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What Is a Triple Harp?

The triple harp is a mesmerizing instrument, boasting three rows of strings instead of one. Its rich, layered sound has enchanted audiences since the Renaissance. With a central row of semitones flanked by two diatonic outer rows, it offers a unique complexity that allows for intricate chromatic melodies. Curious about how this intricate design shapes its music? Let's delve deeper.
Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer

A stringed instrument that originated in Italy, the triple harp began to be played in the British Isles in the early 1700s. It was first brought to Wales, then to other regions later in the century. There are a total of 95 strings on the instrument, arranged into three rows, with 37 strings on the bass row, 34 strings on the middle row, and 27 on the treble row. The strings in the two outer rows are tuned together, while the third row consists of strings that are chromatically tuned separately from the first two rows. While other types of harps became popular in the 20th century, the triple harp is played by people who have kept the tradition going.

Players lean the triple harp on their left shoulder as they use it to make music. The left hand is used to play the treble notes on the harp. Bass notes are plucked with the right hand, and the instrument is capable of sounding five octaves in total. As with other stringed instruments, the technique for playing has to be mastered. One technique that harpists learn is to rapidly play corresponding notes on each outside row in unison, which produces the sound characteristic of the instrument.

The triple harp is also known as the Welsh triple harp, owing to its popularity in Wales.
The triple harp is also known as the Welsh triple harp, owing to its popularity in Wales.

The triple harp was introduced in North Whales in the late 1700s and notable musicians of the time helped to spread its influence, including Augusta Hall and John Parry. Carrying the instrument around on their backs because it was light enough, harp players brought the instrument to taverns and local fairs, so groups such as Methodists were against it and contributed to limiting its popularity. Traditional musicians revived the playing style and sound of the triple harp in the early 20th century, such as Nansi Rchards-Jones who took it on and taught others who passed on the skills to other players.

Since it became so well known in Wales, the instrument is commonly called the Welsh Triple Harp. Many old versions of it are preserved with the original craftsmanship. The harp was known to have been played in Wales even after other areas of Europe lost interest in it. In the 21st century, the tradition is maintained by experienced recording artists around the world, including in Wales and the United States, who use it to compose contemporary music. The triple harp has been used to record a variety of music on albums, by teachers in music schools, and by musicians in orchestras.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a triple harp and how does it differ from a regular harp?

A triple harp is a unique type of harp that features three rows of strings instead of the single row found on a regular harp. The two outer rows are tuned to the diatonic scale and are essentially duplicates of each other, while the middle row consists of chromatic notes, allowing the player to perform music in any key without changing the tuning of the instrument. This design provides a rich, full sound and enables complex chromatic music that would be difficult or impossible to play on a single-row harp.

Where did the triple harp originate, and what is its historical significance?

The triple harp originated in Italy in the 16th century but gained popularity in Wales in the 17th century, where it became a national symbol. It played a significant role in Welsh music and culture, often used in homes, at public events, and in the court. The triple harp's ability to play intricate baroque music made it a favorite among harpists until the pedal harp gained prominence in the 19th century.

How is the triple harp played?

Playing the triple harp requires a unique technique where the harpist reaches between the two outer rows of strings to pluck the chromatic middle row. This demands a high level of skill and dexterity. The player often uses the right hand for the treble strings and the left hand for the bass, crossing hands when necessary to access the chromatic notes. The complexity of this technique contributes to the triple harp's distinctive sound and the rich harmonies it can produce.

What types of music are best suited for the triple harp?

The triple harp is well-suited for a wide range of music, particularly pieces that require chromaticism and complex key changes, such as baroque and early classical music. Its rich, layered sound also lends itself beautifully to traditional Welsh music and folk tunes. Modern harpists may use the triple harp for contemporary compositions that seek to exploit its unique sound and the full range of chromatic possibilities it offers.

Are there any notable musicians or composers associated with the triple harp?

One of the most famous triple harpists was the Welsh musician John Parry (Bardd Alaw), who lived in the 18th century and was known for his virtuosity on the instrument. Composers like Handel and Domenico Scarlatti wrote music that could be played on the triple harp, taking advantage of its ability to handle complex musical passages. Today, there are a number of contemporary harpists who specialize in the triple harp, keeping the tradition alive and exploring new musical frontiers with the instrument.

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    • The triple harp is also known as the Welsh triple harp, owing to its popularity in Wales.
      By: sas
      The triple harp is also known as the Welsh triple harp, owing to its popularity in Wales.