the realm of what today’s working-class musicians intent on investigating their Italian heritage can afford. Such makers include Blevins, Dusty Strings, Mountain Glen, Stoney End, and even the more upmarket Camac, Salvi, and Lyon & Healy, who in addition to their five-figure concert pedal harps also manufacture excellent folk and lever harps perfectly suited to southern Italian folk music. Musically speaking, these harps are exactly equivalent to the arpa viggianese, and I can personally vouch for my own Dusty Strings Ravenna-34 lever harp, a wonderful choice for affordable quality. Many of the costlier alternatives can be purchased used from the above listed makers, who often sell pre-owned harps through their websites. Local harp centers can also be located online, and many have rent-to-own programs to enable you to get started without too much pocketbook pain.

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