Chromatic Academy | History

Index

At this point both new styles of harp were being perfected, and volumes of music was being churned out by myriads of obscure Parisian composers for both instruments. It was not until 1894 that things began to change. The company of Peyel and Wolff had now become the company of Wolff and Lyon, with the new arrival, Gustav Lyon, the man who reinvented the chromatic harp, swinging the factory’s technology over to the production of cross-strung concert harps. This he did at the request of a number of prominent harpists, including Felix Gottfroid, and with the blessings of M. Wolff who so despised the pedal harp that he burned every single one left in the factory at the death of his partner M. Pleyel. Over the next three or four years, the chromatic harp underwent a process of evolution, with over half a dozen models being produced by M. Lyon. He had the interesting habit of taking his massive instruments to the seaside to test the durability of the strings. Eventually he produced his proto-type, an instrument constructed on a reinforced metal triangle, one side of which goes up the post, one which constitutes the neck, and the last to which the mahogany sound box is attached.

The distinctive thing in the appearance of the instrument was the width of the neck, allowing the strings to cross at a more acute angle. The strings were not attached to the soundboard, because of the enormous tension involved, but rather passed through the soundboard and were attached, by way of 2cm. Springs, to a metal rod. At the neck, which was too thick for the conventional tuning pegs, M.Lyon had developed little ratchet tuning mechanisms which he called cheville D’Alibert, as well as a series of tuned metal bars which would provide the player with the pitch of all twelve individual strings upon the pressing of a little button. Not only did he have sound holes at the back of the instrument, he also had shutters in the sides of the harp’s sound-box, which could be opened and closed with a pedal, thus affecting the dynamics of the sound. He also provided a pedal for dampening the bass strings.

The strings were gut, although he had experimented with metal. Some of these harps weighed up to 60 kg. Between 1894 and 1930, when the last of the chromatic harps was made in their factory, Lyon and Wolff produced 930 instruments, as well as the very popular and smaller lute-harp with three and a half to five octaves. They also produced some abberations, such as the Integrated harp, which as well as having the chromatic cross-over, had a full set of pedals fixed to the diatonic row, which was tuned down a semi-tone lower, in C flat, like the concert harp. Initially the pedal harp and the chromatic harp were being played in equal proportion by harpists in France and Belgium, with nobody really able to make up their mind as to which was better.

The pedal harp, however, began gaining ground, particularly with composers of opera and ballet, of whom there were many, the majority of whom are now forgotten along with their turgid works, simply because it was capable of playing tuned glissandi. A course for chromatic harp was introduced at the Conservatorium in Brussells in 1900, under the direction of Jean Risler, while the Paris Conservatorium introduced a course in 1904, under the direction of Madam Tassu-Spenser. While this course closed down in 1930, that at the Brussell’s Conservatorium continues to this day, with Odile Tackoen and Francette Bartholomee having been the two major forces over the post-war years, and with the cause being well promoted at the end of the twentieth century by Hannelore Devaere, whose doctoral thesis on the chromatic harp is probably the most complete reference book we have. 


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