Chapter six.


The harp in Latin America


“[…] One of the Indian boys in the new village who learned with me to play the harp progressed so much that he now masterfully plays in it the most difficult "suites" of world-renowned composers such as Schmelzer and complicated pieces partly written for violin by Biber and Truebner. […]”

Anton Sepp, Relación de Viaje a Las Misiones Jesuíticas (Buenos Aires: EUDEBA, 1971).


            As already partially discussed in the previous chapters, the harp is an instrument with very ancient roots. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, it was already perfectly integrated into the musical and theatrical culture of many European countries, particularly England and Spain.

            An instrument often associated with the figure of kings — King David is always portrayed with a harp on his lap — as it is considered “[…] the most appropriate Symbol of a Monarchy” because “when the right impulse of the hand that supports it, each string plays, in accordance with the temperament that determines it […]”,1 it soon began to be an integral part of the tradition of jesters and minstrels from England and troubadours and trouvères from France.2

            In Spain, between the XII and XV centuries, the flourishing of poetry and music was amazing and began the practice of "importing" minstrels from England to perform in the Iberian courts.3

            Miguel Querol Gavaldá, in his study of music in the works of Miguel de Cervantes, points out that during the Renaissance there were mainly two contexts in which the harp was used: in the streets, by jesters and acrobats, who used a small, easily transportable instrument that was mainly used to accompany songs; and in the domestic environment, where the instrument was dedicated to a more intimate use and that, because it was fixed in a single place, tended to be larger than that used by minstrels and to have more strings, so as to be useful, in addition to the accompaniment, to the performance of solo songs.4 It is probably this second type of instrument for which composers such as Henestrosa and Cabezón conceived their music collections.


1 Diego Fernandez de Huete, Compendio numeroso de zifras armonicas, con theorica, y practica, para Harpa de una orden, de dos ordenes y de Organo, 1st ed., vol. 1, 3 vols. (Madrid: Imprenta de Musica, 1702),, p. 1.


2 A poetic-musical phenomenon originating in France. Between 1070 and 1220, the Troubadours flourished and worked in the southern provinces (Provence, Languedoc, Limousin, Auvergne) in an environment of feudal nobility, and their literary production was expressed in the langue d’oc. The Trouvères, on the other hand, operating in the regions of northern France between 1145 and 1300, and mostly proceeding from the monastic world or from the small bourgeoisie, expressed themselves in the langue d’oil (the language that gave rise to modern French).

3 Among these include, for example, the joglaressa Catarina d’Anglaterra who arrived in Spain to perform in the XIV century.

4 Miguel Querol Gavaldá, La Música En Las Obras de Cervantes (Barcelona: Ediciones Comtalia, 1948), pp. 142-143.


            It is highly probable that the first harps arrived in the new world already with the first conquerors and settlers,9 after which various missionary orders — in particular that of the Jesuits — helped to establish the harp as one of the main instruments both in liturgical practices and in secular life. Since the arrival of the first Franciscans in 1523, as we have seen, much emphasis was placed on the evangelization of the indigenous people, especially, and thanks to Pedro de Gante, through music. In the missionary schools of artes y oficios (arts and crafts) it is not unthinkable that, in addition to the teaching of plainsong and polyphony, the indigenous people should also be trained in instrumental performance, in the construction of instruments and in the copying of music books.

            There is not enough evidence to determine whether the Spanish double harp ever arrived in the New World. While Cristina Bordas asserts that this instrument was never played outside its native country,10 Gonzalo Camacho Díaz, in his “El arpa en el México Colonial. Entre lo sacro y lo secular, la transculturación y la mixtura musical”, speculates on the possibility of the presence of the double harp in the musical chapels of the viceroyalties, based on the repertoire of the period.11 The only musical source that corroborates Camacho's theory would be a writing by Father Antonio Sepp, where a “two choirs”12 harp is mentioned.13 Another point in favour of this theory, as Costanza Alruiz and Laura Fahrenkrog point out in their article on the construction of musical instruments in the viceroyalty of Peru,14 would be a biographical fact about the theorist Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz. He visited Peru, as already mentioned, following the Count of Lemos in 1667, and was at the service of his court where he acquired all his musical knowledge. When, on his return to Spain, he published his treatise “Luz y Norte musical”, he will refer only and exclusively to double harps, leaving reasonable grounds for believing that he had learned the practice of this instrument in the Viceroy of Peru.


9 Gabriel Saldivar in his “Historia de la música en México (épocas precortesiana y colonial)” (1934) points out that, among the conquerors and the first settlers, there were already some who dedicated themselves to teaching music: “Among the conquistadors, those who dedicated themselves to teaching music were Benito Bejel or of Vejel, according to his signature, on fife, Maese Pedro, on harp, Ortiz the Nahuatl on vihuela and viola - these in Mexico City - and Alphonso Morón, on vihuela, in Colima”.

Gabriel Saldívar, Historia de La Música En México (Épocas Precortesiana y Colonial) (México: Talleres de la Editorial Cultura, 1934), p. 161.

10 Cristina Bordaset al.Arpa, in Diccionario de la Música Española e Hispanoamericana, ed. Emilio Casares, vol. 1 (Madrid: Sociedad General de Autores y Editores (SGAE), 1999), p. 709.

11 Gonzalo Camacho Díaz, El arpa en el México Colonial. Entre lo sacro y lo secular, la transculturación y la mixtura musical.Latin American Studies Association, XXI Internacional Congress, 1998, p. 2.

12 Considering the definition of chorus as “each of the two sectors, right and left, in which the chorus is divided to sing in alternation”, the harp with “two choruses of strings” would correspond to a specimen with two rows of strings, or two orders. Cfr., n. 12.

13 “I was receiving them [the Indians] from even the most remote reductions for me to instruct them […]. I taught them to play the organ, the harp (that of two string choirs) […] and not only learned to play it, but at the end also to build it, as well as other instruments. In various reductions there are, today, Indian masters who know how to make from the vibrant cedar wood a harp of David […]” in Piotr Nawrot, Indígenas y cultura musical de las reducciones jesuíticas, vol.1 (Bolivia: Editorial Verbo Divino, 2000), p. 12.

14 Costanza Alruiz and Laura Fahrenkrog, Construcción de instrumentos musicales en el Virreinato del Perú vínculos y proyecciones con Santiago de Chileop. cit., p. 55.

            The incredible spread of the harp in every “artistic” environment of the time can also be deduced from the flowering of ordinances for the guilds of luthiers in which it was specified that, to be considered as such, they had to be able to build various instruments, including the harp.5 This kind of ordinance also began to appear in the New World, both in the viceroyalty of New Spain6 and in that of Peru,7 from the XVI century, a symptom of the fact that the "fashion" of the harp had also been imported there by Spanish settlers. It is also interesting to note how, according to the findings of Omar Morales Abril, the harp became part of the cathedral music chapels of the New World at least a decade earlier than those of the motherland. In his study "El esclavo negro Juan de Vera: cantor, arpista y compositor de la catedral de Puebla (floruit 1575-1617)” he underlines the fact that the oldest evidence of a harp and a harpist in Hispanic cathedrals comes from the cathedral of Puebla de los Angeles (Mexico) and that regular use of the harp has been recorded since the 1630s — unlike the cathedrals of the Iberian peninsula, where it appears between 1643 and 1649.8

            It is evident from the iconography of the time preserved that certain types of harp arrived in the New World, since some of the "modern" derivatives have characteristics similar, if not identical, to those in the representations of the time. This is the case, for example, of the harp represented in the "Adoration of the Shepherds" (1638) by Francisco de Zurbarán, a Spanish painter, who presents two f-holes like those of the violins, a characteristic that can be found in some models of harps from the XIX and XX centuries found in Ecuador. Another example is the similarity between the harp by Joseph Hernandez of Valladolid — but also that of Ivan Lopez of Toledo — and the harps of the Peruvian Sierra of the XX century, which present, like their Spanish "ancestor", three "parallel" pairs of harmonic holes on the table.


5 “The luthier, in order to know his trade well, and attain in some eminence, must be able to make diverse instruments: a claviorgano, a lute, a harp.” Sevilla ordinance of February 14, 1527.

6 Juan Francisco del Barrio Lorenzot, in his Ordenanzas de gremios de la Nueva España, points out that, in accordance with the ordinance of 1568 approved by the chapter of the City of Mexico, the manufacturers of instruments had to prove that they had the ability to build various types of instruments, both string and keyboard, including the harp.

John M. Schechter, The Indispensable Harp: Historical Development, Modern Roles, Configurations, and Performance Practices in Ecuador and Latin America (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1992), p.31.

7 “[…] the bigolero in order to know well his trade and to be singular of it, has to know how to make instruments of many arts. He must know how to make a clabiorgano and a clabicinbano and a monocordio and a lute and a vihuela de arco and a harp and a big vihuela of pieces with his ataracias and other vihuelas that are less than all this […]”

Costanza Alruiz and Laura Fahrenkrog, ‘Construcción de instrumentos musicales en el Virreinato del Perú vínculos y proyecciones con Santiago de Chile’, Resonancias: Revista de investigación musical 12, no. 22 (May 2008), pp. 48-49.

8 Omar Morales Abril, El esclavo negro Juan de Vera. Cantor, arpista y compositor de la Catedral de Puebla (fl. 1575-1617), in sica y catedral: nuevos enfoques, viejas temáticas (Mexico: Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México, 2010), pp. 18-19.

            In consideration of all the above-mentioned antecedents, it is possible to suggest that both types of harps coexisted in the American territory, but with the strong supremacy of the diatonic model over the chromatic one.

            Initially, due to a lack of Spanish musicians, the indigenous people became — thanks to their incredible easy approach to music and to the excellent teachings provided in the missions and in the indigenous parishes — part of the music companies linked to the churches, both in New Spain and in the viceroyship of Peru, soon becoming too many, so much so as to make necessary, in the mid-XVI century, the ordinance to limit the use of certain instruments and the number of indigenous musicians and singers in the churches.

            However, the harp had its greatest development, as regards the Spanish colonies in America, in rural areas, starting from the missions and indigenous parishes to flourish in multiple forms spread throughout the continent. It is probable, therefore, that precisely because it developed in a rural environment, this instrument has not kept many written sources, relying mainly, both for teaching and for performing, on oral tradition and memory.

            According to the Argentinian harpist Marcela Méndez, the process of hybridisation of the harp, and of all the other instruments, as well as the repertoire, began with the expulsion of the Jesuits from their reducciones.15 This event led to the dispersion of the indigenous people living there, and to the consequent mixing, in the return to life with their consanguineous, of the European teachings received during their stay in the reducciones with the still existing native cultures and with the "criolla" one. From there, according to Méndez, began to develop what are now the local "folklores" of the various territories once subject to Spanish rule.


15 Marcela Méndez, Historia del arpa en la Argentina (Entre Ríos, Argentina: Editorial de Entre Ríos, 2004), p. 27.