The Golden Age of Spanish Harp

By Hurrell, Nancy | American Harp Journal, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Golden Age of Spanish Harp

Hurrell, Nancy, American Harp Journal

IN the history of the harp, there have been a few notable evolutionary moments when a new type of harp was created, increasing the capabilities and wider use of the instrument. The most obvious such moment was in the 18th century, when pedals were added to the hook harp, and the new single-action pedal harp was invented. With pedals, harpists could now play the popular music of the day, with its frequent accidentals and key changes. Paris became a Mecca for harp builders, composers, and players of the French harp.


Another less well-known evolutionary moment for the harp occurred two hundred years earlier, in 16th century Spain, Spain's 'Golden Age,' when a new type of harp generated another golden era of harp playing. In fact, the very first written music specified for harp comes from a Spanish source in the mid 1500s. At this time, the new, innovative chromatic harp being developed was the arpa de dos ordenes or 'harp of two orders.' It had two rows of strings crossing above the middle: a diatonic row (white notes on the keyboard) and a chromatic row (black notes). Thus, it was fully chromatic with a string for each note, perfectly idiomatic to Spanish music, with its rapidly shifting tonalities. The harp was considered one of the three main instruments in Spain, with the keyboard and vihuela (type of guitar). Harp production increased as the violeros, makers of string instruments in guilds, were now required to know how to craft an arpa de dos ordenes. (1) Treatises were written on harp playing, and books of music in a new tablature for harp were published. The Spanish harp was prominent in music of the church, court and theatre, its use declining in the mid 1750s. The surviving Spanish harp music reflects these contrasting genres: sublime polyphonic church music and exciting popular dance music, with fiery syncopated rhythms.

Harpists in Spain's Golden Age

The artistic flowering of Spain's Golden Age in the16th and 17th century included the paintings of El Greco and Velazquez, the literature of Cervantes and the vocal compositions of Victoria and Guerrero. In instrumental music, stunning pieces were written by Mudarra, Milan, Narvaez and Cabezon. The

Golden Age began during the reign of Charles V (1516-56), the Holy Roman Emperor whose vast Spanish empire included the Netherlands, Naples, and the colonies in the New World. Royal chapels in the various capitals provided work for musicians, and the royal entourage traveled from court to court, taking their musicians with them. The interaction of musicians from different countries resulted in a creative exchange of ideas, which was reflected in the music. With the Netherlands as part of the Spanish crown, Flemish musicians were at court, and a formidable Flemish influence on Spain's music was felt, especially in polyphonic church music, both vocal and instrumental. (2)

The Golden Age continued under the reign of Charles V's son, Philip II (1556-98), who was also a patron of the arts. He built the grand palace of El Escorial with its huge chapel and library, and he commissioned many religious works of art. (3) In daily life at court, members of the aristocracy played the harp for entertainment. Juana, Philip II's sister, had a 'household harpist,' and her ladies in waiting played harps. (4) For professional harpists, there were full-time positions in the churches, documented from the early 1600s. The royal chapel in Madrid maintained fulltime harpists for most of the 17th and early 18th centuries; at times, there were two harpists employed. The payments to about ten harpists employed at the chapel during the period show that the first harpist was Antonio Martinez (de Porras), whose name appeared in 1612, while the last harpist noted was Pedro Peralta, in 1736, at his death. The entry for harpist Juan Hidalgo is, "ca. 1631 (appointment)--1685 (death). (5) It's quite remarkable that Hidalgo was a fully employed harpist for fifty-four years! …

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