Playing technique

As sources for playing technique we would look for contemporary pictures (paintings or engravings) of the instruments in use, and we would look for contemporary texts describing the instrument being played.

E.270 The only picture I have found so far is a painted image on the right hand soundbox of one of the old instruments. (Paris E.270). This arpanetta has very rich scene paintings on it, and part of the treble-side scene includes a chubby naked figure sitting at a spitzharfe. He is sitting on a low stool or cushion; his instrument is standing on a very small table or a stand, which has a pattern on it - perhaps a tablecloth. He has his feet either side of the stand. The player holds his hand outstretched at approximately chest height, touching the treble side of the instrument about half way up the strings in the middle of the range. He is looking down towards what looks like a music book propped up against the architecture in front of him. He is playing to accompany a flute player and a singer.
Image © Musée de la musique / Claude Germain, reproduced here by kind permission.

The main text describing the playing of the spitzharfe is the anonymous book, said to have been written by Johann Philipp Eisel and published in Erfurt, Germany in 1738. The book is in German with a lot of Latin words mixed in; the title, Musicus αυτοδιδακτος, is a mixture of Latin and Greek and means basically ‘teach yourself music’.

Eisel’s text describes how the spitzharfe is strung and tuned, and explains the basic hand position and striking method for each side, and finishes with a couple of extra techniques.

Eisel also includes a diagram of both the left and right side of the instrument. It shows an instrument with single-strung brass bass side, and double-strung iron treble side. Eisel says that he does not think it worth having a double-strung bass, or a triple-strung treble, because the sound is no louder but the tuning is more troublesome. He also says that some spitzharfe are strung with gut, but these are very expensive to maintain.

He explains that the spitzharfe is played “as everyone knows” with the fingernails. He says that if you don’t have long fingernails, you can attach a false nail made of silver or of quill to both of your index fingers with a ring. But he admits this is not ideal, both because you lose some of the feeling of the strings, and because ideally one wants to be able to finish a piece by playing a seven note chord, four with the left hand and three with the right. He says that the heel of the hand should be kept close to the strings.

Eisel tells us that the left hand can play a simple chord, with middle, index and ring finger. He also explains how ascending and descending passages can be played with the index or middle. For the treble side, he describes playing an ascending or descending passage by alternating between the index and middle fingers. He also describes a simple damping technique, and a trill played with these two fingers on the treble side.

Next: Repertory and music...

Simon Chadwick, St Andrews, Scotland.
June 2013