Regal History of Harp Making
Carrying on the Tradition
By Alex Starace
The honeyed notes of the harp call to mind medieval music played in the presence of royalty. And, in fact, this isn’t a fanciful image: Harps first appeared in Western civilization in Ireland in the eighth century. By the late Middle Ages, a pedestal was added and the instrument appeared in kingly courts across Europe. The harp’s popularity with aristocracy continued unabated for several centuries. Marie Antoinette, for example, received an ornate harp on the year of her accession in 1774. It was her favorite instrument, which she studied under the tutelage of a master harpist.
But did you know that the harp also has a much broader history? Harps were common in Egypt, possibly as early as 3000 BCE. These early harps were bow-shaped, most likely inspired by the bow-and-arrow. Because they didn’t have a supporting pedestal to counteract the string tension, they had far fewer strings. Similar instruments were found in the ancient Cycladic art of the Greek Isles, as well as in ancient Mesopotamia.
Zooming forward to the present day, one of the world’s premiere harpmakers is, surprisingly enough, smack-dab in the middle of America’s heartland. The Lyon & Healy harpmaking company, which has clients as august as the New York Philharmonic, the Russian National Orchestra and La Scala Theater, houses its production facility in an unassuming brick building just west of Chicago’s Loop. South Florida Opulence had an opportunity to visit the facility, learn more about the harpmaking process and see just what makes for a world-class harp.
Steve Fritzmann, the national sales manager for Lyon & Healy (and a former master harpmaker), explained on a tour that while a harp may appear to be a static instrument, it actually has a very complicated pedal system. At Lyon & Healy, all 2,000 pieces within the harp’s string-and-pedal mechanism are painstakingly assembled by hand, an attention to detail sets the company apart – as it has from the beginning.
Lyon & Healy was founded in 1864 as a sheet music shop in a wobbly, wooden building at the intersection of Clark and Washington Streets in Chicago. The shop, like so many others, burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1871, though the company’s founders, George W. Lyon and Patrick J. Healy, rebuilt. Soon, Lyon & Healy expanded its activities to instrument repair and Healy noticed that he was doing brisk business repairing harps, many of which seemed poorly made. He vowed to do better – and to build the best harp known to mankind.
His first harp debuted in 1889, after years of prototypes and research. By the 1890s, Lyon & Healy was established as a top-quality harpmaking company and the company’s signature Style 23 harp was introduced. Known for its beauty, craftsmanship and sound quality, Lyon & Healy’s Style 23 is now considered by many to be the most recognizable harp in the world.
Today, the company continues to focus on quality. Fritzmann explained that a Lyon & Healy soundbox is made from hard rock maple sourced from the Midwest and cured in a dehumidified, temperature-controlled chamber. The soundboard itself is Sitka spruce, sourced from the northwestern United States and Canada. Combined, they form the sound chamber, which needs to be flawlessly constructed, both so the harp’s sound remains pure, and so that the instrument doesn’t break under the string tension. “It’s a very complex machine,” explained Fritzmann.
It’s also an instrument of great artistry. Lyon & Healy’s ornate pedestals are hand carved by master artisans who specialize in floral detailing. The company even has a dedicated gilding room, where gold is applied. True to tradition, Lyon & Healy uses the same water gilding technique the company has used for over a century. And the gold is of superior quality: “It’s twenty-three-plus carat, the purest gold it can be,” said Fritzmann. Such attention to detail results in a gorgeous instrument with a sound that has, as Fritzmann described, “an even, full, bell-like quality that really resonates and speaks well.”
It’s an instrument that can last for decades – and that carries on the tradition of the royal, courtly harp of yesteryear.