The Spanish Double Harp:Arpa de dos òrdenes (Full text)
by Hannelore DeVaere

One of the first collections that refers to the use of the harp as a solo instrument in Spain is the "Musica en cifras para vihuela" of 1546 by Alonso Mudarra. Not only does this collection contain the first solo for the harp, it also has a "Fantasia que contrahaze la harpa en la manera de Ludovico", a fantasia that shows how the harp is played by a certain Ludovico. Ludovico was probably an Italian virtuoso and there was a Ludovico present in the service of Ferdinando V of Aragona.

Image of Spanish Baroque Harps
The theoretical treatise of Juan Bermudo,"Declaracion de instrumentos musicales" from 1555 describes the difficulties in playing the harp and the great ability of Ludovico: "I was told that the named Ludovico, whenever he played a cadence, he placed a finger under the string and thus made it sound as a semitone. Great ability was required to do that". His harp was clearly a diatonic one and the semitones had to be made artificially.

Around 1565, several harpists worked in the minor Spanish Court chapel in Madrid. This chapel was under the survey of the sister of Philip II, Johanna, and of the third wife of Philip II, Isabelle de Valois. We know two harpists by name: Antonio Martinez de Porres and Juan de Cortijo. There were also two harpmakers present: Juan de Carrion and Francisco de Arteaga.

Antonio Martínez de Porres, the harpist, was probably a harpmaker as well, and he may have built chromatic harps around 1550, maybe even with crossed strings. According to Cristina Bordas, he was also the first harpist in the main royal chapel, appointed in1600. From that year onwards, there are also invoices by violeros, or luthiers, who made and repaired harps for the royal palace.

Around 1590, Luis Zapata, a courtier, described the addition of extra strings on a harp as a new invention. He only states that the strings are 'interwoven' (entretegidas). It is not clear whether these were crossing the first row or not.

Juan de Rojas Carrión, the grandson of Juan de Carrión, was a violero in Madrid who presumes in a document, dated 1602, that his grandfather, active between 1550 and 1600, was the inventor of the arpa de dos órdenes. But what does 'inventing' mean? It is quite possible that Juan de Rojas Carrión only meant that his grandfather improved the harp and made it accessible for a larger audience.

Harps were usually built by violeros . These were united in guilds which had their own rules to accept newcomers. The luthiers had to built several instruments as an entrance requirement. In the second half of the sixteenth century these instruments were a "Spanish" guitar and an arpa de dos órdenes. I refer the reader to the findings of Cristina Bordas for a more detailed report on the builders in Madrid.

All these scattered references to an obvious change in the organology of the Spanish harp culminate in the first clear report on a new instrument, when Antonio Hidalgo built a harp in 1616 for the harpists in the royal chapel. This harp has a second row of chromatic strings crossing the first diatonic row, and is referred to as an arpa de dos órdenes.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, there is a literary reference that shows how this harp was received. The poet Lope de Vega, in his play 'La Dorotea' from 1632, lets Dorotea tune her harp: "Perdonad el afinarla [el arpa]; que es notable el gobierno de esta república de cuerdas" whereupon her visitor Bela counters "Las dos órdenes hacen mas faciles los bemoles", that with the additional rank of strings, the flats are easier to play: So even though this 'republic of strings' is more difficult to tune, it is easier to play chromatic notes on it!

The Italian Bartolomeo Jobernardi [Giobernardi] was in the service of the royal chapel of Philip IV in 1633. In that period, he writes his Tratado de la musica, a treatise consisting mainly of the description of the three instruments that he had made for him. Jobernardi describes the Spanish harp as an "Arpa con las cuerdas encruciadas que llaman de dos órdenes". He compares it with the Italian triple harp that he considers 'perfect'. In his description, the Spanish harp has only a couple of chromatic notes, not a full rank, serving only to play cadences. Therefore, he states, the instrument is less perfect then the Italian harp of the time.

Two books by Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz and Diego Fernández de Huete give us a lot of information on the music written for this harp. Ribayaz' "Luz, y norte musical" from 1677, consists of a theoretical discussion on the arpa de dos órdenes and is followed by a set of solo dances for this harp. Huete's "Compendio numeroso... para harpa de una orden, de dos órdenes... in two parts" dates from 1702 and 1704. The first volume deals with a theoretical section, followed by a set of dances in tabulature (as by Ribayaz), clearly meant for the keen amateur. The second book has a theoretical and a musical part on religious music and is more directed towards the professional musician, with a stress on continuo playing.

The treatise by Pablo Nassarre, "Escuela música", gives more organological information. This book was written over a period of fifty years and was only published in 1724, but we can assume that the information on the harp dates from the same period as the works of Ribayaz and Huete.

The evolution of the arpa de dos órdenes did not banish the use of the arpa de un orden or diatonic [single row] harp. Both instruments were used in Spain until the early 18th century. Even though Ribayaz and Huete principally speak about the arpa de dos órdenes, they still give information on how to play the diatonic harp. As late as 1702, Huete still states that 'the sonority and the perfection of the harp with two rows of strings is diminishing the use of the one with only one row'. Nassarre writes in 1724 that "the use of the harp with two rows of string is recent".

On the diatonic harp, performers such as the Ludovico at the beginning of this chapter could play chromatic notes by means of retuning, placing of nails, fingers or tuning key on the string or simply by omitting the chromatic note. Nassarre still describes some of these techniques so we can assume the arpa de una orden was played at the time. He also describes the harp as a church instrument that is used almost as much as the organ. The harp possesses two qualities that make it extremely apt for this purpose: "Among the instruments with gut strings, the harp is the one which should hold first place, on account of its enlargement [wide range] as well as its great resonance. For in both respects it exceeds all the other gut-stringed instruments which are in use at this time...It is more resonant than any other one. Thus music chapels accompany themselves with the harp, for its tones have sufficient body for this usage."

The harp was mainly used as a continuo instrument, although one should not underestimate its popularity as a solo instrument for dance music. Nassarre, however, stresses the fact that the main duty of the church harpist was to accompany mass and not to perform as a soloist: "In many cathedrals they make use of the instrument of the harp by having a musician set aside solely for it. Inasmuch as his admission is usually decided by an examination, I will state here the order which should be observed in it. Harpists should be extraordinary in two areas, on which the examiners should focus all their attention. One is the execution as regards playing the instrument, and the other concerns accompaniment...All those who possess greater skill in accompaniment ought to be preferred, even if they are somewhat less skilled than others in the execution of free playing."

The harp was certainly not only a church instrument. When the ambassador of Morocco visits Spain in 1690-1691, he makes the following remark: "One of the greatest marks of graciousness shown us by the inhabitants of Utrera was that during the night we passed in their town, they brought to us the monks who excelled in singing in their churches. These had musical instruments, one among others which they call the harp; it is garnished with a great number of strings and resembles a weaver's loom...This harp is a large wooden instrument as high as a man and having about 46 strings. It produces harmonious sounds and one does not see the blow given by him who plays it. The Christians make such use of it and teach it to their wives, sons and daughters. Hence it is rare to find a home all of whose indwellers do not skillfully pluck the harp. When they receive guests, when they are welcoming anyone or when they wish to honour someone who has come to see them, they let the harp express what they feel. The persons who most cultivate this instrument are the sons and daughters of the great and noble. It is similarly much in use in their chapels, in their churches and all those places in which they indulge themselves in their impious acts. It is the instrument they employ most of all." It is quite obvious that the harp was very popular around the turn of the century.

Now, almost 300 years later, we can enjoy a beginning revival of the arpa de dos órdenes. Several historical harpmakers are building excellent replicas of the surviving instruments and from paintings, together with their own new designs. Among the historical harpists, the arpa de dos órdenes does not have the same appeal as the Italian arpa doppia because a lot of musicians are discouraged by the sight of crossed strings. How remarkably close we come here to the prejudices towards the cross strung Pleyel harp! As a perfomer on the arpa de dos órdenes, I can only stress the great beauty of the sound of the instrument and the wonderfull music that has been written for it.

Playing technique for the arpa de dos òrdenes:

How to hold the harp: The arpa de dos òrdenes is played standing up, although there are exceptions for small children. The crossing of the strings on the arpa de dos òrdenes however, makes it difficult to sit down as it makes the playing position awkward. The harp has to rest in the little niche of the collar-bone of the right shoulder. It must be possible to move the upper body reasonably comfortably while the harp stays in place without any help from the hands.

Arms and hands position: Both arms should be held at a natural angle so as not to tire the muscles. The right hand usually plays above the crossing of the strings, near the neck of the harp, thus producing a clear, crystal-like sound. The left hand usually plays the bass strings, touching them in the middle of the instrument under the crossing of the strings, producing a warm, round sound, quite different from the treble. This sound difference is characteristic of the arpa de dos òrdenes. Chromatic passages can be made easier to play if you divide the notes between your two hands (either in bass or treble register). Both hands should then play in basically the same position, on each side of the harp.

Fingering and playing technique. The scale fingerings are 12323 descending with the thumb passing over the index, and 32121 ascending. As on other historical harps, the fourth finger is hardly ever used. Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz indicates most of the notes in his harp tabulature by the letters p (pulgar or thumb), y (indice or index) and l (largo or middle finger). He does not mention the ring finger at all, but you can use it if you want to play a thicker chord in continuo playing, for example.

As the gut strings on historical harps are much thinner and more narrowly spaced than on a modern harp, it is necessary to use this authentic playing technique. The arpa de dos òrdenes has a much weaker string tension than the Pleyel harp, and playing with the correct technique avoids 'overplucking' the harp and creates a beautiful rich sound.

I strongly advise getting some lessons from an historical harpist or, if this is not possible, to base your training on the harp method "Der Harpffenschlaeger" by Andrew Lawrence-King. It is also useful to get acquainted with the tabulature fingering of Ribayaz, transcribed by Astrid Nielsch and Andrew Lawrence-King.

Music for the arpa de dos òrdenes:

Alonso deMudarra, "Tres libros de musica en cifras para vihuela", edited in 1546 in Sevilla. This is a collection in which appears the first real solo piece for this harp, 'Tiento IX para Harpa u Organo'. This is, however, only one piece. The following list gives a number of music collections with music for the harp:

  1. Luis Venegas de Henestrosa, Libro de cifra nueva para tecla, harpa, y vihuela, 1557, Alcala de Henares: I. de Brocar

  2. Antonio de Cabezon, Obras de Musica para tecla, arpa y vihuela, Madrid: F. Sanchez,1578. Partly modern edition by Higinio Anglés, MME 27-29, 1966.

  3. Padre Manuel Rodríguez Coelho, Flores de música: pera o instrumento de tecla, & harpa, 1620, Lissabon: Pedro Craesbeeck. Modern edition by Macario Santiago Kastner, Portugaliae musica, Lissabon, 1, 1959 and 3, 1961.

  4. Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz, Luz, y norte musical, para caminar por las Cifras de la Guitarra Española, y Arpa, tañer, y cantar a compás por canto de órgano, Madrid, 1677 . Facsimile editie, Genève, 1976 and modern transcription (see playing technique)

  5. Diego Fernández de Huete, Compendio numeroso de zifras armónicas, con theórica, y práctica, para harpa de una orden, de dos órdenes, y de órgano, Primera parte, Madrid, 1702 and Segunda parte, Madrid, 1704.

  6. Four anonymous manuscript collections of harp music in tabulature: E Mn M. 816, without titlepage or date. E Mn M. 2478 (same as M. 13417) E Bc M. 741/221, fol. 62. Catalan source (fragments) US Wc Mk. 290 [libro de cifra], 40 folios. The Library of Congress catalogues it as Libro de cifra de vihuela.

    Two sources of the late 17th Century are lost: a book by Andrés Lorente, Melodías músicas, práctica del órgano y del arpa, after 1672 and a collection of music by Juan del Vado.

There is also a Libro de arpa compiled by Bernardo de Zala y Galdiano, from Pamplona, dated around 1700. The manuscript is in a private collection in Navarra, Spain. The manuscript contains a lot of secular pieces in standard harp tabulature. A. Baciero, ed., Nueva biblioteca española de musica de teclado siglos XVI al XVIII, vol. 6, Madrid, 1981, xiv; and vol. 7, Madrid, 1984, xv.1.

Video link:

Hannelore DeVaere plays the Spanish double harp


Lawrence-King, Andrew, "Der Harpffenschlaeger". An Introduction to "Authentic" Technique for Early Harps, 1988. Edited by King's Music, Redcroft, Banks End, Wyton, Huntingdon, Cambs PE17 2AA, England.

Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz, "Luz y Norte Musical". Harp tabulature transcribed and edited with a summary of the introduction by Astrid Nielsch and Andrew Lawrence-King, edited by King's Music, Redcroft, Banks End, Wyton, Huntingdon, Cambs PE17 2AA, England.

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