Triple Harp - History

History

The triple harp first originated in Italy, under the form of two rows of strings and later three, as the baroque harp (Italian: Arpa Doppia). It appeared in the British Isles early in the 17th century. In 1629, the French harpist Jean le Flelle was appointed ‘musician for the harp’ at the King's court. Flelle played the Italian triple harp with gut strings.

The triple harp was quickly adopted by the Welsh harpers living in London during the 17th century. It was so popular that by the beginning of the 18th century the triple harp was generally known as the "Welsh harp". Charles Evans was the first mentioned Welsh triple harpist. He was appointed harper to the court in 1660, where his official title was ‘His Majesty's harper for the Italian harp’. As late as the 1680s, Talbot was describing the triple harp as the English harp, and the Welsh harp he describes appears to be a large, diatonic gothic-style harp, with bray pins.

A description of the Welsh triple harp is given by the harpist John Parry (Bardd Alaw) (1776–1851) in the preface to the second volume of his collection, The Welsh Harper (London 1839):

The compass of the Triple Harp, in general, is about five octaves, or thirty-seven strings in the principal row, which is on the side played by the right hand, called the bass row. The middle row, which produces the flats and sharps, consists of thirty-four strings; and the treble, or left hand row, numbers twenty-seven strings. The outside rows are tuned in unison, and always in the diatonic scale, that is, in the regular and natural scale of tones and semitones, as a peal of eight bells is tuned. When it is necessary to change the key, for instance, from C to G, all the Fs in the outside rows are made sharp by raising them half a tone. Again, to change from C to F, every B in the outside rows is made flat, by lowering it a semitone. When an accidental sharp or flat is required, the performer inserts a finger between two of the outer strings, and finds it in the middle row. Many experiments have been made, with a view of obviating the necessity of tuning the instrument every time a change in the key occurred. Brass rings were fixed near the comb, but those rattled and jarred; in short, every attempt failed until the invention of the Pedals. …

The skill of harp making in Wales had all but been lost for some 60 years until John Weston Thomas (MBE), a talented wood and metal worker, revised the craft, making celtic, chromatic and triple harps until his death in 1992. A memorial prize, "Tlws Coffa John Weston Thomas" was subsequently instigated at the National Eisteddfod, to encourage competition in the traditional folk style. He passed on his skills to three apprentices: Allan Shiers, Brian Blackmore and Alun Thomas, his son. Alun still makes triple and celtic harps in his workshop just outside of Fishguard. Brian Blackmore also makes triple harps, whilst Allan Shiers went on to make concert harps and found Telynau Teifi Harps in Llandysul, Ceredigion.

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