Single-Action Harp – making Sensibility of the Méthodes

diderot 1769

The late 18th century tends to be where modern harpists and Early Music first connect. But how did the original players of the single-action harp think and feel about this new instrument and the fashionable music they played on it? Of course, the instrument itself is different from its modern descendant – smaller, more lightly strung, and with different chromatic possibilities – so we can expect differences in technique and interpretation too.

But how appropriate is that modern dialectic of ‘technique’ and ‘interpretation’ anyway? Rather than looking backwards into the past, can we find a way to view the instrument in the context of its own time? Can we share the original players’ contemporary perspective, the musical heritage of the 17th century, and the new developments of the mid-18th?

Mike Parker’s Child of Pure Harmony (2006) is a concise, but very useful introduction, looking back over the development of the instrument. His survey of technique covers the playing position, left-hand ‘bracing’ (where non-playing fingers rest on the strings to support the hand),  and certain harp-specific special effects: harmonics, sons étouffés and the use of the swell pedal. Mary Oleskiewicz’s Preface to her (2008) edition of the CPE Bach Sonata sets the scene in Berlin in 1762, where the new French pedal harp co-existed alongside the older Italian triple-harp. The present brief essay explores modes of thought during the first golden age of the pedal harp, from the 1760s to the French Revolution, focussing on France itself.

Les goûts réunis

To ensure that our gaze follows the arrow of time in the right direction, let’s approach the 18th century from the late 17th, via the music of Corelli, Lully, Purcell and the young Johann Sebastian Bach. The aesthetics of the 17th century were discussed in terms of differing, even opposing, national styles: Italian and French. Italian violin-playing was dramatic, virtuosic, characterised by slow, sonorous bow-strokes in long notes and rapid passage-work in allegros. French violin-music danced lightly and elegantly, with a lot of ornamentation, but in strict rhythm, vrai mouvement. In this airy style, the very short French bow skips like a dancer’s feet, often lifting of the string, but always landing gently.

The poet John Dryden described Henry Purcell’s music as structured on the Italian model counterpoint, ‘which is its best Master’, but played in the French style, ‘to give it somewhat more of gaiety and fashion’. Bach wrote an Italian Concerto and French Suites, but was most at home in the highly conservative, intensely polyphonic German style. In Hamburg, Georg Philipp Telemann (who described himself as le grand partisan de la musique Française) was at the cutting edge of musical fashion with his music ‘for a mixed taste’, combining elements of French and Italian styles within the same work.

The concept of ‘re-uniting the tastes’ became the cornerstone of the three great mid-18th-century Essays, each dedicated to the ‘true art of playing’ a particular instrument: Quantz (1752) for the flute, C.P.E Bach (1753) for keyboards and Leopold Mozart’s Violinschule (1756). Violinists are asked to combine the slow, sustained bow-stroke of Italian cantabile with the airy flight of French dances, the virtuosity of Italian sonatas with the graceful ornamentation of French airs. Keyboard-players and flautists receive similar instructions in the idiom of their instruments. All three Essays are remarkably consistent in their characterisation of the German fashion for ‘mixed taste’, and are a vital source for 18th-century performance practice.

CPE Bach Adolph_Menzel_-_Flötenkonzert_Friedrichs_des_Großen_in_Sanssouci

C.P.E Bach at the harpischord accompanies Frederick the Great in a flute concerto at Sanssouci Palace, whilst Quantz (far right) listens.


The Essays breathe the spirit of Empfindsamkeit – sensitivity, sensibility – a recently-invented term (taken from contemporary literature) that perfectly describes the aesthetic of the period. Quantz shows how sensitively musicians responded to the particular degree of tension and release in each dissonance and resolution. And, as C.P.E. Bach explains, it is the musician’s sensibility that invites in turn the audience’s sensitive response.

Certainly I recommend the three Essays to any harpist interested in the C.P.E.Bach Sonata, the Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp, or any repertoire of this period. But the very pre-eminence of these three German-language treatises tends to distract attention from the continuing importance of each national style, Italian or French, un-mixed, especially in its own country.  

French violins were smaller than Italian instruments, and had lighter strings. But those shorter, more delicate strings were tuned even lower than in Italy, so the string tension was much, much less. Comparing Italian and French orchestras, one writer thought that the French violins were broken, they seemed so quiet; whereas Italian players seemed about to break their instruments with the thunder of their fortissimo! French makers reformed the wind instruments too, making them quieter and more delicate, to suit the French taste for subtlety and elegance.

It is this world of delicacy, elegant subtlety and quiet nobility that the French harp inhabits. Its rich sonority is coaxed from low-tension strings at a very low, French pitch, and these light strings also respond with sparkling brilliance to the many ornaments typical of this style. And within the international aesthetic of Empfindsamkeit, the French style tended particularly towards subtlety, grace and charm, rather than to the drama of Sturm und Drang. Cousineau’s ideal harp-sound is moelleux et franc, ‘gentle and clear’.

Low French Pitch

Harp-maker Beat Wolf’s excellent website here includes – amongst a treasure-trove of fascinating information – a time-line giving various sample pitches in late-18th century France. There is of course considerable variation amongst them, but they are all low: A379 (1766), A409 (1783), A396 (1789). This contrasts to typical London and Vienna pitch around A420. See Bruce Haynes History of Performing Pitch: The story of “ A” (2002) for lots more pitch information.

For modern use, convenient equivalents would be A415 (London, Vienna etc) for most 18th-century music, but A392 (a tone below A440) for music from France, including the Mozart Concerto. In private correspondence, Beat Wolf tells me that the string-lengths on most 18th-century harps are simply too long for today’s so-called “classical pitch” of A430 (derived from early 19th-century information) , let alone modern A440.

Cousineau warns against the ugliness of wide thirds (i.e. against Equal Temperament), which he considers ‘too strong and harsh on the ear’. The remedy is to narrow the fifths, as in one or other variety of Meantone. Although the exquisite clarity of quarter-comma Meantone is ideal for 17th-century music and Italian or German repertoires, sixth-comma gives a rounder, smoother sound that is in keeping with the 18th-century French aesthetic. Measurements of original instruments are consistent with the period use of sixth-comma Meantone, although one should perhaps be cautious about the margin of error for such fine measurements on 200-year-old mechanisms.

All the temperaments discussed here (and many more too) are built into the excellent ClearTune app for smart-phones. I recommend A392 and sixth-comma Meantone for French 18th-century harp. 

Meyer title page001

Méthodes de harpe

We are fortunate in having a large selection of late 18th-century French harp Methods to study, many of them published in facsimile by Fuzeau Productions, here.

Most of these French Methods are directed at beginners, but even so they are remarkably parallel to the sophisticated German-language Essays of the 1750s. Even the title of the earliest example, Meyer (1763), follows C.P.E. Bach’s lead: Essay on the True Manner of Playing the Harp.  Whereas today’s musicians often make a distinction between Technique and Interpretation, the Essays and Methods teach a technique that builds-in many elements of ‘good delivery’: period technique goes a long way towards creating a historical ‘interpretation’.

It is taken for granted in this period that music is played in time, with the rhythm organised by a long slow pulse. (See Andrew Lawrence-King Rhythm – what really counts here) Leopold Mozart’s instructs violinists to ‘play the whole piece in one suitable and unchanging tempo’ – Das ganze Stück in einem rechten und gleichen Tempo hinauszubringen. If there is any artistic variation in tempo, it is not the general rubato that we know from the 19th and 20th centuries. Rather, the soloist may take some liberties whilst the accompaniment continues in measured rhythm. And even this should not be overdone, as Leopold Mozart and the Contesse de Genlis agree. ‘Why play out of time’, asks Genlis – ‘one might as well play out of tune!’

Since the time is counted steadily, with the slow Tactus beat, we must look elsewhere for the subtle variations and changes of Empfindsamkeit. In place of modern rubato, we must awaken our Sensibility to other performance variables. Here again, the Essays and Methods are in agreement, with a high priority given to the subtle patternings produced by particular fingering-systems.

Fingering for harps and keyboard instruments corresponds to bowing patterns for violin, or tonguing patterns for flute: all these are techniques for creating variations in the attack-characteristics of an individual note, or in the joins and separations between one note and the next. This is what Early Musicians mean by ‘articulation’: the way that notes start and stop, join and separate, just as articulate speech is started and stopped by vowels and consonants, joined and separated into words.

17th-century fingering, bowing and tonguing systems are characterised by Good and Bad notes, corresponding to the Good and Bad (accented and un-accented) syllables of poetry. For the harp, Good and Bad notes are played respectively by Good and Bad fingers – scale patterns typically alternate Good and Bad. This survives in some 18th-century Methods, which recommend 123232 etc for descending scales.

The Essays also assume that the principle of Good and Bad notes will still be observed – Leopold Mozart asks for alternating degrees of bow pressure, when several notes are played in one bow stroke. Quantz gives alternating tonguing patterns, creating the sound of ‘diddle diddle dee’. But one of the characteristics of Empfindsamkeit subtlety is a growing interest in more complex, elegantly varied bowing and slurring patterns. A variety of bow-strokes, writes Leopold, ‘brings the notes to life’. This is reflected in the Methods with a new approach to fingering for the 18th-century harp.

Just as with Leopold Mozart’s instructions for bowing, harpists must still maintain the correct hierarchy of Good and Bad notes, but now by sensitive control of finger-pressure, instead of by alternating fingerings. Meanwhile, Leopold’s varied bowings are paralleled by varied fingerings, linking notes into ‘groups’ not only of two or three notes (as was typical for the alternating fingerings of the 17th-century) but also of four, five or up to eight notes. The varying note-count in each group corresponds to the varying number of notes within each bow-stroke of Leopold’s violin-style.

The clearest explanation of this concept is in the Method by Cousineau (1784). A pair of notes will be played with 2 fingers: 2 1 ascending, 1 2 descending. Three notes will require three fingers, 3 2 1 or 1 2 3. Four notes require four fingers 4 3 2 1 or 1 2 3 4. So far, so obvious- though these simple groupings should be practised carefully to maintain sensitivity to, and control of the hierarchy of Good and Bad notes within each group of notes.

A group of five notes will be fingered 4 3 2 1 1 ascending, and 1 1 2 3 4 descending. The ‘rule of thumb’ (no pun intended!) for groups of more than four notes is to have the full sequence of four fingers at the bottom end of the group, whether ascending or descending.

For a group of six notes, there are two possibilities, depending on whether the notes go two by two, or three by three. Two by two (for example, quavers in 3/4  time) 4 3 2 1 2 1 ascending and 1 2 1 2 3 4 descending. Three by three (for example, quavers in 6/8 time) 3 2 1 3 2 1 ascending, and 1 2 3 1 2 3 descending. Applying the appropriate fingering produces the required phrasing: in this historical style, ‘technique’ and ‘interpretation’ are completely interdependent.

For a group of seven notes: 4 3 2 1 3 2 1 ascending, and 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 descending. And eight notes (no surprises here): 4 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 ascending and 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 descending. But don’t forget the (more old-fashioned) option of descending with 1 2 3 2 3 2 3 2 alternating.

Introduction to Single Action Harp

The Method by that great writer, pedagogue and independent spirit, Stéphanie, Comtesse de Genlis (1811) is worth special attention, for it is aimed not at amateur beginners but at the serious student intent on an international-level career. She advocates systematic and persistent practice of fingering patterns (what we would now understand as the ‘ten-thousand hour rule’ for mastery of elite skills), use of all five fingers, and a virtuosic level of finger-control for both passage-work and trills (indeed, for both at once, in the same hand).

Some modern players dismiss her Method as ‘eccentric’, because of her advocacy of 5-finger technique. But her contemporary reputation as an expert in child pedagogy and her remarkable survival as a highly independent woman throughout all the upheavals of the French Revolution show she was a force to be reckoned with. And the charge of ‘eccentricity’ depends on a spurious and circular argument: don’t trust Genlis’ 5-finger technique because she was mad! How do we know she was mad? Well, she used 5-finger technique!

Taking Genlis therefore not as ‘eccentric’ but rather as an idiosyncratic source of information for elite-level performers, it’s worth considering her advice on how to manage the position change, say within a group of eight notes ascending:  4 3 2 1  – position change – 4 3 2 1. Methods for elementary students advise changing position by crossing the fingers underneath the thumb, placing finger 4 for the fifth note before playing the fourth note with the thumb 1.  Genlis recognises this elementary technique, but recommends advanced students rather to jump the hand – the interruption in the flow will disappear with assiduous practice.

Le Grand Principe

Cousineau and other Method-writers emphasise placing in advance all the fingers needed for a group of notes. This corresponds to Leopold Mozart’s emphasis on smooth bowing and Francois Couperin’s subtly delicate French harpsichord fingerings. Cousineau puts this simply and memorably as his Great Principle, La main ne soit jamais obligée de faire de grands mouvements et se trouve toujours placée commodement.

Cousineau also recommends small movements of the fingers, keeping them close to the strings as the finger-stroke ends, as the technical preparation for high-velocity passage-work. This contrasts to the modern tendency to snap the fingers all the way, whenever possible.

My personal experience with low-tension strings is that a full finger-stroke is helpful for slow, sustained notes, but with a very slow finger-movement, keeping the hand still. 18th-century Methods tell the player not to rest the right hand on the instrument, but wear-marks on surviving instruments show that this particular piece of advice was often ignored: the baroque position with the hands resting on the instrument was common also amongst 18th-century pedal harpists. And note that before you play your long note, Cousineau would have you prepare the next finger on the next string – this also requires the hand to be kept still. All that contrasts with the modern tendency to play long notes by floating the whole hand outwards and upwards like angel wings.

To summarise Cousineau’s Great Principle and other advice:

Keep your hand still until you have to move it, then move it only as much as necessary.

So here is the starting-point for any harpist wishing to acquire late-18th-century Empfindsamkeit:

  • Play in time
  • Develop your Sensitivity to, and control of the hierarchy of Good and Bad notes
  • Create the sound of Sensibility with the melodic finger-patterns from the Methods.

Subsequent chapters in the Essays and the Methods alike concern Ornamentation, Good Delivery, Preluding and Accompaniment – but all that must wait for further chapters of this essay too.


The young daughter of the Duc of Orleans studies harp with Madame Genlis, whose adopted daughter, la belle Pamela, turns the pages. Read more here

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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

You can study Early Harps with Andrew Lawrence-King at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London;  and at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen.

A free History of the Harp poster can be downloaded here.

On the recording Amor ist mein Lied (with Laurence Dean, 18th-century flute), Andrew plays one of Beat Wolf’s modern copies of a Louis XVI harp. Preview here.

Amor ist mein Lied CD


3 thoughts on “Single-Action Harp – making Sensibility of the Méthodes

  1. Pingback: Text, Rhythm, Action! Research, Training & Performance | Andrew Lawrence-King

  2. You are not addressing one of the most-important questions, which is how to use dynamics. Keyboard music has only piano or forte in most cases, and baroque music is certainly described as concerned with contrasting sections as an expression of balance of form. That would suggest no crescendi or diminuendi. But the harp is not limited as is an organ or harpsichord. But what we play is just as unlimited by what is written as for keyboardists. The presence of a melody line and a bass line in CPE Bach’s sonate or solo only calls for completion of the given harmony, and the addition of inner voices to carry out the harmonic movement, texture, and complexity of this great work, as I have done in my recent edition. Furthermore, rather than vary the ornamentation which is so precise and difficult, I chose to vary the voicing and even some of the harmony on the repeats, which really makes it difficult! The edition you quoted is highly dubious, as it is issued as if it would have been played the melody line only on the harp with an accompanying bass instrument. I can think of no justification for this, and it will be very misleading. It is most interesting to know that as early as the 18th century, harpists called for arms free of the side of the harp, a position Salzedo-followers are still being punished for! I would like to see the actual quotes. What is revolutionary is the introduction of placing, and its musical equation with phrasing, again, more than a century before Salzedo! Placing is unique to the harp, yet few harpists use it creatively as part of phrasing, only as a convenience.
    As for the incredibly low A, such low tension causes the strings to bark like a dog. I think you meant to say the lengths of the strings were too SHORT for an A 420, not too long. Unless those harps were incredibly tall?
    Some of these methods are now on, but without translations into English. Will you continue this comparison of methods up unto Bochsa, whose method continues to be rather Universal? I love finding his illustrations of low finger position, and of correctly-interpreted ornaments. It is rather important for harpists who insist on playing crap like Krumpholtz to realize that the ornaments should be played on the beat, not ahead, as in the later-19th century editions.
    Much of what Salzedo taught, then, the quintessential modernist, was actually classical. I could easily see that turn of his mind, as he eschewed virtually all 19th-century music for the classical and baroque, and modern.
    I have also, by the way, completed a new edition of the Handel Concerto. I hope to publish these soon.

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes, of course: what we nowadays call ‘dynamics’, various gradations of forte, piano, pianissimo etc are very important in 18th-century music. And C.P.E. Bach’s Essay is not restricted to harpsichord, he also discusses his favourite keyboard instrument, the clavichord, which although not very loud, allows perfect control of nuances of forte and piano from note to note. Because I’m trying to look from within the context of the time, rather than looking back from the 21st century, I chose not to introduce ‘dynamics’ as a topic in its own right. Rather, I followed the structure of the 18th-century Essays and Methods, which with remarkable consistency all begin with fingering (harp and keyboards) and its equivalents, violin-bowing and flute-tonguing.

      But the Essays and Methods do consider ‘dynamics’ in every chapter. As I mentioned, Leopold Mozart asks violinists to observe the alternation of Good and Bad notes with changing bow pressure within a single bow. I also mentioned that Quantz links dissonance/resolution to forte/piano: the stronger the dissonance, the greater the contrast in dynamic. In their subsequent chapters, all three Essayists pay a lot of attention to changes of dynamics within ornaments. As you write, the harp has the opportunity to observe these vital points of period style, whereas the harpsichord can only suggest them.

      Carl Philipp Emanuel gives extremely detailed guidance on how to realise figured bass, but as far as I know, he does not suggest changing the realisation on repeats. A lot of his ornamentation too is ‘grammatical’ – required by the particular musical context – as well as notated, so that there are not so many options for varying ornamentation on the repeats. The Essayists do mention improvised diminutions, especially in slow movements, and Quantz gives a fully worked-out example for an Adagio (again, full of subtle and very short-term changes of dynamics). Leopold suggests changing the bowing, i.e. the phrasing, when a passage is repeated.

      Certainly Oleskiewicz’s suggestion that the sonata might require two instruments is provocative. I agree with you that performance by one harp is the most plausible option, but the option of another instrument to play continuo should not be ruled out. An important question here is the skill set that different harpists would have brought to the piece: we can assume that Italian triple-harp players would be experienced in playing continuo, but there is much less evidence linking figured-bass to pedal-harp players. The French methods for pedal-harp teach an accompanying and preluding style with many arpeggios, but without reference to figured-bass.

      French pitch was indeed very low, and string tensions were very low indeed. But I’m sure harps were not allowed to ‘bark’ – this would be contrary to everything we know about the French 18th-century aesthetic of grace, delicacy and charm. And I really meant what I wrote: the string-lengths on surviving 18th-century French instruments are too long to allow today’s so-called “classical” A430 pitch with natural gut strings – the strings just break. This is consistent with the information we have from other sources about pitches in the 18th-century: something around A420 in Vienna and London, but much lower in France.

      I’ll leave someone else to continue this work into the 19th century and beyond. My interest is to explore earlier periods, and from within their own context, rather than making comparisons with later or modern schools. But I agree with you that there is much interesting work to be done on 19th-century harp playing, looking again at period technique and style for music we think we know already.

      You make a very good point, that ornaments should be played ON the beat, not before, pre-1800. Perhaps some 19th-century specialist can tell us when this changed. As 18th-century sources recommend, begin your ornament together with the bass note.

      Good luck with your Handel edition. Although Breitkopf asked me to make an edition of the harp part, my recommendation remains to play from the original Walsh print, which is crystal clear and available very cheaply from The Early Music Company.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment in such detail. Stay in touch!

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