The Aeolian Harp
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By Charles Rzepka
Invented in the seventeenth century
by a German Jesuit at Rome, Athanasius Kircher, the aeolian harp became a subject of European-wide scientific study and middle-class marketing during the Enlightenment and Romantic periods. However, it was most popular, and for the longest period of time, in England. In his Physiological Disquisitions of 1781, William Jones credited the poet Alexander Pope, laboring at his translation of Homer, with having stumbled across a reference to wind-induced string vibrations in the writings of the Homeric commentator Eustathius. According to Jones, a “Mr. Oswald” of “North Britain,” maker of violoncellos, confirmed Pope's discovery by exposing a lute to the narrow current of air admitted by an uplifted window-sash. Oswald began making and selling aeolian harps at his London shop around 1750. However, it was not until after Jones, a pupil of Oswald’s, published his account in 1781 that the device became a plaything of polite writers, readers, and listeners.
Thomas Hankins includes poets James Thomson and Christopher Smart, and novelist Tobias Smollett, all of whom made literary references to the wind harp, among the habitués of Oswald’s shop, along with the musicologist Charles Burney. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley featured the instrument in their poetry two generations later.
Aeolian harps could be manufactured quickly out of inexpensive materials. Typically, they were outsourced by music publishers, who advertised them for sale in their catalogues. The instrument consisted of an oblong wooden box with strings running lengthwise across the top, stretched over bridges at each end and attached to tuning pegs. Sometimes it was fitted with a slanted top to compress and accelerate the current of air blowing from outside—an innovation credited by David and Nina Groves to the Suffolk plowman poet, Robert Bloomfield, who in addition to writing about aeolian harps built and sold them to support himself.
A common misconception about the wind harp is that its strings are tuned to different pitches. In fact, they are all tuned alike, but because they have different diameters, they vibrate in response to a common wind velocity at different frequencies. These correspond to the Pythagorean overtone series of an octave, perfect fifth, major third, seventh, and so on. The result is, typically, a recognizable major triad, with untempered intervals—so-called “frictional tones”—often emerging at higher wind speeds.
As otherworldly as such music must have sounded to its listeners, the wind harp could not “[p]erform [its] task untouch'd, alone,” to paraphrase Bloomfield (“Aeolus,” c. 1800), without a good deal of “touching” by its owner both beforehand and afterwards. In this respect, it was more like a dog in need of grooming and an occasional stroll than a device you could set up and ignore, like a sundial. To judge from Bloomfield’s correspondence with clients like his patron, Capell Lofft, the aeolian harp was notoriously fickle. Changes in temperature or humidity could easily sour it, requiring laborious and delicate attention to the tuning pegs. Tighten the strings too much or too little, or place the harp at the wrong angle, and it could refuse to perform altogether. Nor could it be used in wet or cold weather, unless its owner was indifferent to frigid drafts and drizzle blowing in, not to mention the long-term effects of bad weather on the harp’s wooden sound-box. In England, at any rate, your Aeolian harp could be sitting quietly on a shelf or in a drawer for weeks or months at a time.
Is it a mere coincidence that the last known music publisher’s catalogue entry for “Aeolian Harps” dates from 1884, just three years before Emile Berliner patented the flat-disk gramophone?
Some eight decades after Shelley set it humming in readers' minds, the aeolian harp went out of fashion and out of mind, a victim to new, more sophisticated technologies of home audio decor. Emerson and Thoreau owned aeolian harps, but derived only pedestrian verse from them. Tennyson and Melville fared little better. By the 1890s, Robert Louis Stevenson was parodying “the Tyrolean harp,” as he called it, even as American parlor-poets like J. William Lloyd and Anne Throop were parodying themselves. A new age had dawned, an age of virtually endless auditory distraction.
Excerpted with permission from a paper presented by Professor Charles Rzepka
Photo courtesy of Toby Rzepka