Many museums in Europe and America include a spitzharfe in their collections. They are often highly decorated with painted and gilded designs, which I think is the reason they were collected, though I have found little information about the provenances of the museum examples.

The instrument is usually called either the German name ‘Spitzharfe’ meaning a pointed harp, or on the Italian name ‘Arpanetta’ meaning a little harp.

A spitzharfe is not a ‘harp’ by modern technical definitions; it would count as a kind of psaltery or zither. The instrument stands upright on a table in front of the performer, with strings on both sides. The shorter strings are nearer the player, and the longest strings are further away. The strings on the right side are played with the right hand, and the strings on the left side are played by the left hand. It is this playing position, reminiscent of a harp, that gives the instrument its ‘harp’ names.

Illustration: Museum für Musikinstrumente, Leipzig, 0386, from Georg Kinsky, Katalog des Musikhistorisches Museums von Wilhelm Heyer in Köln, vol 2, 1912, p.25

The strings of a spitzharfe are made of metal wire. The usual arrangement was to have the left hand, bass strings of brass, and the right hand, treble strings of iron. The instrument is played using the fingernails, or with fingerpicks.

Spitzharfen seem to have been used in Germany, and perhaps also a little in Italy, the Low countries and maybe England, during the 18th century. I am not sure when the earliest are, perhaps late 1600s. They are said to be obsolete or going out of use in the early 19th century.

Next: The old instruments...

Simon Chadwick, St Andrews, Scotland.
June 2013