THE CONTEMPORARY CROSS-STRUNG HARP
by Harper Tasche (Unabridged Version)
Harper Tasche
Harper Tasche with cross-strung harp.

WHAT IS A CROSS-STRUNG HARP?

Imagine a portable harp that can play pop and jazz tunes, Renaissance church music, Ragtime, lush romantic music, beautiful classical pieces, and Celtic dance tunes and other ethnic music -- all without having to do anything extra like flip levers or move pedals. The cross-strung is it!

You could say that the cross-strung is "the harp that wouldn't die." Created in the late 1500s as a church instrument in Spain, it was virtually extinct by 1750 because of political and cultural upheaval. Completely re-invented as an orchestra instrument in the late 1800s in France, it met with harsh opposition from people who played other types of harps, and survived in only one Belgian conservatory. Now in the 21st century, after yet another re-invention in America's thriving folk harp movement, the cross-strung is gaining popularity as a fun (and easy to carry!) harp which brings all sorts of music within reach.

The contemporary cross-strung harp belongs to the "multi-course harp" family, meaning it has more than one set of strings (the terms "rows" or "courses" of strings are also used). This family includes the historical and contemporary double-strung harps, the historical and classical cross-strung harps, and the historical and traditional triple-strung harp.



A contemporary cross-strung harp by Blessley Instruments.  (Photo by Douglas Brock)
The 'Rigel', a contemporary cross-strung harp by Blessley Instruments. (Photo by Douglas Brock)
Contemporary cross-strung harps.  (Photo by Douglas Brock)
Contemporary cross-strung harps. Largest to smallest: "Rigel" by Blessley Instruments, "Brother Benjamine" and "Baby Cross" by Argent Fox Instruments. (Photo by Douglas Brock)

The contemporary cross-strung harp has two sets of strings, one attached to each side of the neck of the harp, and the rows of strings intersect between the neck and the soundbox like an X. Unlike the contemporary double-strung harp (see article by Laurie Riley), each set of strings on the cross-strung harp has its own tuning. The set which runs from the lower left to the upper right (8:00 to 2:00 if you imagine a clock face) is tuned to a diatonic C major scale, like the white keys of a piano: C D E F G A B. The set which runs from upper left to lower right (10:00 to 4:00) is tuned pentatonically in F#/Gb, like the black keys of a piano: C# D# F# G# A#. This means that all the notes in the chromatic scale are available at all times, without having to do anything except play them: no levers to flip, and no pedals to move.

The two sets of strings cross near the midpoint of each string. The strings cross so that either hand can play either note. For example, middle C is played in the right hand above the point of crossing, and the very same string is played in the left hand below the point of crossing. If the right hand plays only above this point, it will be plucking strings that fit in the C major scale; if the right hand plays below this point, it will pluck strings from the F#/Gb pentatonic scale. As each hand moves up and down, above and below the point of crossing, the hand moves from one set of strings to the other.





WHERE DID THIS TYPE OF HARP COME FROM?

The earliest record of a harp made with crossing strings is from Madrid, Spain, in the late 1500s (see article by Hannelore Devære). This instrument, called the arpa de dos òrdenes, was created for church use. It was fitted with lightweight gut strings, and produced a rather soft and fairly "bright" sound much like that of other Renaissance and late Medieval harps.
(see article by Cheryl Ann Fulton).

Renaissance Spanish cross-strung harps.
Reproduction Renaissance Spanish cross-strung harps built by Pedro Llopis Areny.

It is important to note that the arpa de dos òrdenes was primarily diatonic; the chromatic strings were mostly used for giving the "right" notes to melodies and chords at the ends of musical phrases. (These were desired sharps or flats which were not part of the established key signature, also known by the Latin phrase "musica ficta".) Both sets of strings were attached to the same side of the neck of the harp, so the point of crossing was also very close to the neck. This meant that while the right hand could play both sets of strings, the left hand rarely left the "white keys," partly because it was very awkward to do so and partly because prevailing musical taste favored a difference in timbre between one hand and the other. (The right hand, playing near the neck, produced a much more lute-like sound than the left hand, which played near the center of the long bass strings producing a very warm, mellow tone.)

The arpa de dos òrdenes was very popular in Spain but it success was rather short-lived. By the end of the 1700s, the royal court had become incresingly interested in the cultural styles embraced by France and Italy. As a result, Spanish social customs, clothing, artwork, literature, music and musical instruments (including the cross-strung harp), were abandoned in favor of their French and Italian counterparts (such as the violin and harpsichord).

The cross-strung harp was totally reinvented in the late 1800s, this time in Paris by a musical instrument builder named Gustav Lyon who worked for a piano company called Pleyel & Wolff. Frustrated with the double-action pedal harp's limitations in highly chromatic music, several harpists urged him to make a harp which could modulate easily between key signatures. What became known as the Pleyel cross-strung harp was an entirely different instrument from its Renaissance Spanish ancestor, retaining only the two rows of crossing strings tuned to diatonic and pentatonic scales.

An early 20th century orchestral cross-strung harp by Pleyel & Wolff, Paris (From the 'Three Centuries of Harpmaking' collection, Victor Salvi Foundation)
An early 20th century orchestral cross-strung harp by Pleyel & Wolff, Paris, part of the Victor Salvi Foundation "Three Centuries of Harpmaking" Collection. It is in the book (of the same name) about the collection published by Western Central in 2002.

Unlike the lightweight and lightly strung arpa de dos òrdenes, the Pleyel harp was built like a pedal harp: fitted with heavy gut strings for most of its range, it produced a big and fairly "dark" sound very well suited for Romantic-era symphony orchestras and as a solo instrument in large concert halls. Perhaps the Pleyel harp's most significant innovation was to move the point of crossing to the center of the strings, which allowed both hands to play both sets of strings with equal facility. This produced a harp that was truly chromatic, capable of playing in all key signatures. The Pleyel cross-strung was manufactured until 1930, but the factory did not survive World War II. After 1930, a Welsh luthier named John Thomas continued the Pleyel tradition by making a number of similar (but smaller) cross-strung harps for conservatory use.

The Pleyel cross-strung received enthusiastic reviews by Parisian music critics, but met with great controversy among pedal harpists. (Some probably felt threatened financially; many orchestral pieces of the day required multiple harps to keep up with the music's rapid key changes and accidentals, and why would anyone hire two or three pedal harpists if they could hire one cross-strung harpist instead?) The French government intervened in 1900 and issued a direct order forcing the Conservatoire National to open a cross-strung class, which was led by a Mrs. Tassau-Spencer. Unfortunately, extremely unreasonable demands were made on the class (it was expected to produce virtuosic graduates in a very short time, for example), and the class was closed in 1908.

Across the border, the Belgian harp community was quite receptive to the cross-strung. A class opened at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles in 1900, under the direction of Jean Risler, followed by Germaine Cornélis, then Myriam Moens. The class was closed upon Mme. Moens' death in 1953. One of her prize pupils, Francette Bartholomée, re-opened the class in 1978, and it continues to this day. Mme. Bartholomée, who has released two marvelous recordings [arkivmusic.com], is unquestionably the current "grande dame" of classical cross-strung harp.

The contemporary cross-strung harp was born from a series of chance encounters half a world away, fueled by the curiosity and determination of a very few individuals. A cross-strung harp believed to have been built by John Thomas appeared for repair at the workshop of California luthier Roland (Robbie) Robinson in the early 1980s. Robinson was intrigued; he drew sketches of the harp and wrote a description of it, which he published in a fledgling magazine he had founded called the Folk Harp Journal.

A retired machinist in British Columbia, Emil Geering, had begun building harps as a hobby. He saw Robinson's published article and sketches, and decided to try his hand; he subsequently made a lot of them! Geering's harps are easily recognizable. He used elaborate and dramatic combinations of light and dark wood glued together and turned on a lathe to make the pillars; the soundboxes have round backs like miniature pedal harps; and most of his harps sit on tall curving legs. (Emil Geering died in 1997.)

Two late 20th century cross-strung harps (left and center) by Emil Geering, BC Canada
(Photo by Francine Aylward)
Two late 20th century cross-strung harps (left and center) by Emil Geering, BC Canada (Photo by Francine Aylward)

Ben Brown, an emerging instrumentalist in Michigan, also "discovered" the cross-strung harp and became its strongest advocate in North America during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He obtained one of Geering's harps, taught himself to play it, and convinced two American luthiers to make cross-strung harps as well. Dan Speer, of Argent Fox Music in Bloomington, Indiana, initially made a cross-strung harp with a much smaller range than the Geering harps; Pat O'Loughlin, in St. Paul, Minnesota, made a cross-strung which had about the same range as Geering's.

Philippe S. R. L. Clément, a bilingual French/English luthier in Canada, created a compendium of cross-strung materials in his book "X-Harps: History, Playing Technique, Music and Construction of the Cross Strung Chromatic Harp" co-authored with Hannelore Devære in 1998. This book is unique in many ways: it is the first translation of classical cross-strung materials into English, the only book to provide historical materials from Spanish, Belgian and French sources along with information on more contemporary approaches to folk music and jazz, and the only source for a detailed discussion of the instrument's construction. It is a landmark in the history of the cross-strung harp, and should be in the library of every serious cross-strung harp player and every serious harp historian (see "For further information" below).

Harper Tasche (your author), a classically trained multi-instrumentalist and composer in Washington State, learned of the cross-strung harp in the mid-1990s. I was thrilled with the instrument's chromatic potential after having played a purely diatonic folk harp for several years, so I ordered one "sight unseen" from Argent Fox Music, taught myself to play it, and made my debut with it at the International Folk Harp Conference in 1996. As Ben Brown's attention turned to other pursuits, I found myself at the forefront of a resurgence of interest in cross-strung harps which continues to grow and shows no signs of stopping.

Now, in the first years of the 21st century, numerous harp builders internationally are producing high-quality cross-strung harps in a wide variety of sizes and styles. For some examples, Argent Fox Music now makes three models, and Pat O'Loughlin makes three models; Blessley Instruments (Vancouver, Washington) makes two models; and Blevins Harps (Grand Junction, Colorado) makes three models. Other American luthiers offering cross-strung harps include Stoney End Harps (Red Wing, Minnesota),  Mountain Glen Harps (Phoenix, Oregon), and William Rees Harps (Rising Sun, Indiana). Internationally, contemporary cross-strung harps are being made in Canada by Muma Harps, and in Australia by Harps & Harps.

Notably, these cross-strung harps are all designed and built on folk harp models rather than either the historical Spanish or classical French cross-strung harps. These have medium- or light-weight nylon strings, possess a generally bright and sustaining tone, and are best suited to small and medium-size performance spaces (unless amplified). Like the Pleyel, however, they are still fully chromatic, with both sets of strings equally accessible to both hands.

Inaugural Cross-Strung Harp Camp, 1999.
Inaugural Cross-Strung Harp Camp, 1999. From left: Bill McJohn with arpa de dos òrdenes reproduction by David Kortier, Lethea Erz with cross-strung by Glen Hill, Bonnie Pulliam with "Lord David" model by Argent Fox Instruments, Peter Borgwardt with two "Brother Benjamine" models by Argent Fox, "Esabelle" lap cross-strung by Stoney End (center; attendee Diane Moss not shown), Francine Aylward with Geering cross-strung, and Harper Tasche with "Rigel" and "Orion" models by Blessley Instruments. (Photo by Diane Moss)

Increasing numbers of musicians are also including the contemporary cross-strung harp among their instruments of choice. A few notable professional artists include Verlene Schermer (San Jose, California), Skye Hurlburt (Harmony, Rhode Island), Cynthia Lynn Douglass (Birmingham, Alabama), and Liz Cifani (Chicago, Illinois). Because the cross-strung harp's revival is occurring in the context of the remarkable North American folk harp movement, contemporary players are bringing an energetic and delightfully experimental perspective to the instrument. An eclectic repertoire is emerging for the cross-strung which encompasses numerous ethnic traditional styles (Celtic, Nordic, African, etc.) and pop & jazz, as well as a great deal of classical and historical music which is often difficult or simply unplayable by lever or pedal harp.

HOW IS THE CROSS-STRUNG HARP PLAYED?

The cross-strung harp requires very different techniques from harps with single or parallel sets of strings. This is because each hand must reach up (toward the neck of the harp) and down (toward the soundboard) for strings, as well as pulling and releasing each string to create sound. Remember that a note which is "up" in one hand will always be "down" in the other, and vice versa: because of this, the hands and fingers move far more independently of one another, even when playing identical notes. As a general principle, the right hand reaches down to the chromatic row with 3rd and 4th fingers whenever possible, since this is the easiest motion. Correspondingly, the left hand reaches up to the chromatic row with 2nd finger and thumb.

As you might have guessed, this means that the same music is often fingered very differently on a cross-strung harp than on a single-course harp. Let's use a D major triad for an example, which contains the notes D F# A. To play this chord on a lever or pedal harp, one would simply change the pitch of the F strings into F sharps by mechanical means. The fingers used to play these notes, typically 3 2 1, are the same in each hand.

D Major triad on lever harp, left hand (Photo by Douglas Brock)
D Major triad on lever harp, left hand (Photo by Douglas Brock)
The same chord on cross-strung harp (Photo by Douglas Brock)
D major triad on cross-strung harp, left hand (Photo by Douglas Brock)
D major triad on cross-strung harp, right hand (Photo by Douglas Brock)
D major triad on cross-strung harp, right hand (Photo by Douglas Brock)

On the cross-strung, however, the D and the A will be on the diatonic row (up in the right hand, down in the left), and the F# will be on the chromatic row (down in the right hand, up in the left). Therefore, the left hand fingering is 4 2 1 (fourth finger because it makes the reach upward to F# easier for the index finger).

The right hand plays 2 4 1 for the same notes (with fourth finger reaching down for F#; again, fourth finger is used for an easier reach).

When played together, the D notes are played in the left hand by 4 but in the right hand by 2; the F#s are played in the left hand by 2 but in the right hand by 4; and the As are both played with the thumbs.

Along similar lines, the fingerings for scales can also be quite different between single-course harp and cross-strung harp (and, on cross-strung harp, very different again between the right hand and the left). For a D major scale, for example, we need the notes D E F# G A B C#. On a single-course harp, we would mechanically turn our F strings into F#s and our C strings into C#s by flipping levers or moving pedals. From bottom to top, the fingering for this scale is 4 3 2 1 / 4 3 2 1 for either hand, "crossing under" (reaching under the thumb with another finger to be ready for the next note) at the same point in the scale with both hands.

On a cross-strung harp, however, the right hand must reach down to the other row of strings for the F# and C#, where the left hand must reach up to the other row for those notes. For a cross-strung harp, this same D major scale is fingered 2 1 / 4 3 2 1 / 4 2 in the right hand, while the left hand plays 3 2 1 / 4 3 2 1 / 3 for the same notes. Not only are different fingers playing the same notes from one hand to the other, the cross-unders in each hand (marked /) are also in completely different places. It's a very entertaining thing to do to your brain!

D Major scale, fingered for cross-strung and diatonic harps.
D Major scale, fingered for cross-strung and diatonic harps.

If all of this fingering seems confusing, unfortunately it rather is, at least at the beginning. Plenty of patience, and a working knowledge of music theory, will serve the aspiring cross-strung player well, and the musical rewards will surely come. (Assistance is also available in the form of a book called 'How To Play The Cross-Strung Harp'; see "for further information" below.)

In contrast, however, sometimes the cross-strung harp provides the simplest access to a musical passage. Let's take a look at the opening phrase of the tune "St. Louis" (written by Lewis H. Redner in 1868), which is well loved as the Christmas carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem." This excerpt, with its usual harmony, is loaded with accidentals.

To play this music as written on a lever harp means changing several lever positions very quickly between notes, using the fingers.

'O Little Town of Bethlehem' excerpt for lever harp
'O Little Town of Bethlehem' excerpt for lever harp.

Along similar lines, to play this music as written on a pedal harp means changing pedal positions very quickly between notes, using the feet.

'O Little Town of Bethlehem' excerpt for pedal harp
'O Little Town of Bethlehem' excerpt for pedal harp.

But the cross-strung player gets to relax and easily play as written. The only fingering difference between cross-strung and lever or pedal harp is for the right hand eighth notes in the second full measure. The cross-strung player uses the fourth finger where the lever or pedal player uses the third finger... not a hardship by any means, and far simpler than having so many levers to flip or pedals to move.

'O Little Town of Bethlehem' excerpt for cross-strung harp
'O Little Town of Bethlehem' excerpt for cross-strung harp.

I'm perfectly willing to admit that I chose this example because it is clearly in favor of the cross-strung harp. I'm also perfectly willing to say that when the music at hand is diatonic and does not require accidentals or rapid key changes, it is always simpler to play a lever or pedal harp. Each type of harp has advantages and disadvantages, and it makes no sense to me to argue that one type of harp is "best." (Personally, I see no reason not to have at least one of each if at all possible.)

Given that fingerings for the cross-strung can be far more complex than for other types of harps, many people wonder what makes this instrument so compelling. The answer is very simple: possibilities! Imagine having the freedom to play the incredibly chromatic music of J. S. Bach or Debussy, or the lush chords and adventurous melodies of jazz, or popular music with its quick modulations, or multi-modal traditional songs and dances, or even well-loved melodies like "O Little Town of Bethlehem" without ever thinking about flipping a lever or changing a pedal. Then imagine doing all of this with a harp which is compact and lightweight enough to go in the back seat of the car, or easily carried upstairs, and you may understand some of this harp's wonders.

The contemporary North American cross-strung harp has a great deal of "catching up" to do, given its re-emergence over only the past twenty years and the vast differences in playing technique between it and single-course harps. This writer is confident, however, that as more and more people study, play, write, perform, and teach with this instrument, successive generations of players will almost certainly surpass current abilities. It is a very exciting time for the cross-strung harp!

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, the following are a good start:

Harper Tasche may be seen playing the cross-strung harp on several YouTube videos, including http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0uNzLV22Ks.

An online forum for discussion of cross-strung topics can be accessed at groups.yahoo.com/group/HarpersCrossing; the list is owned and moderated by harpist Betsy Paine of Houston, Texas. Current members include cross-strung harp students, teachers, performers, arrangers, and instrument builders, as well as people who are simply cross-strung curious.

"How To Play The Cross-Strung Harp" by Harper Tasche (2001). This thorough tutorial includes an illustrated overview of techniques, and scales, chords, and exercises in twenty-four keys, plus fully fingered musical selections in each of twelve key signatures. It also contains suggestions for repertoire, and contact information for some contemporary cross-strung builders, performers, and teachers. (A Japanese translation is also now in print.) Available from Harper Tasche, www.harpcrossing.com.

"X-Harps: History, Playing Technique, Music and Construction of the Cross Strung Chromatic Harp" by Philippe SRL Clément, luthier, with Belgian musicologist/harpist Hannelore Devaere (1998). This is an invaluable compendium of information previously untranslated from French and Dutch, as well as new material in English by William Taylor, Harper Tasche, and Verlene Schermer. Included are musical examples and exercises from the tutorial by Odile Tackoen and others, contact information for some cross-strung harp builders, teachers, and performers, and a list of about 135 classical works written specifically for the Pleyel harp. This work may be out of print; inquire of Philippe Clément, RR#3 Napanee, Ontario, Canada K7R 3K8. The informational portions of Philippe Clement's former website have been integrated into the site run by Roger Muma at www.mumaharps.com/harps/xharp/.

Christoph Pampuch's German company, harpa mundi, is making a new kind of cross-strung chromatic harp. See it at www.carolan.de in German, English and French.

At www.harponomie.be/histoire-harpe-chromatique.htm there is a short history (in French) of the chromatic harp in Belgium, and a link to its modern revival.

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