Harp Bits #3 – When 7 pedals just aren’t enough Part 3

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After a little time away from our bi-weekly schedule (2 weeks off) I am happy to be back with more harp history knowledge for you!  This weeks discussion will be the end of “When 7 pedals just aren’t enough,” and I really think that I saved the best for last!  First there was an 8th pedal to control swell doors on the back of the harp; then with the 9th pedal the harpist was able to dampen their bass strings; finally we come to might very well be the most ridiculous pedal invention.

The first “double-action” pedal harp…

It’s important to notice the use of quotation marks when we discuss the first “double-action” pedal harp.  Understand that I am not referring to the 1811 invention of Sébastien Érard which rippled through the early 19th century harp world like wild-fire.  Instead I refer to an invention by 18th century harp makers George Cousineau (1733-c.1799), and his son Jacques-Georges Cousineau (1760-1824).

Cousineau harp making

Along with Jean-Henri Naderman, the Cousineau family were the most important harp makers of the 18th century.  Both based in Paris, France, these two harp makers played an huge role in most of the early technological developments made to the mechanical elements of the instrument and were some of the first manufacturers to sell single-action pedal harps.

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette

Everything changed for the harp-makers of Paris when Marie Antoinette became Princess of Wales in 1770.  A harpist herself, the eventual Queen of France (reign 1774-1792) tasked the harp makers of Paris with creating a superior instrument.  The Cousineau family made great efforts to improve the single-action pedal harp, including an improvement to the tuning pin system from the crochet (which pulled the string toward the harp in order to alter the pitch) to béguilles system (which used two paddle like doors to bend the string) in 1775.  It is at this point that we run across our main topic of discussion… the first “double-action” pedal harp.
(In fact, Marie Antoinette is largely responsible for the rise of the harp in 18th century France.  Without her help in exposing the people to the instrument who knows where the harp would be today!)

14 pedals… wait… what?

Thats right!!  In c.1782 the Cousineau harp making company created an instrument with 14 pedals, placed in two rows of 7, that allowed for music to be performed in all keys, making it technically the first “double-action” harp… of sorts.  Certainly much less refined than the Érard instrument, this harp must have been a mechanical monster.

I was so shocked when I first learned of this harp… and am sad to say that I haven’t ever seen one in person and was unable to find much through deep internet searching.  I can’t imagine that Marie Antoinette was terribly pleased by this invention since it hasn’t seemed to survive as many other Naderman and Cousineau instruments have.

Have you ever seen a 14 pedal harp?  Can you imagine trying to maneuver 14 pedals??  I know I can’t!  As always, harp history continues to blow my mind… and I hope it’s doing the same for you!!!  All new topics in 2 weeks as we continue down the very vibrant path of harp history!!  Comment below with your experience, ideas or any questions you might have!  Happy harping!

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Miami based Dr. of harp, gown-addict, lover of bulldogs, and fitness enthusiast.

3 Comments

  1. Once again, thank you for the history lesson!

    (One note, Marie-Antoinette was the Dauphine of France, not the Princess of Wales. That’s a whole different job.)

    There is one surviving Cousineau double-action harp. I believe it is now in the Palais Lascaris with the Erard collection. The harp was described in the Galpin Society Newsletter, Vol. 23, February 2009. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the article, but IIRC, the pedals weren’t as crazy as might be expected. There were separate pedal for natural and sharp, but they worked partially in tandem. The natural pedal was shorter than, and sort of nested on top of, the sharp pedal. To pedal from flat to natural, both pedals were moved together into natural position. To then pedal into sharp, one had to just move one’s foot out away from the harp a bit, leaving the natural pedal behind and moving the sharp pedal by itself. To pedal from sharp into flat, one could just move the longer sharp pedal, which would pick up the natural pedal on the way and carry it along into flat. I hope this description makes some sense! Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any pictures online of the pedals…..

  2. This harp is mentioned on page 132 of Harps and Harpists by Roslyn Rensch. No picture or photo. Another research project for Carl Swanson next time he goes to France….Very interesting history lesson. Thanks!

  3. John Littler on

    A rather belated thank you for your post, we have an 8 pedal harp here at Towneley Hall, Burnley, UK

    It was pointed out to me that our harp was different to the standard 7 pedal model and your article provided some interesting enlightenment 🙂

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