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What Are the Different Kinds of Music for Harp?

By Peter Hann
Updated Feb 16, 2024
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The harp is an ancient instrument that once was small enough to be held and was used to accompany singing. Music for harp featured in performances of folk music and poetry in Wales and, in Ireland, the harp player was esteemed in traditional aristocratic circles. As some technical advances were made in the construction of the harp, it became more commonly used as an orchestral instrument. Different forms of the harp have been developed in varying sizes, and these feature in jazz, blues, modern folk and other musical genres, either as a part of an ensemble or as an accompaniment to vocal performances.

In the Baroque Period in Europe, music for harp featured in some concertos, notably George Frideric Handel’s Harp Concerto in B flat major. The instrument was incorporated in orchestras in the Classical Period and featured in the music of Franz Liszt and in operatic music in Italy. The sound of the harp is heard prominently at times in the ballet music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In the 20th century, Claude Debussy made use of music for harp in romantic pieces and the instrument also featured in the music of Maurice Ravel, most notably in the Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet.

The harp has frequently been used as an instrument in jazz ensembles and has been promoted by some well-known jazz harpists. A skilled harp player may improvise on the instrument, making use of its melodic and percussive qualities and its large range. Some classical harp gatherings also host jazz harp meetings and the development of instruments such as the electric harp has facilitated the use of music for harp in jazz and blues playing.

The smaller Celtic harp is often associated with folk music in Ireland. Great respect was given to harp players in ancient Ireland and Irish harp music developed its own rules of composition. This harp tradition was associated with the old Gaelic aristocracy rather than traditional Irish folk music and lost its prominence when the Irish aristocracy declined. The tradition was revived in the 20th century and produced notable harp players such as Derek Bell of the Chieftains. This 20th century revival led to some adaptation of the harp tradition to traditional Irish folk music that normally used other instruments.

Traditional music in Wales used the triple harp, which featured three rows of strings with separate strings for the semitones. Poetry was traditionally sung to the accompaniment of music for harp, with the combination of singer and harp serving to provide emphasis where required by the poetry. Traditional Welsh folk music was revived from the second half of the 20th century by groups such as Ar Log, which used a triple harp and knee harp together with guitar, flute, fiddle and bass.

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