The History of a Revolutionary Era Through the Biography of a Harp

In 2014, while selecting instruments for the new permanent exhibition of musical instruments at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, I came across a harp bearing the signature ‘Sebastian Erard’s // Patent N 2631 // 18 Great Marlborough Street LONDON’ (Figure 1).  

Figure 1: Erard No 2631, the harp at the Deutsches Museum, Munich (Inv. No. 16147). (Photograph © Deutsches Museum). 

With its elegant silhouette, sophisticated mechanism, and impressive ornamentation in black and gold, the instrument instantly drew my attention. Apart from a short description in a museum catalogue and a few details included in the museum’s records, virtually nothing was known about this harp.  

My brief examination of the instrument, which according to archival evidence was built in 1818 by the Erard firm in London, instantly raised several questions: Was this harp a unique object or were there similar harps produced by the Erard firm that have survived? With what materials and methods was it constructed and how much did it cost? Why was it decorated with motives inspired from Greek antiquity? How did the harp’s eight pedals function and how may it have sounded? And what could one find out by investigating the biography of this harp about the historical background in which it was developed? 

Little did I imagine where my encounter with this instrument would take me. 

Soon I learned that there were numerous Erard harps of this model, called ‘Grecian’ because of their neoclassical decoration, kept in museums and private collections around the world waiting to be studied. My quest for information on Erard Grecian harps led to a long and fascinating research journey, generously funded by the ‘Research in Museums’ programme of the Volkswagen Foundation. I travelled to many countries, from Spain to Japan, to examine these instruments in situ, often in collaboration with conservators and material scientists (Figure 2). This ‘hands-on’ interaction with the original artefacts helped me to learn a lot about their manufacture and usage.  

Figure 2: Examination of Erard No 2672, a harp similar to Erard No 2631, housed at the Muziekinstrumenten Museum, Brussels (Inv. No. 3952), during a research visit by the author in 2017 (Photograph © Panagiotis Poulopoulos). 

Moreover, countless contacts with musicians, instrument makers, collectors, curators, and historians enabled me to get access not only to extant harps, but to a wide variety of primary sources, ranging from patent drawings, newspapers announcements, bills and maps, to music treatises, portraits and caricatures.  This material provided new insights into the advertising strategies, professional networks and customer profile of the Erard firm as a leading harp and piano manufacturer as well as revealing the powerful symbolism of Erard harps and their significant role in the lifestyle of contemporary society, especially in comparison to other popular instruments such as the piano or guitar. 

This combination of object-based and archival research employing interdisciplinary methods and approaches was necessary to thoroughly document the development of Erard harps during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Moreover, it helped to further analyse their production and marketing in the broader context of musical instrument making and the related luxury trades, thus identifying previously overlooked influences and links. Above all, the range and richness of the collected material allowed me to understand that Erard Grecian harps are multifaceted objects that vividly reflect the musical, technological, economic, and sociocultural developments of the period in which they were made and used. 

Focusing on musical instruments from the perspective of material culture and history, rather than music, this book uncovers aspects and themes that are often missing in common musicological publications. My research encompassed the evolution of precision screws and lathes; improvements in the design of steam engines; the importance (and danger) of burning candles in instrument-making workshops; unusual transactions involving wine as barter for instruments; or scandalous accounts of industrial espionage, counterfeit, theft, and bankruptcy, to name but a few.  

My hope is that The Erard Grecian Harp in Regency England, embellished with many illustrations, will immerse readers in the thrilling backdrop of the Regency era, a time associated with groundbreaking advances, such as the Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, as well as with famous personalities, such as Jane Austen or Lord Byron, both of whom were familiar with the looks and sounds of Erard Grecian harps.  

And there is more: the Erard harp I examined in 2014 became a highlight of the new permanent exhibition of musical instruments at the Deutsches Museum and my research contributed to its display and contextualisation. If you find yourself in Munich, please take the opportunity to experience many of the topics and objects described in the book ‘live’ in the display ‘Sébastien Erard and the Development of the Modern Harp’ (Figure 3). 

Figure 3: The display of Erard No 2631 in the new exhibition of musical instruments at the Deutsches Museum, Munich (Photograph © Deutsches Museum). Titled ‘Sébastien Erard and the Development of the Modern Harp’, the display presents many of the research findings described in the book in an engaging and entertaining way, using a combination of historical artefacts, facsimiles, ‘hands-on’ objects, and demonstrations along with texts, images, and drawings. 

Even if you are not a harp enthusiast and have never heard of Erard, I believe this book will still be interesting for you: in its pages, you will discover many captivating facts and stories not only about Erard Grecian harps, but also about one of the most turbulent and fascinating periods in European history. 

This guest post was written by Panagiotis Poulopoulos. Panagiotis holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh and is research associate in the Department of Technology at the Deutsches Museum, Munich. His research interests include the history of instruments of music and science as well as interactions between technology and culture. 

The Erard Grecian Harp in Regency England is available to read free online as an Open Access eBook available under the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND, thanks to funding from the ‘Research in Museums’ programme of the Volkswagen Foundation.

A paperback edition is also available and Proofed readers receive 35% off with code BB897

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