Because I’ve discussed small items in my last few entries, I decided it was finally time to think big. Six feet tall, to be exact.
Friends, I give you my French Blaicher harp. This is its second internet debut! Last summer, it was chosen by the American Pickers as the winner of their weekly “Positively Priceless” contest. I’ll admit, this is one of my most favorite pieces that I own. It is also the most restoration-intensive. Based on the shallowness of the neck curve, this instrument dates between 1805 and 1810.
It is thought that harp mechanisms were only made by one Parisian manufacturer at this time: Erard. Therefore, the single-action mechanisms on my harp are most likely Erard. The woodwork and ornamentation, however, was done by the luthier George Blaicher of boulevard bonne Nouvelle No. 31, Paris. The model of the harp is 167.
The soundbox shell is made from a thin piece of burled maple that was molded around a form. It is not laminate. The neck is made from a solid piece of wood. Modern harps of today have necks that are constructed from several layers of wood. This gives it more strength and ability to expand and contract. As you can see, my solid wood neck has broken off of the body; an unfortunate, but common problem. Early nineteenth-century harps such as this required the use of thinner strings. Because someone put modern strings onto it, the tension pulled the neck right down.
String thickness is not the only modern consideration. At the time that this harp was originally played, it is likely that choro (low-tension) pitch was used. Today, we tune our instruments to an A that equals 440 Hz. Back then, A ranged from 365 to 415; much flatter. The instrument would probably have to be tuned to meantone.
When this harp was made, there was no neglect to detail. The ornamentation depicts numerous acanthus leaves and classical figures made of gilded plaster. While time has caused the figures on the crown to crack, they still exude a strong sense of authority. Unicorns emerge from the base, which is supported by tiny claw-like feet.
How did I come to purchase this harp? It’s a very long story that spans a period of about five years. My orchestra director introduced me to the harp while I was in high school. I fell in love with it, but my parents most certainly did not. Time passed and I had completed college. I always wondered what had happened to the harp. I tried not to wonder too hard, as it created knots in my stomach. Then, this past summer, I attended an event at a winery where my orchestra director had a Celtic harp gig. He casually mentioned to me that the Blaicher harp I loved so much was still around. The man who owned the harp was a dealer in old-fashioned radios. He acquired it at a lavish New Jersey estate sale. The deceased estate owners were known to ship European antiques in crates to America.
I grabbed a friend and went to the dealer’s house, thrilled to be reunited with the harp. Well, the passing of years must have made me a little nostalgic. The harp didn’t look too healthy standing there in the dealer’s dark foyer. Rather, it was kind of shabby. I was a bit crestfallen. I left without making an offer. Still, regardless of its condition, I couldn’t get the harp out of my mind. A week or so later, I made a rash decision. I clocked out of work and instead of driving home, I drove into the country to the radio dealer’s house. I bought it.
Life since then has consisted of scrimping and saving (though many who know me might disagree with that) for major harp restoration. While the process is demanding, I hope to always have the harp and one day play it with fond memories.