The old instruments

The starting point for any investigation of the old spitzharfe or arpanetta has to be the museum instruments. From a quick search of museum catalogues from the UK, Europe and America, I located 25 preserved instruments fairly quickly. I am certain that there are many more than this preserved in museums and private collections.

Most of the preserved instruments are quite lavishly decorated with painting and even gilding on the broad flat soundboards, which lend themselves to this type of art. I imagine that this is the reason that they were brought into museums and art collections in the 19th century, after the instruments were no longer played. Usually, obsolete musical instruments do not survive unless there is a good non-musical incentive for people to keep hold of them and look after them.

Some of the old instruments are signed by their makers. Of the ones I have considered, the dates range from 1700 through to 1720 - a suprisingly narow range. The locations of the signers includes Denmark, Germany and Italy. The museum catalogues often indicate a guess at the provenance of an unsigned instrument, and it is possible that some have an English, French or Low Countries provenance. MFA_Galpin_w200.jpg

None of the old instruments is in playing condition to my knowledge, though some have been restored including the fitting of new brass and iron strings. Given that there is no contemporary scene of playing the spitzharfe, it is no suprise that the old instruments are kept silent: it is very bad for an old instrument to restore it to playing condition unless it is to be often and carefully tuned and played under expert guidance.

The form of a typical old instrument is of a tall flat box standing on one end. One 19th century encyclopedist described it as like a harpsichord standing on its end, which is about right, except that as well as having no keyboard, a spitzharfe is double-sided, with strings on both of the wide faces. The instrument has a wrest-block running along the bottom, which holds the ranks of tuning pins on both sides. A long piece of wood forms the tall front edge, and a much shorter piece forms the back edge. A curved bentside continues the back to curve up and meet the front at the top, where there is usually a decorative finial in the form of a scroll or a human or animal head. These four wooden sides form the basic structural frame, onto which the two soundboards are glued, one on each side. Sometimes there is a third soundboard which is parallel to and between the two main boards. The two soundboards often have elaborate parchment roses inserted into them.

Illustration: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 7.1773 from Galpin, Old English Instruments of Music, 1910

Near the top of each soundboard is a curved wooden strip, the bridge, and towards the bottom a straight one, the nut. The strings run over these, so that they run parallel to the soundboards about 1cm or so away from them. The strings are attached at the top, and guided as they pass over the bridges, by little metal bridge pins. At the bottom the strings are attached to the tuning pins, which are plain iron pins with flattened heads, jammed into carefully positioned holes drilled though the soundboard into the wrest-plank underneath.

Most of the old spitzharfen stand on two little pairs of feet, one pair at each end of the base. Some of them have a kind of plinth around the base instead, and some have neither plinth nor feet, but just rest on the base of the box.

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Simon Chadwick, St Andrews, Scotland.
June 2013