Affairs of the harp
Since ancient times, harp music has beguiled and soothed. Katy Birchall visits the British company ensuring the heavenly music plays on
Katy Birchall visits the British company that’s pulling the strings to ensure the heavenly music goes on
In Mansfield Park, one instrument catches the eye (and heart) of the hero: ‘The harp arrived, and rather added to [Mary’s] beauty, wit and good humour, for she played with the greatest obligingness, with an expression and taste which were peculiarly becoming, and there was something clever to be said at the close of every air. Edmund was at the parsonage every day to be indulged with his favourite instrument.’
Who could blame Edmund Bertram for being so enraptured—or be surprised that Jane Austen designated the instrument to one of her most charming and elegant characters. Just as Mary Crawford casts a spell over Edmund, so the harp has been enchanting audiences for thousands of years.
One of the oldest musical instruments in the world, originally made from hunting bows, it’s depicted on wall paintings of Ancient Egyptian tombs dated as early as 3,000bc and in Mesopotamian art. The instrument has played a key role in culture and the Arts ever since, from its Biblical associations with King David and angels to the Muses of Greek mythology, Celtic folktales and romantic symbolism in the poetry of Coleridge and Shelley.
The entrancing nature of this stringed instrument lies not only in its rich, rippling sound, but in its gracious appearance. no one is more aware of the importance of these qualities than the staff at Pilgrim Harps, the British company continuing the ancient tradition of handcrafting the instruments. Based in a converted coach house in the Surrey countryside, the 10-strong team has been crafting bespoke models since 1980.
‘We’re the timber yard’s fussiest customer,’ admits co-founder Jerry Blumire, explaining that the harp’s soundbox alone—the hollow ‘body’ structure to which the soundboard is attached, amplifying the sound—requires four or five different types of wood, of a variety of shapes and sizes. ‘It’s difficult to find the right types of width for each part. We can spend hours searching through pallets of maple, beech, walnut and ash and return with only a couple of pieces. The soundbox needs to be both strong and light, so it’s very specific.’
This meticulous approach extends to the rest of the triangular frame—the front, vertical side of the triangle, known as the pillar, and the upper, curved side, referred to as the neck. ‘Each joint has to be perfect and the grain direction of the wood has to be right; even plotting out the components on the planks is an art in itself and that’s just the carpentry side of things,’ Mr Blumire continues. ‘It’s a lengthy process, but each harp is an individual work of art.’
The company’s South Godstone workshop is busy: a maze of rooms filled with woodworking machines, tools and harp
parts of all sizes and vintages. As well as offering a bespoke service, Pilgrim restores antiques and sells secondhand harps. Stepping over the wood shavings into the metalwork rooms, where the moving parts of the harp are produced, is a bit like entering the workshop of a clockmaker.
There are two types of harp: the lever and the pedal. The former, also known as the Celtic harp, is smaller and the latter employs a more complicated mechanism worked by seven pedals. It’s larger, heavier, louder and more suited to orchestral and ensemble playing. Each pedal is connected by a steel push-rod that goes up through the pillar to the intricate brass mechanism inside the neck, to which the strings, made of gut and metal, are attached.
‘There are nearly 2,000 moving parts in the mechanism of a pedal harp,’ Mr Blumire enthuses. ‘It’s mind-blowing. Harpists are a little like swans. They may look very graceful, but their feet can be going crazy at times.’
The harp’s impressive mechanisms are further complemented by elaborate paintwork and decorative carvings. An artist as well as a carpenter, Mr Blumire will happily paint anything a client wants. Ivy, stems and leaves are perennially popular, but, as a keen birdwatcher and lepidopterist, he’s fond of wildlife designs. ‘I’m especially crazy about moths,’ he confesses. As a new generation of harpists infiltrates the popular music charts—tom Monger of Florence and the Machine recently borrowed an electro-acoustic harp for recording sessions—mr Blumire says the company is determined to bring harp-making into the future, continually progressing and developing its designs, while protecting and preserving a centuries-old craft. It’s this combination of old and new that’s particularly appealing to professional harpist Olivia Jageurs. ‘It’s great fun to subvert people’s idea of how the harp sounds,’ she says. ‘You can play all kinds of music on it, including pop and rock.’ Miss Jageurs, who is the official harpist for Wimbledon, has played with Deep Purple at the Royal Albert Hall and took part in the orchestral tribute to David Bowie at last year’s Glastonbury Festival. ‘I’ve played all the UK’S major arenas and some of the most beautiful wedding venues and private homes in the country,’ she explains. ‘My harp takes me on incredible adventures.’ She attributes her original interest in this unusual instrument to Pilgrim Harps, having grown up in the next-door village. With nearly 40 years of harp-making under his belt, Mr Blumire says there’s nothing else he’d rather do. ‘No harp is the same; each one is as individual as its owner. Isn’t that wonderful?’
Pilgrim Harps (www.pilgrimharps.co.uk; 01342 893242). Olivia Jageurs (www. olivia-harpist.com)
‘There are nearly 2,000 moving parts in the mechanism of a pedal harp. It’s mind-blowing’
Facing page: Professional harpist Olivia Jageurs. Above: Imagination is the only limit in the design of a custom-made instrument. Below: Ancient harps pictured on the wall of the 14th-century tomb of Thutmose at Thebes
Art of the harp: some 2,000 moving parts are accompanied by elaborate carving and gilding