New developments in England drove the design of the Empire harp.  Rather than the intricate hand carving typical of earlier harps, the Empire harp utilized a material called "compo."  Compo is a mixture of glue, plaster, and any number of ingredients which can be placed into moulds, dried, then steamed, at which point the ornament becomes pliable enough to stretch, bend, manipulate, and eventually apply to a prepared substrate. 


The use of compo had several important implications. Wood carving was greatly simplified.  The wooden part of the Empire's column could be made entirely on a lathe, a departure from the intricate hand carving of earlier French harps.  The use of moulds also allowed for endless production of standardized intricate, but identical, instruments.


While certainly a fast, cheap alternative to hand carving, compo ornamentation has its drawbacks.  Compo lacks the strength of solid wood and is prone to damage, and has a tendency to crack with age and exposure to certain climatic conditions.  Nonetheless, this technique, and the Empire style would soon be widely imitated by other harp makers (Baldwin p. 82).  An early 19th century fourchette harp can be heard below in Video 2.

The fourchette harp departed from the French design in more aspects than just its mechanism.  Necks were now made from several laminated pieces of wood (Érard 1820, p. 4), increasing strength, and the soundbox was rounded, rather than staved (Érard 1820, p. 3).


Decoration of Érard's Single-Action Fourchette Harp


Érard would revolutionize the decoration of the harp on a massive scale.  The decoration of the harp generally follows that of furniture and decorative art.  In truth the harp, with its large size and relative immobility is itself a piece of furniture.


By the dawn of the 19th century, the rocaille, acanthus leaves, and fluid lines typical of French harps and of the Louis XV style in general had become passé.  This style was also not necessarily to English taste, where it never reached the degree of flamboyance seen in French furniture (with the possible exception of the work of Thomas Chippendale.)  Increased interest in the architectural styles of the ancient societies of the Mediterranean, Rome, Greece, and Egypt, gave birth to the Style Empire in France and the Regency style in Britain.  Érard's harp was a testament to these styles, decorated with palmettes, egg-and-dart trimmings, and crowned with a ring of ram's heads.

The fourchette system seemed the perfect solution to the question of how to produce clear semitones.  It was simpler mechanically than Cousineau’s béquille system, it allowed the string to stay in alignment with the others when engaged unlike the crochets, its lighter torque, owing to the double teeth, reduced string wear and breakage.  Indeed, the fourchette’s success is evident in its adoption by other harp makers of the time who had previously employed other types, such as Antoine Challiot, almost every English harp maker, and even on one occasion the notoriously conservative French harp-maker Jean-Henri Naderman.  Pierre-Orphée Érard describes the advantages of the fourchette mechanism over the earlier crochets in The harp in its present and improved state compared with the original pedal harp:

"…The system of cranks and rods… which actuate the motion, [of the crochet mechanism] is constructed upon so wrong a principle… that it cannot be depended upon to stop the string, when shortened to the degree of a semitone, with sufficient tightness to produce as clear and pure a tone as when open." (Érard 1821, p. 2-3)


Later in the same text, Érard goes on to claim that the fourchette was


 " universally acknowledged to be superior to any other means known or employed for the purpose of shortening the string, to give it another tone, that all the harp-makers in the United Kingdom avail themselves of the invention." (Érard 1821, p.4)

The fourchette consisted of a small cylindrical brass disc.  At opposite ends of the disc were two tapered “teeth.”  In the center of the disc was a threaded hole, where the fourchette was attached to the spindle (see figure 13).  Upon depression of the pedal, the spindle and its attached fourchette would rotate, both teeth engaging the string from opposite directions, raising the pitch by a semitone.


Érard would further refine this design, giving the pedal the form that it retains to the present day.  In this new design, shown in figure 15, the “pedal spring” (G) was now moved from the neck to the pedal box.  The new pedal springs were now thick, coiled, soft steel wires in a “V” shape, with a small nodule turning off at a right angle at each end.  These nodules fit into corresponding holes drilled into both the pedal and the end of the “pedal post” (H) a small steel post attached to the base-frame of the harp.  The pedal rod now attached to the pedal bar by screwing into a small brass “pedal coupling” (E) which in turn was attached to the bar with a small screw (F).   The rod would attach to the mechanism situated in the neck via a threaded coupling riveted to the rod/coupling lever.

Each “pedal hinge” (C) screwed into one of two metal components attached to the underside of the harp, drilled with female threads.  The four “right foot pedals” (operating strings E, F, G, A) into one, attached directly to the baseboard of the harp, and the “left foot pedals” (operating strings D, C, B) to a similar component, this one mounted on a small block of wood glued to the baseboard, allowing the four left foot pedals to cross diagonally underneath the right foot pedals (see figure 16).  Around this time, “pedal wrappings” were introduced, at that time made from leather, which were wrapped around the pedal bar at the point where it exited the pedal box, to reduce extraneous noise from the motion of the pedals.

The springs on early fourchette harps were once again relocated.  The 1794 patent places these springs on the “low” end of the chain (near the pillar) such that the chains were now pushed back into the neutral position rather than pulled (see figure 12).  The pedal rod/chain coupling levers were now once again stacked one atop the other and secured by a single fulcrum, much like those of Hochbrucker.  This design economized on space, and allowed for simpler production of the pedal rods, as they could now be uniform in length, but complicated assembly of the instrument, as to attach the pedal rod to these couplings, one must lay the harp down with the pillar touching the ground or work surface, feed the rod through the hollow pillar, then align the rod with the coupling at the top of the harp, and finally screw the rod into place, an often frustrating task that generally requires two people to accomplish.


In 1802 Érard filed patent no. 2595 (itself an update of the 1801 patent no. 2502) featuring a new design for the harp’s pedals.1  While the mechanism described in this patent was eventually abandoned, the design for the pedal would be retained.  The 1802 design consisted of only a single component, as opposed to the two separate levers of previous harps (see figure 14).  The pedal consisted of a steel “pedal bar” (A) which was fitted at one end with a hinge (B), and on the other end with the brass “pedal pad” (C).  The pedal rod (D) was passed through a hole roughly at the midpoint of the pedal bar where it was secured with a nut (E).

In 1794, Érard would file the first English patent for harps, no. 2016, describing his new fourchette mechanism.2  The mechanism described in this 1794 patent represents an important departure from the system used by earlier harp makers.  Much like his first harp, the moving parts previously housed in the hollowed-out neck were now housed between a set of twin brass “action plates” secured to the neck with screws.  The internal structure of the fourchette mechanism is shown in figure 12.  The “chains” (D) contained between these plates consisted of a series of flat steel bars, riveted at several points to “spindles” (E).  The spindles exited the brass plates through a series of small holes, and the portion sticking out of the plates was threaded.  The spindles were secured in place on the right side of the mechanism (from the player’s perspective), termed the “back-plate,” with small steel “adjustor screws” which served to prevent the spindles from producing extraneous vibrations.


Upon the spindles was mounted arguably the most important single piece of hardware in the history of the harp, the fourchette.

Arguably the most important name in the history of harp making is Sébastien Érard.  Born in 1752 in Strasbourg to a Swiss furniture builder, Érard would go on to found the Maison Érard, the longest operating harp manufacturer in history, operating for nearly 200 years.


By 1777, Érard had begun building pianos, and began building harps beginning ca. 1785 (Baldwin p. 49).  Érard was preoccupied by the issues presented by previous mechanical systems, and, ever inventive, endeavored to correct these problems.


Érard’s first harp, today in the collection of the Fonds Gaveau, Érard, et Pleyel was something entirely new.  On this harp the mechanism was housed between two brass "action plates" attached by screws to either side of the neck, such that the mechanism could be easily attached or removed, for ease of production and assembly, or to facilitate repair.  Each string was fretted by two rotating “teeth” set into these plates.  This was an early prototype for what is now known as the fourchette mechanism.

 In 1785, the Érard firm became embroiled in a dispute with the Parisian fan-maker's guild.  Upon seeking out the intervention of king Louis XVI, Érard was rewarded with the patronage of the royal family.  This association would soon imperil the young luthier in the fast-approaching French revolution.  Faced with  social unrest and conflict with authorities, Érard decided to relocate his business to London in 1792, opening a factory at 18 Great Marlborough Street and leaving the Paris workshop under the supervision of his brother, Jean-Baptiste Érard (Baldwin p. 49)

Érard's move to England would give birth to a distinct English style of harp making, to such an extent that, in 1820, Pierre-Orphée Érard, nephew of Sébastien, published a pamphlet entitled The harp in its present and improved state, distancing the harps developed in England from what he dubs "French" harps (Érard 1820).  With the proliferation of harp makers in London, the "English harp" was born.

Figure 16-The pedals of a ca. 1810 fourchette harp with the pedal box removed, collection of the author.

Figure 14-Illustration of the 1802 pedal design from Pierre-Orphée Érard's The harp in its present and improved state.

Figure 12-A labelled illustration from Érard's 1794 patent no. 2016 of a single pedal chain.  A-pedal rod, B-upper rod coupling, C-spring, D-pedal chain, E-rotating spindle

Figure 15-Illustration of a modern pedal/spring design from Érard's The Harp

Figure 13-Diagram of a fourchette

The "English Harp"

Figure 17-A fourchette harp by Antoine Challiot in imitation of the Érard design, ca. 1810, collection of the author.

The Fourchette Mechanism

Video 2-Excerpt from Krumpholtz's 1st Sonate pour la Harpe performed on a fourchette harp, ca. 1810