As a young student I always played on American harps—those by Lyon & Healy or Wurlitzer.  It wasn’t until one day that a friend sent me a link to a Skinner auction listing for something of a rarity—an Érard harp built in 1905, that my interest in older instruments began.  Just as any young student, I had a passing understanding that Érard had invented the double action harp in 1808 and so on, but I realized that I had never seen one in person, let alone played one.  At that time, there wasn’t as much interest in antique harps as there is today, old instruments were seen as liabilities, restoring an antique harp was regarded as a money-pit, and many of Érard’s once great instruments were relegated to attics and the corners of conservatories’ harp rooms, left in various states of disrepair.  This harp was old, large chunks of the plaster ornament were missing, the neck was warped, the column curved, and the soundboard split open, but I was intrigued, and so I bought what had once been the world’s top-of-the-line harp for about $700US.


This harp fascinated me.  The pedals were unusual, and the mechanism foreign to me.  It had 47 strings, just like a new harp, but it was almost a foot shorter than my (at that time) new American harp.  After some research, I found out that the structure of this harp was incapable of being strung with the same strings I used on my new harp, and that it needed a slightly lighter gauge lest I risk damage.  I began to wonder—how did we get from there to here?  Was this the work of the harp maker most familiar to me, Lyon & Healy?  If so, what were the specific contributions of Lyon & Healy to this design?


This question has driven my artistic and academic career ever since.  Restoring old harps became an addiction, and my collection eventually grew to around 20 instruments, which I enjoyed repairing, researching, and, eventually, playing, tailoring programs to highlight the music of the harp’s time.


In writing this paper, it is my goal to cast a light on the most important changes to the harp made by American inventors at the turn of the century for the Lyon & Healy firm and answer the question— what specific changes were made by Lyon & Healy that make the harp what it is today?  In so doing, I hope to better understand my instrument, inspire further scholarly study of this subject, and improve my ability to perform on, restore, and maintain antique American harps.