Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette, Harpist

A brief history compiled by Joyce Rice
with editorial assistance by Harper Tasche

Most people have heard two things about Marie Antoinette:  that when the poor were clamoring for bread her reply was “Let them eat cake!”  and that she was guillotined. While she was indeed beheaded at the age of 37, the comment about cake actually comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written when Marie was still a girl. (1)

But had you heard that she was an accomplished harpist?

Marie Antoinette was born in Vienna, Austria in 1755, the fifteenth child of the Empress and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Her formal education was spotty, featuring embroidery and ballet more than academic studies. Of more importance, she was taught to perform gracefully at court because she was destined to marry into the French royal family to improve relations between the two countries. She loved music, though, learned to play the harpsichord well and was an excellent sight-reader, and even met the young Mozart when he performed for her family.

She was promised to the future King Louis XVI when she was only 11. At age 15, her teeth having been straightened with a “pelican”, a form of braces, and her unruly hair tamed (2), she was married before 5,000 guests to Louis, still the king-to-be, just 16. When he became king in 1774 after the death of his father, Louis XV, he put her in charge of amusing the court (possibly to keep her out of politics), so her life was full of “horse races, balls, music, theater, lavish parties and an expensive lifestyle.” (3)  Or, as suggested in the article “Marie Antoinette”, she was just bored with court life. (4)

At any rate, music remained Marie's passion.  After moving to Paris she took up the harp, which at that time was one of the most popular instruments for young ladies to play. Marie's daily music studies included harp lessons with Philippe-Joseph Hinner and voice lessons with Christoph Willibald Gluck, and she gave frequent concerts for her guests at court.

The harp was experiencing rapid development at this point in history.  The single-action pedal harp (5) had been invented by Jacob Hockbrucker around 1720, and even though the mechanism seems crude by today's standards (keeping the harp in tune was an issue, for one example), the pedal harp had swept through Europe by 1740.  In 1774, for Marie's 19th birthday, Jean-Louis Naderman made her a beautiful harp decorated with flowers and hand-painted depictions of Minerva (the patroness of artists); this harp is now part of the collection of the Musée Municipal de Vendome in Central France.  Another of Marie's harps resides at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.


(from “A Covent Garden Gilfurt’s Guide to Life, Thursday, 2 October 2014)

Marie's birthday harp reflected the luxuriantly bedecked surroundings of Versailles.  "The harps of this period were magnificently decorated with relief carving, lavishly gilded and hand painted.  Besides being musical instruments they were undoubtedly prized as objets d'art when displayed in the gilded salons of the era." (6)  "The small room in which [Marie] passed much of her time, 'The Queen's Cabinet,' was decorated in white and gold, with a mirror draped in silk.  The furniture was delicate, slim, exquisite.  A harp, a desk laden with music, and her harpsichord by Taskin, always open, tell of her favorite pursuit." (7)

“Marie Antoinette playing the harp at the French Court” by Jean-Baptiste André Gaurier d’Agoty, 1777

Largely because of Marie's interest, the harp experienced a "golden age" in France, and by 1780 it "had become the must-play instrument for French demoiselles." (8) To quote a letter of the time, "The harp is today the instrument in fashion; all our ladies are passionate to play it." (9) Another writer commented, "It allow[ed] them to 'show off their pretty hands, the nimbleness of their fingers, and even their dainty little feet and ankles'." (10)  One presumes it also allowed them to demonstrate their intelligence, skill, and artistry, though apparently that was of less importance.

In his Harp Spectrum article "The Louis XVI Harp", recently retired Swiss harp maker Beat Wolf describes features of the harps of the day. “Most Louis XVI harps of 1770-1800 were staved-back with 7-9 sides, rather than rounded, with a maple box and a spruce soundboard. Unlike modern harps, there were round holes in the soundboard, but were none in the soundbox.                      

Accidentals were made with seven single-action pedals, attached by rods in the front pillar to hook (crochet) or pincher (Bequilles) mechanisms in the neck. In 1786 the forked disc mechanism was developed by Sebastian Erard, and by 1820 most pedal harps had it.                     

“In Paris the usual tuning pitch before 1800 was around 405 - 415 Hz. Several instruments around 1770 show very long measure (string lengths), for which even a lower pitch around 392 Hz is recommended, so that the treble strings do not break.

“For practical reasons the music scene committed itself to a pitch at a1 = 415 Hz for the music of the 18th century; this is a half-tone lower than the today's “official” pitch. Unfortunately even this 415-norm is now frequently raised: 430 Hz seems great “fashion” today. However there is hardly an original harp that could be used at such a high pitch. This fact must put in doubt the authenticity of a performance at 430 Hz: For example W. A. Mozart wrote his flute/harp concerto in 1778 for an aristocrat’s daughter in Paris; to sound authentic it would have to be performed at 415 Hz or even lower.” (11)

Marie Antoinette not only inspired others to play the harp but also encouraged composers to write for it. The rising stars who had flocked to Paris for her patronage included Hinner, Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz, Domenico Scarlatti, Mozart, Johann David Hermann, Johann Baptist Hockbrucker, CPE Bach, Gluck and Antonio Rosetti, and all contributed enduring favorites to the classical harp repertoire. Not only was it a pleasure for Marie-Antoinette to play for her guests and have compositions written for her, she also wrote tunes herself, and as a young mother she would lull her children to sleep with her own melodies. (12)

Some of the works written for harp at that time were:

Hinner: Sonata for harp and fortepiano in E-Flat major
Hinner:  Sonata Duets in F major, E major, B major and C major

Krumpholtz:  Sonata for harp and forte-piano in C major
Krumpholtz: Concerto Op. 7 in B-flat major

Hermann: Concerto in F major

J-B Hockbrucker: Six Sonates pour la harpe

Coelestin Hochbrucker: Six Sonates pour la harpe

CPE Bach: Sonata in G major

Gluck: harp solo of the “Danse des esprits bien heureux” in Orphée et Eurydice

Scarlatti: K 77 and K 85 for harp

Rosetti:  Six Harp Sonatas

Of course, Marie Antoinette did come to a tragic end. After Louis was executed, she was imprisoned, alone, away from her children and her music for two and a half months “in a noisy, mouldy dungeon that reeked of pipe smoke, rat urine, and poor sanitation”… though her wardens provided “small comforts: a pillow, a small table with two straw chairs, a small wooden box of powder and a tin pot of pomade.” (13)  One day she heard the music of a harp, but, sadly and ironically, it was being played by the daughter of the glazier who was repairing a window of her cell. (14) She was put to death at the guillotine on October 16, 1793 at age 37 on the Place de la Concorde.

While Marie Antoinette may be remembered most for her lavish (but not unusual) courtly lifestyle and the manner of her death, we must not forget that for her entire adult life she was a passionate devotée and patron of the harp.  Marie deserves our gratitude and respect: her influence on the history of the harp and the music composed for it is remarkable.





4. See an explanation of the single-action harp at

5. Pierre de Nolhac: Marie Antoinette, 1909, from Harvard College Library

6. Richard Wigmore in a review of CD “La Harpe Reine”

7. The Invention of the 18th Century: the Harp Organisée and Pedals by Maria Christina Cleary in the American Harp Journal, Winter 2018. Footnote 48 quotes Charles-Simon Favart:  “La harpe est aujourd’hui l’instrument à la mode; toutes les dames ont la fureur d’en jouer.”



10. The Final Days of Marie Antoinette from Marie Antoinette’s Head: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie   by Will Bashor (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016)

11. Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, 2000. Quoted by Elizabeth Jane Timms in



*I found the Krumpholz, Hermann, and Gluck pieces on a program by Xavier de Maistre at the Concert in Cité de la Musique Concert Hall, Nov. 23, 2016.

*Several others came from Paul Knoke, who sent me a program of a 2011 concert by himself and Mike Parker of music associated with Marie Antoinette at the Eastman School of Music.)

*You may be interested in Marie-Antoinette & Ses Airs, a CD release with soprano Anne Cambier and harpist Ann Fierens. “Through their performance of Hinner and Boely songs Cambier and Fierens successfully create a true to life image of Queen Marie-Antoinette, Versailles and her royal household. To put the songs in a historical context, Ann Fierens plays a historical harp (Louvet, Paris 1770, single action harp).”

You may also be interested in another Harp Spectrum article called “Gilding a Naderman Harp” by Valeria Martin in the Harp Building section.



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