The Harp Lute and Dital harp
As played and researched by Sarah Deere-Jones LRAM LGSM
At the end of the 18th century, london based musician and inventor Mr Edward Light was designing harp-guitars and Apollo Lyres, (see right) creating beautiful and delicate instruments for elegant ladies to perform on in musical soirees so popular at the time. He used the services of Alexander Barry to manufacture these little instruments who was one of many harp makers based in London during the early 19th century. Eventually these instruments began to evolve, the Apollo lyres being cumbersome and awkward to play, because the ornate shape made it difficult to use the fingerboard correctly. Light's harp guitars already possessed several open strings beyond the fretboard, and by about 1810 he added a harp-like column to the bass side to give extra support to them, and connected them to the fretboard using a neck in the shape of a harmonic curve (see left). Thus the harp-lute was born. Two types of mechanism soon appeared on the neck in order to obtain accidentals on the open strings by pushing them against the strings, a rotatable circular knob placed next to the string, and a more sophisticated lever mechanism that was fitted on the other side of the neck and operated by the left hand. These mechanisms were added to the strings most likely to require frequent changes to the pitch.
Left, Sarah's harp-lyre by Edward Light differs from the
early models only by size, a flat back and the Corinthian
As the instruments developed further, more ditals were added and the fingerboards became smaller and less significant. Mr Light advocated the use of harp finger technique in his tutor books for the earliest harp-lutes and even recommends that students procure a harp teacher to help develop the correct hand position. Unlike guitars they were played held vertically on the lap.
As the instrument evolved it became more and more harp-like, with all the strings being open and the fingerboard dropped entirely. Several different mechanisms were tried to enable fast key changes, eventually leading to a patented mechanism. They now became known as 'The patent British Lute-Harp' and later 'Dital harp' and were fully chromatic. The mechanism is very clever and well made, a whole panel of brass contains small and precisely made levers that fit through the neck and pull or release the strings backwards to change the key.
Right, Sarah's Dital harp by Light has 19 strings with 13 ditals fitted to enable key changes, it is tuned in the same way as a single-action pedal harp, and these instruments were designed for harpists to take with them on their travels.
Many books of original music and arrangements were produced to satisfy what was a large population of players, several other makers such as Charles Wheatstone of Concertina fame jumped onto the band wagon and many hundreds of instruments were made. However production virtually ceased by 1840; perhaps this highly fashionable instrument simply went out of fashion, or perhaps it was a mistake aligning itself so strongly with the harp, an instrument that underwent it's own transformation at this time and which ended up being vastly superior, though less portable!
L-R Harp-Lute by C.Wheatstone, Harp-Lyre by E.Light, and Dital Harp by Light.
Harp-lutes are often mistaken as a type of guitar, the early instruments with fingerboards were tuned in the same way as the early 18th century English guitar, but the tutor books written by the inventor clearly show his intention for them to be played by harpists. At the time the harp was undergoing huge developments in its pedal mechanism, the double action system being massed produced from 1810. This lead to a huge demand for double action harps as they became very popular.
My research into Edward Light the harp-lute and dital harp is ongoing, and this page is only a precis of what I have been able to gather so far. I am compiling a database of surviving instruments their technical details serial numbers and where they are held. Therefore I am always interested to hear from owners and collectors who may have an instrument that can be added to the body of knowledge.
info - at - regencyharp.co.uk
Thy Trembling Strings
CD of Regency pieces for Harp and Harp-lute and parlour guitar
First ever recording of the Harp-lute plus pieces from Sarah's inherited collection
Purchase the CD here www.cornwallharpcentreshop.co.uk
For more information about our live performances with harp-lutes and harp see www.regencyharp.co.uk
Sound sample of Wheatstone Harp-lute
Harp-lute on YouTube Last Rose of Summer
Dital Harp on YouTube - Edward Light's 'Ground with Variations