The Gothic Harp


The next important patent in the development of the harp is Pierre-Orphée Érard’s 1835 patent no. 6962, extending the range of the harp to its modern standard, 46 strings (later 47).1  This patent gave birth to the “Gothic” model harp, whose basic design would be the standard, even among other makers, well into the early half of the 20th century.


The Gothic model harp featured a tripartite column.  Both the capitol and base sections were hexagonal, featuring decorative elements typical of the Gothic Revival style.  The caryatids of the Grecian had become angels, and the delicate zoomorphic feet of old were replaced by metal gargoyles.  The gothic design was universally copied by other harp makers of the time, and would soon become an international standard (see figure 20).


The Gothic harp had 46 (later 47) strings.  The two lowest strings (C1 and D1) were not mechanized, their usage being rare enough in the literature that they were re-tuned manually as required.  The mechanism functioned much the same as that employed by the Grecian but was expanded to include the larger range.  Externally linked fourchettes extended from E1 to A3, internally linked fourchettes from B3 to A4, and independent fourchettes from B4 to E7.


The Gothic model harp was instantly popular and became Érard’s “standard” model.  The company would continue to build this model until they ceased production in the 1950s.  Although the firm would later introduce several other models, namely the “Louis XVI,” a revival of the 18th century scroll-style, the Empire style, a natural wood harp decorated with brass mounts, and most fascinating, the Japonaise style, designed in imitation of Chinese and Japanese traditional wood carving.


By 1801, many harp makers began to think towards a prospective “double mechanism” like the one developed earlier by Cousineau.  Érard, now a highly successful harp maker, clearly saw the utility of such a mechanism and began to take measures to ensure his company’s intellectual ownership of such an invention.  According to researcher Robert Adelson, Érard purchased the 14-pedal harp made by Cousineau sometime in the late 18th century, likely for study purposes in the development of a more streamlined design.2


In 1801 Érard was awarded a patent for his first double action harp (Érard 1801). This harp was based on Cousineau’s béquille system, but with a few key differences.  Of course, being a double-action harp, the béquilles were capable of being set to three positions (flat, natural, and sharp).  In contrast to Cousineau’s complex 14-pedal system, Érard’s design employed only a single pedal for each string.  While a prototype was made of this instrument, it was never produced for sale (Adelson 2019, p. 7).


Érard’s new pedal mechanism expanded upon the L-shaped notch in the pedal box of previous harps.  His new system allowed the player to depress the pedal a second time, beyond the first notch, into a second, lower notch, thus allowing the player to alternate between all three possible tones for each string (see figure 18). (Adelson 2019 p. 7)

By 1808, Érard returned to the fourchette as the basis for his fully chromatic harp.  An 1808 patent3 which Érard updated two years later in 18104, shows two rows of fourchettes.  The 1810 patent further refined the basic design of the mechanism and production of the new double action harp began, Érard selling his first double action harp in 1811.5  This would be the birth of the so-called "Grecian" harp,6 which can, for all intents and purposes, be considered a “modern” harp, as all subsequent harps operate on the same basic principle from a mechanical point of view.

Mechanics of the Double Action Grecian Harp

The mechanism of Érard's double action harp was highly complex.  This 43-string harp (Eto E7) expanded upon the design of his single action harp, where each pedal operated a single, linear chain.  Featuring two sets of fourchettes operating each string, the double action harp broke this linearity, as each spindle (with the exception of the high range) was now linked to a second spindle.  These linkages came in one of two types, depending on their location: external and internal.  From E1 to B3, "external linkages" were used.  In the range of these strings, a single row of chains ran through the internal portion of the mechanism, operating the lower "sharp spindles."   These spindles were not threaded where they exited the mechanism, but rather drilled with a lateral hole, allowing for the attachment of the external hardware.  Figure 19 shows the external hardware on an Érard double action harp.

The spindle attaches to the lower (sharp) fourchette (g) with a steel pin running through corresponding holes drilled in both pieces.  A steel bar, attached to each piece with rivets, connects the lower fourchette (g) to a toggle (d) which is mounted on a small steel fulcrum (e) protruding from the action plate.  The toggle connects to the upper (natural) fourchette (c) by another riveted steel bar.  This upper fourchette (c) is directly attached to a second spindle, which fits through a hole drilled through the action plate, and the wooden neck, attaching on the opposite end with a small screw.


This design had both benefits and drawbacks.  Locating the linkages of the low range of the harp externally allowed for increased thickness of the wooden neck, such that it could extend much further into the space between the action plates, allowing for heavier stringing.  It meant, however, that the only method of adjusting intonation and "grip" (a term used by harp technicians to refer to the degree to which the fourchette engages the string which must be carefully balanced such that it is not too loose, causing buzzes as the string snaps against the teeth, or too tight, causing excessive wear to the strings) on these low strings would be to adjust the length of the pedal rods, or by adjusting the moveable string nuts (although this would only affect the flat-natural intonation.)

The portion of the mechanism running from C3 to B4 was equipped with "internal linkages."  These linkages resembled the external linkages, but were located inside the brass action plates.  From C3 to E7, the spindles were not linked, but diverged into two separate arms, operating "independent fourchettes," so called for their lack of linkages.

The decoration of the Grecian harp was similar to that of the earlier single action harp, but with the ram's head motifs replaced with winged caryatids.

An early English Érard Gothic can be heard below in video 3.

Figure 19-Illustration of the external hardware of an Érard harp from his 1810 patent no. 3332 (London 1810) in the flat (left) natural (center) and sharp (right) positions.

Figure 18-Illustration of the double-slotted pedal (bottom) and a single-slotted pedal (top) from Pierre-Orphée Érard's The harp in its present and improved state (London 1821)

Video 3-An excerpt from Bach's 3rd French Suite performed on an Érard Gothic

Figure 20-Érard Gothic harp no. 3194, built in 1905, collection of the author.

The Double Action Harp