Baroque 101: The Triple Harp

By Julia Seager-Scott, harp

Julia Seager-Scott, harp
Julia Seager-Scott, harp

The baroque triple harp was one answer to accommodate the expanding musical language that was emerging at the turn of the seventeenth century. Finding a way to make the harp a continuo instrument, capable of playing a figured bass line with accompanying chords in any key, was the main driver behind the drastic changes seen in the harps of this time.

The triple harp, first seen in Italy, flourished from approximately 1590 to 1750 and was so popular that it spread all over Europe.

It has an ingenious way of having all notes in all keys available at all times:  It has three parallel rows of strings. The outer two rows are tuned to the same diatonic scale (think of the white keys on the piano), with the inner row tuned to the chromatic notes (the equivalent of the black keys on the piano). To make chords, you play a combination of some fingers on the outer rows and some fingers on the inner row, making 3-D shapes with your fingers.

This ability to play in all possible keys was a huge improvement over previous harps which, having one row of strings and no way to quickly and reliably alter the pitch of the strings, could only play in one or two keys at a time and had to be re-tuned either during or in between pieces to accommodate key changes.

Of course, having three parallel rows of strings makes the triple harp very difficult to play. Not many harpists enjoy tuning all 93 strings every day either! Perhaps that is why I am one of only two professional triple harpists in all of Canada. The glorious sound of the triple harp, zingy like the harpsichord and simultaneously bell-like, more than makes up for any hardships.

Considered old-fashioned by Handel’s time, he nevertheless loved the sound of the triple harp too. He used it in Esther, Saul, Giulio Cesare, and he wrote a harp concerto for Alexander’s Feast. Today, the Italian triple harp has settled firmly in to the Welsh culture, where its descendant flourishes as their national instrument.

Hear the beautiful sounds of the triple harp performed by Julia Seager-Scott at Handel Alexander’s Feast from Feb 22–25, 2018 at Koerner Hall, Toronto. Tickets are available here.


Baroque 101: The Recorder

“‘Oh the recorders, let me see one.” Hamlet, Act 3 sc. 2

A member of the flute family with relatives in other cultures around the world, the recorder is known to have been in use in Italy by the fourteenth century. The earliest recorders were made from a single piece of wood and came in two sizes. By 1619, the composer and music theorist Michael Praetorius listed eight different sizes, from a small sopranino to a great bass.

These different sizes were often built to be played together in a “consort,” like a small instrumental choir, and performed dance music, transcriptions of vocal pieces, and more complicated instrumental works; but a very sophisticated type of solo playing must also have existed. The world’s first recorder method book, written by the Venetian Silvestro Ganassi and published in 1535, includes instructions for elaborate melodic decoration, and tantalizing mentions of “good players” to whom the serious student must be sure to listen. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall …)

In the seventeenth century the recorder’s design gradually changed to incorporate a more conical bore and a division of the instrument into separate joints, and by the turn of the eighteenth its appearance and range took on the one we’re most familiar with today. Though various sizes of recorder were still made and played, the alto recorder was the size most commonly seen in a solo or small ensemble role.

The recorder can boast a wealth of repertoire by composers both well known and less familiar. Handel composed wonderful sonatas and chamber music for the recorder, and some of the most delightful recorder obbligato parts ever written are found in his operas. J.S. Bach used the instrument in over twenty of his cantatas, the Easter Oratorio, and the Second and Fourth Brandenburg Concertos. And Telemann’s own skill as a recorder player is reflected in his brilliant and demanding solo and double concertos, chamber music, solo sonatas, and cantata obbligato parts.

Recorder instruction books for the amateur market continued to be published into the 1790s, but the instrument was a poor match for the classical and romantic aesthetics, and for the developing orchestra, so it spent most of the nineteenth century in a deep sleep. The twentieth-century early-music revival resulted in a true recorder renaissance which continues to this day.

Hear  recorder soloist Alison Melville perform in A Recorder Romp from Feb 8–11, 2018 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St.Paul’s Centre. Tickets are available here.