The Dilling Model Single-Action
by Joyce Rice
with invaluable assistance from
Arsalaan Fay, Nancy Hurrell and Mike Parker
Have you ever seen a harp with a
mohawk? Here’s one -
What the heck are those spiky
things, you ask? Settle back and I’ll tell you a story….
Once upon a time there was a famous
harpist named Mildred Dilling (1894-1982). She had a vast collection of
harps (estimates range from 65 to 120) and drove herself around the United
States in a station wagon, giving concerts (watch
a video here) in places large and small. She mainly concertized on
a large pedal harp, although she also had a couple of smaller harps with her
on which she would play a piece or two. For her travels overseas (even
Afghanistan, says harper/singer and former student Erik Berglund) however,
she wished for a more portable harp that worked something like the six-foot
pedal harp but was half its size. She found one that had been made by John
Egan in the early 19th century, called the Royal Portable Irish
Harp, but she didn’t find it very easy to play, so she set out to get one
made that she liked. Let’s look back a few centuries to follow the road to
the harp Miss Dilling eventually got.
Essentially, the Western harp of the
past millennium has been a triangular-shaped instrument with one rank of
strings perpendicular to the soundbox and tuned in the diatonic scale like
the white keys on the piano – C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, etc. Early on, an
occasional accidental (a temporary sharp or flat) could be made by fretting
a string; that is, the player used the thumb or a tuning key to push the top
of the string against the neck (top of the string) of the harp or where the
string joins the soundbox (bottom of the string), a practice that did not
always produce an in-tune note or one with a good tone. If a sharp or flat
was wanted throughout the piece a string could be re-tuned.
In the European Renaissance
(1300s-1600s) music gradually became more
chromatic. By the early
1400s organs had met the challenge with a chromatic keyboard, and in the
1500s harpists wanted to keep up with the times and play more sharps and
flats, too, at a faster pace than fretting allowed.
At left: Judy Kadar and her 15th
c. reproduction gothic-style harp with
Harps gradually became larger: in
Italy they developed double harps and triple harps (which eventually became
adopted by the Welsh), and in Spain cross-strung harps, all made by adding
extra rows of strings tuned to the “black keys” (and adding difficulty, as
At left is historical harpist and
musicologist Hannelore Devaere at
her reproduction Italian triple harp. Read her
H.S article on the Spanish Double
holds a reproduction
cross-strung harp. 2
Looking for a better way to make accidentals on
a simpler single-row harp, in the late 1600s the Austrians came up with
U-shaped devices called “hooks” on a few (and eventually most) strings that,
when turned into or away from the string, raised or lowered the pitch
one-half step from natural to sharp or flat, keeping it there until the hook
was changed. (Below is a 19th century version of the hook harp.)
When the harp was tuned in Eb, three flat keys, (F, Bb and Eb) and four
sharp keys (G, D, A, E) and the key of C were available without retuning.3
century German hook harp4
According to Roslyn Rensch in
Harps and Harpists, “Some time before 1720 (perhaps as early as the
1690s) a link mechanism was developed for the hook harp connecting its
hooks, in octaves, with [seven] pedals,”5 one for each note of
the scale, freeing the harpist from having to stop playing with one hand to
change the hooks. This was called the single-action pedal harp, and is the
harp for which Mozart wrote his Concerto for Flute and Harp.
By 1782 there was a double-action
harp allowing each string to sound at the three pitches of
sharp-natural-flat, but you needed 14 pedals!6 A combination of
the turmoil of the French Revolution (the harps were being developed in
Paris) and the difficulty of navigating so many pedals doomed (fortunately!)
By 1811, however, after a couple of
decades more of tinkering with the mechanism and trying to find the best way
to raise and lower the pitch, all the while staying in tune and not dulling
the tone, harpmaker Sebastien Erard, now in quieter London, developed the
“fourchette” or disc double-action mechanism that was operated by only seven
Pedal Harp 101 in the Pedal Harp
section of the Harp Spectrum website for more details on the pedals.) Today
the two rows of discs look like this7:
Meanwhile in Ireland, for centuries another center of harp
playing, the harp, a symbol of Irish nationalism, had fallen on hard times.
Tastes in music were changing and the pedal harp had become more popular,
making it harder for traditional harpers to find work. By 1792, when a
Belfast Harp Festival was held, only about ten harpers came, many were very
old, and only one played in the old style with his fingernails. (See
Denis O'Hampsey, His Style and Technique
for more about the Belfast Festival).
Egan's Royal Portable Irish Harp10
There were attempts to revive Irish
harping over the next few decades by the new Belfast Harp Society, and
Dublin harpmaker John Egan stepped in to help out, from 1804 to 1841 making
harps in a more European style, lighter and with a rounded soundbox, from
small Irish harps with sharping blade-like apparatuses called “ring-stops”
to double-action pedal harps.
According to harp historian Nancy
Hurrell, “Egan is perhaps best known for his ‘Royal Portable Irish Harps’,
small gut-strung harps, about three feet in height, which were fitted with
ivory knobs or “stops” or “ditals” on the column. The Royal Portable Irish
Harp (at left) was designed to
revive the ancient Irish harp tradition while incorporating the new building
techniques used at the time to manufacture single-action pedal harps. The
Royal Portable Irish Harps had elaborate inscriptions on the brass plates:
the royal warrant and coat of arms of King George IV and Egan’s business
address, 30 Dawson Street. He manufactured harps at this address
from 1815 to 1835.”9
Unfortunately, says Hurrell, “the dital mechanism of the Royal Portables
proved to be somewhat cumbersome for a passing accidental.” As well, the harps’ cost was often prohibitive:
the £30 price could have bought a small rural cottage or a few years’ wages
of a servant.11 At the same time, Ireland suffered a crippling potato famine
resulting in mass starvation, disease and the emigration of a million people
to America, considerably shrinking the potential market for harps. However,
the shape that Egan pioneered has endured, and most modern small harps are
patterned after it.
Skip forward nearly a century and we
return to a young Mildred Dilling wanting a portable harp. Actually, she
owned several Egan Royal Portable Harps but found, as had many others, that
the ditals were a bit unwieldy and hard to reach, and took a while to learn
how to use efficiently. So she contacted a harpmaker where she lived in New
York City named James F. Buckwell and asked him to make a small harp shaped
like the Egan but with a mechanism that she could reach quickly and easily,
and together they worked out a new system. In the drawing from Buckwell’s
March 21, 1919 patent application12 you can see seven
little ditals, or rockers, as he calls them in his patent description, or
levers, as we call them today. Either hand could pull the lever to either
side, changing the pitch a half-tone.
James Buckwell at work in his harp
shop. The small harp bottom right is the single-action harp with the upright
levers barely visible across the curve of the neck.13
Melville Clark was also making harps that looked like
the Egan harps, and for decades his small harps were used throughout the
U.S. for children and, made higher by fastening on a little bench, for
adults. I am pictured to the right sitting on the bench behind a Clark, my
Working in the same time period as Buckwell, Clark had a try at making a
double action small harp, also with the levers in the neck, although with a
different placement. Here is a drawing for his patent that he applied for on
Jan. 27, 1919.14 The image on the right is looking down
at a cutaway view of the neck of the harp. Note that the tuners were
accessible to both hands. Apparently this harp did not have much success. I
would welcome a correction on this assumption.
hop several decades again to around 1980, about which
recollects: “In the last years of [Mildred Dilling’s] life, I was one of her
students [and I] was also a singer. She loved how I sang with the autoharp,
and even had me perform with it at her recitals that she organized for her
harp students. It was her idea to have me sing with the harp, [but that] was
harder to do with the big pedal harp that I was renting from her. So she
remembered the model that she had had made for her all those years ago.” Her
interest in the portable harp was re-ignited but she apparently wanted
someone to make a larger and stronger harp [her secretary Geraldine Ruegg
told me that the Buckwell harp was a lot lighter than later models; Arsalaan
Fay says it was smaller than the Clark harps -JR]. Erik continues, “I
suggested a carpenter friend of mine, Shawn Herman. He and Miss Dilling got
together and spent a lot of time crafting and fine-tuning what would become
the Dilling harp, today known as the Douglas harp.”
Herman was then living in Amherst, MA, and he enlisted the help of Jody
Nishman, who had his own nearby business making folk harps, marimbas and
mbiras. Jody says, “Miss Dilling, as I knew her, loaned us one of her Clark
harps [and her two Buckwells], and as I recall we literally took them apart,
and measured and or traced various pieces, and then reassembled the
original. Miss Dilling also loaned us some real museum quality harps
[probably the Egans] to examine, so that we could try to discern why they
sounded so beautiful. I worked for Shawn designing and building the
prototype, and then building subsequent harps on a part-time basis. Neither
of us had made a harp linkage before, and I walked into the project without
even knowing how a concert or a single action harp worked. It was indeed
quite a challenge for us.
The linkages for the mechanisms were made of steel stock
that we cut, bent in jigs that we made, and drilled. We assembled the
mechanisms ourselves as well. Shawn visited Miss Dilling fairly regularly,
but once she drove up from New York. I remember distinctly that she was in
her late eighties and drove up by herself to visit the shop (a four-hour
drive). Together they introduced the Dilling Model Harp.”
Here is the mechanism for the Dilling/Douglas Harp.
You can see that the discs are like those on a pedal harp and the levers are
like those invented by Buckwell, except they follow the curve of the neck.
The levers go in scale order – C,D,E,F,G,A,B. In the
setting above they are in the key of C (if the harp is tuned in Eb) with the
E, A and B levers down, thus engaging the discs and raising these pitches.
To make them flat you move the lever to the upright position which releases
the disc from the string, thus increasing the vibrating length and making a
lower pitch, or flat. The upright levers would be moved down to engage the
string and raise the pitch, making a sharp on the C, D, F and G strings.
Like the pedal harp, a Dilling lever changes all of a pitch's strings in
every octave: all the Cs become C#, for example. Unlike most lever harps,
sharping or flatting a single string is not possible.
worked with Shawn for a few months before returning to his own business, and
Arsalaan Fay, a highly skilled woodworker, was hired. He recalls that the
brass parts were machined rather than cast, although at present they are
cast from moulds made from those first parts. After the first few harps, an
inch was added to the Clark dimensions, and Arsalaan assumes that Shawn and
Miss Dilling made the change to enlarge the sound. In 1984, after three
years and 35 harps, Shawn left the business and the harps have been made
since by Fay, who calls them the Douglas Single-Action Harps. Now living in
Florida, Arsalaan unfortunately lost all his tools in Hurricane Charley and
had to re-group. He has made as many as 70 harps, some of which have found
their way to England, Japan and Australia.
late harpist Jocelyn Chang championed the Dilling harp and commissioned many
works for it. Two of her favorites were Michael Leese's "Dilling Fantasy”
and David Taddie's "Convergences" for harp and electronic sounds. She left
her music to Julia Kay Jamieson who is compiling a complete listing that
will be available on this site.
Arsalaan Fay and one of his
Here is a
video of Arsalaan as he demonstrates how the levers operate.
in the works? Fay has a patent for a double-action mechanism, which can give
it the same capabilities as the pedal harp! He’s still experimenting with
the mechanism and the shape. Who knows what will turn up next in this long
Arsalaan can be reached for questions and comments at
Kadar specialized in historical harp music especially of the 14th
and 15th centuries. Her harp was made by David Brown, and is a
gothic style harp with brays, as frequently depicted in 15th century images
and loosely based on the harp in the Deutsches Germanisches Museum in
Nurnberg. Regrettably, Judy passed away in 2021.
2. Photos used with permission.
3. Disengage all the hooks and tune
to the Eb major scale: Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb. If you then want to play
in C, raise the B, E, and A hooks which will raise those strings ½ step to
natural. To play in one flat, lower the B hooks, two flats lower the E hook,
etc.. To play in one sharp, raise the F hooks, etc.
4. Late 19th century
German hook harp from
www.vintage-instruments.com Used with permission.
5. Harps and Harpists by
Roslyn Rensch, 1989, p. 153.
6. Ibid, p. 157.
7. Thanks to
www.music4musicians.com/harp.htm. Used with permission.
8. Trinity College Harp. Used by
permission. The photo appears at
9. The Royal Portable Harp by
Nancy Hurrell. Used by permission.
10. Arsalaan Fay rehabilitated this
harp for harp historian Mike Parker. Photo by Arsalaan Fay. Used by
Harp historian Mike Parker: “The single actions
cost about £30. For that, you could hire a manservant for 3 years, or a
housemaid for 4 or a small cottage somewhere rural … and you could buy a
piano for £15.... They were toys for the rich and were about status,
novelty and charm. If you wanted a harp for serious study, you could buy an
Erat or a Dodd for about £10 more, and have a pedal instrument.” Perhaps for
that reason there is little repertoire for that harp.
12. Thanks to Arsalaan Fay for the
Buckwell patent drawings and text.
13. Photo from Arsalaan Fay,
courtesy of the Buckwell family.
14. Mike Parker says, “With that
close timing, I can't help wondering if Clark wasn't staking an intellectual
property claim on an idea that surfaces from time to time.”
15. Photos of the Dilling Model Harp
are by Arsalaan Fay and used with permission.