And with Orpheus’ Harp


R e p e r t o i r e     f o r     t h e     R e n a i s s a n c e     H a r p
c. 1 5 5 0 – c. 1 6 5 0


Whilst it is true that the harp had enjoyed great prestige as a musical instrument during the Middle Ages, it is also no less true that during the Renaissance, its pre-eminence in the world of music waned before the exuberance of instruments such as the lute, the vihuela or the keyboard instruments, which were perfectly adapted to the musical language of the times in that they were supremely capable of reproducing vocal polyphony in instrumental form. Thus, just at the time when instrumental music began its slow but steady road to independence from vocal music at the start of the 16th century -initially through the simple transcription of vocal polyphony but later including glosas or ornamentation, variation and the development of virtuosity based on popular and courtly dances- the harp, as mentioned previously, was relegated to the sidelines of these developments. Numerous 16th century theoreticians remarked on the technical deficiencies of the harp, highlighting this essentially diatonic instrument’s inability to tackle the chromaticism inherent in the art music of the times. Despite attempts to resolve this problem, these did not bear fruit until the eighth decade of the 16th century, when chromatic harps -also known as Baroque harps- were invented in Spain and Italy. With this, the problem was eradicated and the harp, now with two rows of strings, either cross-strung (Spain) or strung in parallel rows (Italy), was once again able to take its place among the elite of harmonic instruments.

Nevertheless, despite the widely recognised deficiencies of the diatonic harp, iconographic sources (paintings, engravings, sculptures and medallions) and writings of the time (documents and literary works) repeatedly depict the continued presence of the Renaissance harp, that is, the diatonic harp with one row of gut strings, in the music of the period and similarly, provide glimpses of the abiding social prestige of the instrument. Members of the nobility, or at the very least, individuals who had received a humanistic education, are shown plucking the strings with delight and strains reach us of verdant groves and riverbanks, of the court, the theatre or the lover’s retreat. Additionally, the iconography of the Renaissance harp observed the trends of the times, and together with the traditional mediaeval figure of King David, it depicted Arion, Orpheus and other musicians from Classical antiquity plucking the instrument. The title of this present piece of work is provided by a line taken from a poem written by the Marquis of Santillana (1398-1458), who, whilst predating a strictly chronological interpretation of the Renaissance period, was a clear literary precursor to the same, and his poem clearly illustrates how this iconographical phenomenon was repeated in literary works:

Up Calliope springs
and with the harp of Orpheus
your virtues sings,
lady of gracious loveliness;
that I would speak of but hold my peace
and my tongue does not make bold
to praise you as much as I should
seeing in you that which I witness.[i] 

Turning to the middle of the Renaissance and restricting myself to a brief overview of Castilian works of literature from the Spanish Golden Age, it can be seen in Los siete libros de la Diana by Jorge de Montemayor (1558) how Orpheus,

As the beautiful nymphs drew about him, he began to pluck a harp that he held in his hands very sweetly, and all who heard him were so transported that nobody remembered what had happened  […] Then, the enamoured Orpheus began to sing so sweetly to the strains of the harp that no words can describe it.  [ii] 

Or in one of the poems by Cristóbal Mosquera de Figueroa (1580), we see how Arion, who has escaped from the ship on the back of a dolphin, thus eluding robbery and a certain death,

[…] was laid on the sand
by the lithe and loving dolphin,
to the strains of a sweet harp .[iii]

And Calliope, reappearing in La Galatea (1585) by Miguel de Cervantes,

 […] took a harp that was beside her, that none had seen before, and on beginning to play, it seemed that the heavens lit up, and that the moon with new and unwonted radiance illuminated the earth; the trees, defying a soft zephyr which was blowing, held still their branches, and the eyes of all who were there did not dare lower their lids, so that in the brief moment it would have taken to lift them again, they were not deprived of the glory that they delighted in, on looking at the beauty of the nymph, even, all wished that their five senses could be converted into hearing alone: so strangely, so sweetly, so softly did the lovely muse play her harp .[iv] 

In the same work, we hear how Mireno, now a hermit following disappointment in love, lives alone and

to the strains of the harp I chose for my companion in my solitude, I endeavour to assuage the heavy burden of my cares, until heaven gathers them up and remembers to call me to a better life. 

Lastly, and in a more worldly setting, we read in Desengaños amorosos (1647) by María de Zayas:

It is readily understood that, as her parents were noble and rich, they raised her and educated her well, teaching her all the desirable practices and arts, for in addition to the household skills of needlework, embroidery and all the others that a woman should know in order to keep her occupied, were reading and writing, playing and singing to the harp, in which she was so extraordinary, that heard without being seen, she appeared an angel, and when seen and heard together, a seraphim .[v]

Given these two, apparently contradictory realities -the partial inadequacy of the Renaissance harp to produce all the chromatic notes and the continued existence of the instrument in the music of the period- the question inevitably arises, what musical repertoire was played on the Renaissance harp? The previously cited text by Montemayor offers two possible answers, namely, the use of the harp as an accompaniment to singing and the use of the harp for producing purely instrumental music. The first possibility, besides being the predominant image in the multitude of literary texts in which the harp appears, would not have posed insurmountable difficulties for the instrument, since although this harp was not capable of producing all the chromatic notes, as an accompaniment such notes could be omitted in order to focus on the harmonic structure accompanying the voice. It is the second possibility which, in principle, would have presented greater difficulties, due to the characteristics or deficiencies of the instrument. Thus, what instrumental music was performed with the Renaissance harp?

In order to respond to this question, I should first clarify several points which will shed light on with the final answer.  Firstly, it is can be seen that in the period spanning 1550 to 1650, by far the greater part of soloist, instrumental music was written for keyboard instruments or for the lute and the vihuela. In other words, it was written for harmonic instruments which were perfectly adapted, technically speaking, to the music of the times. Consequently, it was these instruments which were most frequently used for art music and, in turn, which offered most professional potential. Accordingly, the instrumental music in greatest demand was that written for keyboard instruments or the lute/vihuela, and this was also the music that presented less commercial risk in terms of printing. This would explain why there were comparatively few harpists, and why there is a practical dearth of manuscripts or printed matter with music written specifically for the Renaissance harp. We should not be mislead by the fact that various Spanish instrumental publications prior to 1580, that is, prior to the invention of the cross-strung chromatic harp, indicate for the keyboards, harp or vihuela in their titles: the presence of the word harp in these titles responds more to a commercial strategy than to the possibility of playing this music as it is written with a Renaissance harp, at least in the majority of cases. Which leads me on to the second point. If, by definition, the Renaissance harp was a diatonic harp, in other words, that its strings would produce the seven natural notes of the scale but not the other five chromatic notes, it is clear that a more precise definition should include the subtle distinction of partially chromatic. Indeed, there are two mechanisms, well documented at the time, by which the Renaissance harp’s diatonism could be partially overcome, with the evident aim of extending its repertoire beyond simple popular or courtly dances to enter the realm of purely instrumental forms –toccatas and fancies– or the same dances in their more artistic form using variations and virtuosities. I refer, firstly, to scordatura, or the technique of tuning, prior to performance, one or various strings to the chromatically altered notes, that is, those notes beyond the instrument’s natural scale which appear in the work in question, which will be used during the performance.

The other technique, already mentioned by Alonso Mudarra and by Juan Bermudo in his Declaracion de instrumentos musicales (1555), was named after Ludovico, harpist at the court of  Ferdinand the Catholic, and consisted in obtaining semi-tones, that is, the accidental notes required whilst performing the work, by holding the index finger or thumb of the left hand at the head of the harp and pressing the string against the wood in such a way that when plucking the string with the right hand, a semi-tone is produced. It was to this end, naturally, that the design of Renaissance harps left a sufficiently large space at the head of the harp to be able to press the strings, a task which was also facilitated by the lesser tension of the strings compared to modern harps. An expert in this technique, as explained in the introduction to Compendio numeroso by Diego Fernández de Huete (1702), would be able to press the string with the index finger of the left hand whilst plucking with the middle finger of the same hand.[vi] Both of the techniques used with the Renaissance harp, or harp de una ordenscordatura or semi-tones “in the style of Ludovico”,  are also cited in the work of Pablo Nassarre,  Escuela Musica  (1724).[vii]

Having examined these two techniques, which rendered the Renaissance harp partially chromatic, an examination of the historical development of instrumental musical over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries is now indicated in order to clarify the third point. Towards the end of the 16th century and continuing throughout the 17th century, a relative simplification of counterpoint can be seen, with increasingly greater emphasis being given to the melody and bass notes in accordance with the driving force behind Baroque aesthetics: the expression of the sentiments. Thus, if the 16th century can be defined as the century of classical polyphony, or what amounts to the same, by the use of various voices together without, ideally, any one of them attaining pre-eminence over the others, then the 17th century witnessed the triumph of the  higher voice and thorough-bass, whilst intermediate voices were relegated to the background. As a direct consequence of this development in instrumental music, the Renaissance harp stood its ground throughout the 17th century and, with the use of the two techniques mentioned above, both its repertoire and its very presence in music at the time were considerably extended. Thus, if we consult the Renaissance harp repertoire of 16th and 17th century Spanish music, we can see that with the exception of Mudarra’s Tiento IX para harpa u organo,which was perhaps the first composition to be printed for the harp in a European context, little of the sophisticated 16th century repertoire for the vihuela could be performed with a Renaissance harp without doing violence to the original scores, whereas in the following century, the repertoire had expanded significantly if we consider the works that, in the second half of the century, were written and printed for the harp.  Indeed, in the most important of these publications, the Compendio numeroso de Zifras armonicas para Harpa de una orden, de dos ordenes, y de organo (1702, 1704) by the harpist Diego Fernández de Huete, those works which were suitable for performing with a Renaissance harp, or harp de una orden, were specified at the beginning of the book, and numerous other pieces, written in principle for the Baroque harp or harp de dos ordenes, could also be played by employing one of the two techniques mentioned above.

Finally, and before returning to my initial question, the transference of repertoires should be addressed briefly, in other words, the use of a specific musical work for different kinds of instruments. This is a common and well-known phenomenon in the history of instrumental music whereby, either because of it is more advanced than other instruments in terms of finding its own musical “language”, or because it is more widely played and thus is more important, a particular instrument exerts more influence as regards repertoire or instrumental technique than others which are less developed or less widely played. These two conditions can be observed in the case of the most influential instrument of the period discussed here, the lute. Thus, for example, the brisè style of French lutanists was adopted by French composers for the harpsichord, whilst as regards repertoire, German harpsichord players at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries adapted works from the French lute repertoire to their own instrument due to the lack, in their own country, of works written for the harpsichord in the highly regarded French style.[viii] Furthermore, in keeping with a common practice of the period, composers frequently did not specify the instrument for which their music was composed, leaving open the choice of instrument to use. At the same time, it was habitual for a composer or editor to suggest in the title of the work the range of instruments for which it was suitable.

This transference to another instrument, or borrowing, of the musical repertoire initially written for one specific instrument was obviously facilitated by similarity in technique or sound between the original instrument and the recipient. This is evident in the case of the harp, the lute and the vihuela: in contrast to the keyboard instruments, these harmonic instruments all possessed an acknowledged dynamic quality, but what really set them apart both in terms of technique and timbre, was the fact of producing music through direct contact between the fingers and the very fabric of the instrument, the gut strings.  Naturally, each instrument had its own virtues and sins, and in this vein it would perhaps be interesting to cite a comment made about the harp by the French encyclopaedia writers, François Merlin and Jacques Cellier in their work Recherches de Plusieurs Singularités, towards the end of the 16th century. These authors felt that the harp was preferable to either the lute or the harpsichord because, in contrast to the lute, each note on the harp is emitted with the string vibrating freely in the air and thus the full impact of the note reaches the listener, whilst in contrast to the harpsichord, each note can be plucked in an infinite variety of ways, rendering it possible to achieve many variations in tone colour.[ix]

Taking all the above clarifications and considerations into account, it is now possible to turn at last to the initial question concerning the nature of the instrumental music performed with the Renaissance harp. In my opinion, it would appear evident that the soloist repertoire for the harp basically drew from the repertoire for the lute. As has been mentioned, the number of professional or even amateur harpists was considerably less than that of lutanists or vihuela players. This fact alone would suffice to explain the almost total absence in Europe of publications or manuscripts containing music for the Renaissance harp throughout the period 1550 to 1650. On the other hand, the similarity between the harp and the lute in sound and technique, combined with the fact that a vast quantity of printed and manuscript music was being written for the lute since it was the most played and most prestigious instrument, would appear to support the argument that harpists took part of their instrumental repertoire directly from that written for the lute and performed these works with the help of the chromatic techniques described above, if necessary, and where these did not suffice, adapted the work to the harp. As we have seen, this process of transference was gradually fostered by developments in instrumental music itself throughout the period. Furthermore, it is apparent that these two instruments shared a common repertoire, a ubiquitous, unattributed repertoire specific to the period and the context which was taken and adapted freely for use with each particular instrument.

The repertoire for the lute and the vihuela was not unaffected by this widespread phenomenon of repertoire borrowing, and thus it can be seen how, at the inception of instrumental music, direct transcription of vocal polyphony formed the basis for later developments. Similarly, there are few examples of a direct rupture with the common and widespread custom of transferring music written for the lute to the harp, and vice versa: Scottish manuscripts from the first half of the 17th century containing music written for the lute often include pieces originally written for the harp which lutanists adapted for their own instrument, undoubtedly influenced by the prestige and presence of the harp in Scottish music until the 16th century. [x]  Furthermore, in the English manuscript known as the Reymes Lute ms., which contains pieces written for the lute, mainly of French origin, there are also four pieces composed by Jean la Flelle, a French harpist who held the post of chamber musician at the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. It would appear that he himself played the single row harp in the royal masque, The Temple of Love (1635), in the role of Orpheus “calming the seas with his harp” from a small boat.[xi]

If any doubt remained concerning the origin of the basic repertoire of the Renaissance harp, in his chapter on harps in his well-known treatise Harmonie Universelle (1636-1637), the French music theoretician Marin Mersenne clearly stated that “as for those pieces which are played upon the harp, these are in no way different from those played on the lute and the spinet”.[xii]


Given all the above, in the present recording I have tried to offer a wide selection from among the possibilities offered by the historical European repertoire for the Renaissance harp. The majority of these works come from printed collections or manuscripts written for the lute or vihuela, and are of French, Italian or English origin in the case of the former instrument, Spanish in the case of the latter.  In addition to these, I have included the few original pieces still extant which were written for the harp during the period 1550 to 1650: the Tiento IX para harpa u organo by Mudarra and two untitled pieces by Jean la Flelle.

In playing these pieces, I have used the historical techniques –scordatura and semi-tones in the style of Ludovico– which, as explained previously, extended the chromatism, and consequently the repertoire of the instrument. In addition to these, I have used selective damping, a technique which consists of damping those sounds, especially the bass notes of the Renaissance harp, which are discordant and outside the harmonic range of the following notes. This is achieved by plucking the same string twice: the first time to produce the desired note, and the second time, if this is discordant with the next note, to thoroughly dampen it either with the same finger or another. If this is not done, and this is one of the “drawbacks” of the harp as an instrument, the different sounds and harmonies become superimposed, building up and clouding the musical discourse. This technique was documented in the Tratado de la Música (Madrid, 1634) written by Bartolomé Jobernardi,[xiii] an Italian harpist in the royal chapel of the court of Philip IV of Spain, but was undoubtedly employed, at least by professional harpists, prior to the appearance of this text. Lastly, I have used meantone tuning as indicated in numerous sources from the period, including Huete and Nassarre.

With the exception of some dances inspired by popular music, such as La Chacona by Nicolas Vallet, the recording predominantly consists of relatively evolved courtly dances, which is to say that the music is comparatively independent of its original function –dance– and can be located in the context of the purely aural, based on virtuosity and variations.  Emerging from the direct transcription of vocal polyphony or simple dances, this general historical evolution of instrumental music can be observed in the five Spanish pieces: Callen todas las galanas is a transcription of a vocal piece for three voices; the Pavana by Milán and the Pavanilla are courtly dances; the Glossa by Fuenllana is a free adaptation of another piece, and lastly, as with the Praeambulum by Dowland, the Tiento IXby Mudarra, is an example of a purely instrumental form. As we know, all this music was in turn enriched by improvised additions as the musicians played ex tempore, giving free rein to their creativity. Following this practice, I have taken the liberty of extending some of the originals in pieces such as Pavanne by Attaingnant, Bergamasca by van den Hove, the first of the pieces by Jean la Flelle and the unattributed pieces Courante, Branle Hoboken and Daphne.


In addition to what has been our subject thus far, the Renaissance harp, another type of diatonic harp was in use in courtly and aristocratic circles in some parts of Europe. I refer to the Early Irish and Scottish wire-strung harps, originally called the cláirseach and clàrsach in the respective Gaelic dialects of these countries. These instruments, the origins of which can be traced back to the 11th century, were highly esteemed within the Gaelic culture common to both countries, and during the Middle Ages and part of the Modern Era constituted the preferred musical instrument of the aristocracy, as well as providing essential musical ornamentation in the hands of professional harpists when accompanying bardic poetry.

However, in the period spanning 1550 to 1650, this instrument witnessed a process of geographical and musical expansion, undergoing adaptation to the court music of the times in its new destinations. Both phenomena stemmed from the process of English reconquest and colonisation throughout the 16th century to which Ireland was subjected. Although the conquerors held any artistic endeavour on the part of the conquered in contempt, they were nevertheless so seduced by the sonority of this instrument that, particularly between 1590 and 1630, it became the fashionable instrument of the moment in aristocratic circles and the English court. Thus, in the hands of the Irish harpist Cormac MacDermott the Irish harpe made its first appearance as part of the Royal Musick in 1603,whilst in 1607, the harpist Daniel Duff O’Cahill joined Queen Anne’s private musicians, and the harp continued to form part of this group under her successor, Henrietta Maria.[xiv] There was a further influx of the harp into England when the Scottish king James VI acceded to the English throne in 1603 following the death without heirs of Queen Elizabeth I. Together with the king, many members of the Scottish court and aristocracy relocated to London, together with the professional harpists in his service. The harp, newly adapted to court music, also had a presence in other European courts, especially the Danish court of Christian IV, where the Irish harpist Darby Scott was to be found between 1621 and 1634, but also in the Polish court and some smaller German courts.

Another important factor in the spread of the harp, in this case presumably without any change to the traditional repertoire, was the exile into which part of the Irish nobility was forced, especially following the Irish defeat at the Battle of Kinsale (1603). As was clearly the case for written bardic poetry on the continent, it is highly probable that harpists in the service of these nobles would have continued to perform mainly art music from their native tradition in those parts of Catholic Europe where they settled. At the same time, however, in Ireland itself some of the Anglo-Irish nobility, such as Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork, established small musical circles in the style of the English and Continental courts.[xv] A fragment –the head, with two parallel rows of pins– of a harp built within this context, in 1621, clearly indicates the existence of a type of Irish chromatic harp, although the precise nature of its structure remains unknown.

A direct consequence of the geographical and musical expansion of this instrument was its inclusion as the subject of study in important musical treatises of the period: the Dialogo della Musica Antica et Moderna (1581) by Vicenzo Galilei, the Syntagma Musicum (1619) by Michael Praetorius, in which an engraving of a harp appears, and the work of Francis Bacon Sylva Sylvarum (1627). In the latter, the section discussing acoustic experiments extolled the tonal virtues of the Irish harpe, its clear and prolonged sound.

Of the harpists who adapted the court music of the times, the Irish harpist Cormac Mac Dermott (?-1618) stands out. In addition to being a musician at the English court from 1603, he was also the private harpist of the Secretary for State, Robert Cecil, from 1597.[xvi] Some of his work has been preserved in manuscript form, in particular, the Filmer ms. 4 (Yale Music Library), with music for a viola ensemble. Sadly, no source containing music specifically written for the harp remains; the piece which is included in the recording entitled Mr. Cormacke Allman is an adaptation for the harp of the original three viola ensemble parts. In addition to this piece, the recording includes other works written by MacDermott’s musical colleagues in the Royal Musick of the court of James I -Thomas Lupo and Alfonso Ferrabosco– together with others from the general period, with the aim of providing a taste of the sonority of the Early Irish and Scottish harps in their new capacity as court instruments.

J a v i e r    S á i n z    [ 2 0 1 1 ]



[i] Marqués de Santillana, Obras completas, ed. Manuel Durán, Madrid, Castalia, 1984.
A few other mediaeval antecedents exist which present the figure of Orpheus as a harpist, most notably the lay or mediaeval English poem Sir Orfeo.
[ii] Jorge de Montemayor, Los siete libros de la Diana, ed, Enrique Moreno Báez, Madrid, Editora Nacional, 1981.
[iii] Cristóbal Mosquera de Figueroa, Obras, ed. Guillermo Díaz-Plaja, Madrid, Real Academia Española, 1955.
[iv] Miguel de Cervantes, La Galatea, ed. Luis Carlos Viada y Lluch, Barcelona, E. Domenech, 1916.
[v] María de Zayas, Desengaños amorosos, ed. Alicia Yllera, Madrid, Cátedra, 1983.
[vi] ‘se haze poniendo el dedo indize debaxo de la cuerda que tuviere sostenido […] y se pone el dedo pegado a la cabeça del Harpa, y se aprieta un poquito para hazer el Sustenido; y el dedo largo ha de estar algo mas baxo, para que suene quando la toque, porque si está junto a el dedo que haze el Sustenido, no sonará.’ [Part One, Chapter III, page 6]
Diego Fernández de Huete, Compendio numeroso de zifras armonicas, con theorica, y practica, para harpa de una orden, de dos ordenes, y de organo, Madrid, 1702.
[vii] ‘aunque era preciso, que los puntos accidentales, como bemol y sustenidos, por cada tono se supliessen, echandolos fuera, o violentando la cuerda con la uña, o poniendo una cuerda en el tono, sin tocar sus octavas.’ [Vol. I, Book III, Chapter XIX, page 343]
Pablo Nassarre, Escuela música según la práctica moderna, Zaragoza, 1724.
[viii] David Ledbetter, Unaccompanied Bach, Yale University Press, 2009.
[ix] Jeremy Montagu, Instruments, in Companion to Baroque Music, ed. Julie Anne Sadie, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1990.
[x] Javier Sáinz, Silva Caledonia: Scottish Harp Music of the 17th Century,, 2008.
[xi] Peter Holman, The Harp in Stuart England, Early Music, May 1987.
[xii] ‘Quant aux pieces qui se iouent sur la Harpe, elle ne sont point differentes de celles    qui se iouent sur le Luth & sur l’Epinette.’ [Livre III, proposition XXIV]
Marin Mersenne, Harmonie Universelle, 1636-7.
[xiii] ‘Cualquier cuerda que se toque con un poco de fuerza es necesario tocarla con un dedo y con el otro ir matando el eco que deja la cuerda tocada. Si, por ejemplo, en cualquier otro instrumento vienen a ser 32 notas por compás, en esta forma será necesario que la mano toque con doble velocidad, y en el mismo tiempo 64 veces, con la seguridad de que para el que oiga el efecto, será bien empleado el trabajo.’
Bartolomé Jobernardi, Tratado de la Música, Madrid, 1636. Biblioteca Nacional, ms. 8931.
[xiv] Seán Donnelly, The Irish harp in England, 1590-1690, Ceol VII, 1984.
[xv] Seán Donnelly, A Cork Musician at the Early Stuart Court: Daniel Duff O’Cahill (c.1580-c.1660), ‘The Queen’s Harper’, JCHAS, Vol.105, 2001.
[xvi] Seán Donnelly, An Irish harper and composer. Cormac MacDermott (?-1618), Ceol VIII, 1986.
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