The Harp-Lute:   The Regency Lady’s Instrument

Though few people today have ever even heard of a harp-lute, let alone seen one, these lovely musical instruments were extremely popular during the Regency. However, their popularity was mainly restricted to one select group of musicians, the amature musicians among the ladies of the gentry and aristocracy. Yet, when it came to playing in public, that is just outside the immediate family group, the restriction was even more severe, limiting such "public" performance to single ladies only. But, perhaps the reason for the restriction was that the harp-lute, in the hands of a talented lady musician, might well give her listeners the sense that they had been transported to Elysium itself. Would it not be the height of cruelty for a single gentleman to enjoy such angelic sound, only to know it was forever beyond his reach?

Chronicles of a cherished chordophone of the Regency …

The term "chordophone" was not known during the Regency. It was coined in 1914, by Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, when they undertook to classify all musical instruments by type. By their definition, a chordophone is an instrument which produces sound by setting up vibrations in a stretched string or set of strings. Thus, any stringed instrument, from a violin to a grand pianoforte, is a chordophone. The harp-lute, which is a stringed musical instrument, thus falls into the category of chordophones. As does the progenitor of the harp-lute, the English guitar.

From at least the mid-eighteenth century, a popular type of ten-stringed instrument, played by plucking the strings, was popular in England. This instrument was based on the cittern of the Renaissance era and was known simply as the "guittar" or "citra" in England. The guittar became very popular with the ladies of the upper classes, who wished to demonstrate their musical accomplishments by playing a simple musical instrument. As genteel ladies abandoned the harpsichord in large numbers in favor of the guittar, by 1765, makers of harpsichords were facing ruin. Jacob Kirkman, a Swiss native who settled in London and became one of the leading harpsichord makers of the city, hit upon a most effective solution. He purchased a large number of cheap guitars, which he gave, gratis, to a host of milliner’s girls and street balladeers throughout London. He taught them to play a few simple chords and soon the guitar was to be seen and heard everywhere. Ladies quickly became ashamed to be seen playing an instrument now considered to be fit only for the lower classes. They soon returned to playing the harpsichord, thus ensuring the survival of the harpsichord industry, until the advent of the pianoforte on the cusp of the Regency.

During the 1770s, apparently in an effort to make the guitar easier to play, a patent was filed by a man named Smith for a key box housing a set of small hammers. This device was affixed to the body of the guitar, over the strings. The keys, operated by the player’s fingers, brought the selected hammers down on the guitar strings to produce sound. In about 1780, the six-stringed Spanish guitar had made its way to England. For that reason, the native ten-stringed instrument soon came to be called the English guitar, to distinguish it from the new arrival. Despite Kirkman’s efforts, and the introduction of the Spanish guitar into England, the English guitar still had its proponents. In London, in 1783, Christian Claus, an inventor, patented another, more sophisticated keyed mechanism for the English guitar which was housed inside the sound box. The keys of Claus’s mechanism operated a set of hammers which struck the guitar strings in an upward motion though the openings of the sound hole rose. By 1787, this new, "piano-forte guitar" was in production by Longman & Broderip of London, who eventually went on to manufacture pianos.

Despite the various mechanical upgrades it had received, the popularity of the English guitar was flagging by the end of the eighteenth century. Partly in an attempt to increase the appeal of the English guitar and partly to supplement his meagre income, Edward Light (c. 1747 – c. 1832) began to study the problem. By 1794, Light, who then lived in Kensington, was the organist of Trinity Chapel, St. George’s Church, in Hanover Square. He was also a composer and music teacher who was familiar with a wide range of musical instruments. In 1798, Light introduced his new invention, the harp-guitar, based on the English guitar. It was noticeably shorter than a conventional guitar and was almost certainly intended for use by his female music students. The harp-guitar had eight strings, made of gut rather than wire, with a vibrating length of a little over 25 inches (64 cm), like the English guitar, tuned to a C major chord. Though he had some small success with the harp-guitar, Light continued to study and refine his invention. By 1800, Light introduced the harp-lute-guitar, which had an angled neck with a peg box similar to a theorbo and eleven instead of eight strings.

In 1810, Edward Light introduced his most popular instrument to date, the harp-lute. This latest instrument had a sound box similar in shape to the English guitar, but noticeably smaller, typically 15 to 18 inches (38 – 45 cm) by 3 1/3 to 5 inches (8 – 15 cm). It also included another radical change, a dual neck, comprised of pillar with a classical capital on the side near the player (usualy the left), upholding a fret board terminating in a harp-like curved string support. The harp-lute typically had a dozen strings, but only some of them passed over the fret board and could be played like guitar or lute strings. Those strings were tuned to the chord of C, as had been the strings of the English guitar. The open strings, beyond the fret board, were to be played like the strings of a traditional harp and were tuned down the scale from C to F accordingly. The instrument was strung in the same way as a harp and the use of real harp strings for the open strings had the advantage that the instrument did not easily go out of tune. And, as with the harp, the C string was colored red and the F string was colored blue. A fine example of one of Light’s harp-lutes, circa 1815, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (If you click the image to enlarge it, you can see the red and blue strings).

Edward Light introduced an important new feature to the harp-lute the following year, for which he took out a patent. In 1811, the same year in which the Prince of Wales became Regent, Light added a mechanism to his new instrument by which a set of small knobs could be used to engage stops which would raise the last three of the open strings by a semitone. This new version of the harp-lute had twelve strings, ten of which were made of gut and two were made of silk wrapped with silver wire. Despite the fret board, this instrument was strung like a harp, rather than a guitar. The tone of this instrument was considered to be superior in both power and sweetness to any of its predecessors. In that same year, Light also registered his first compositions for music to be played specifically on the new harp-lute at Stationer’s Hall. This new music followed up his two previous publications, circa 1800:   The Ladies’ Amusement, which was a collection of lessons and songs for guitar, in six numbers, and Concise Instructions for Playing on the English Lute, both of which were still in print and selling well when the Regency began. In later reprints of these publications, it was noted that he had been appointed "Lyrist to H.R.H. The Princess [Charlotte] of Wales," Light is known to have been at least one of the music teachers for the young Princess Charlotte, as early as 1808. It is also known that he taught her to play his new harp-lute when it was introduced, a skill she learned quite quickly, since she had already learned to play the full-size pedal harp.

To take advantage of the growing fashion for the Neo-classical, the small column which formed part of the neck of the harp-lute was now topped with an elegant Corinthian capital. To appeal to the upper class ladies who were most likely to buy and play the harp-lute, the sound box was ornately decorated with a shiny lacquered surface, typically of black, dark blue or dark green. It was heavily embellished with gold leaf decoration in the form of a wide floral or scroll-work border around the perimeter of the sound box and Neo-classical or musical motifs below the sound hole. The sound hole rose was most often made of gilt brass in variations of a raised relief star-burst shape. The small size and Neo-classical ornamentation of the harp-lute made it the ideal instrument for a lady to play, while wearing a gown also inspired by the Neo-classical style, in order to demonstrate both her taste and musical accomplishments. At about the same time as the Regency began, the harp-lute was becoming the most popular musical instrument among the ladies of the upper classes.

Despite the success of his new harp-lute, Edward Light did not rest on his laurels. He continued to refine and improve the instrument during the course of the Regency. He gradually reduced the size of the fret board and upgraded the mechanism by which the strings could be raised a semitone. On Tuesday, 18 June 1816, as it happened, the first anniversary of Waterloo, Edward Light, then living at 9 Foley Place, in Cavendish Square, registered a patent on a new version of his harp-lute, which he now called the British Lute-Harp. This new instrument had no fret board, but rather, a slightly wider sound box surmounted by a small harp shape, with a pillar which supported the harmonic curve similar to that of a pedal harp. The British Lute-Harp had thirteen open strings for which Light had provided what he called "ditals," finger keys which could be used to raise the pitch of each string by a semitone. Though the ditals were actually operated by the player’s thumb, Light chose the name dital because his ditals were designed to operate very like the pedals of a full-size harp. The term pedal had come from the Latin word for foot, so Light chose the name of his new keys from the Latin word for finger. Due to its new design, the British Lute-Harp was rather top-heavy, and many of the instruments had a weighted oval base added below the sound box to balance the weight and provide a stand for the instrument when it was not in use.

In January of 1817, Edward Light placed an advertisment in The Universal Advertising Sheet in La Belle Assemblée in which he " … most respectfully informs the nobility and polite musical world, that he has recently made extraordinary improvements upon his former much admired little instrument called the Harp-Lute; … " and advises the public that it can be seen and heard only at his house in London or at his son’s house on Wellington Street, in Clifton. In that same advertisement, he also reminds his readers that he provides instruction for ladies on both the new British Lute-Harp and his original Harp-Lute, as well as offering lessons "in Music generally." In that same year, Light also published a new musical instruction book, A New and Complete Directory to the Art of Playing on the British Harp-Lute. This new instruction book included a full-page engraving which showed the correct position for a performer playing the British Lute-Harp and included a list of compositions suitable for playing on that new instrument or on the original Harp-Lute.

Two years later, in 1819, Edward Light introduced his last significant change to the British Lute-Harp, which he now called the Dital Harp. This new instrument had a larger, wider sound box, in order to accommodate the increased number of strings, typically as many as twenty. All were equipped with ditals, so it was played in the same way as had been the British Lute-Harp. And, like the instrument which preceded it, it was also top-heavy and was therefore provided with a weighted base below the sound box to balance the instrument for playing and provide a stable means by which the instrument could stand upright, for display or storage, when not in use. It is believed that Edward Light retired sometime around 1825, at which time his son took over his business. The younger Light continued to teach music and sell instruments, but he does not appear to have made any further changes to the forms of his father’s instruments.

Charles Wheatstone, a publisher of sheet music, had also developed a version of the instrument which he called the "Regency" harp-lute about 1813. Wheatstone’s instrument was sold in direct competition with the instruments by Edward Light. Wheatstone also published a harp-lute tutor under his own imprint. The instrument and the instruction manual could both be purchased at his premises at 436, The Strand, along with a wide selection of sheet music written especially for the harp-lute. Angelo Bendetto Ventura, initially Edward Light’s partner, and later his competitor, introduced a twelve-stringed harp-lyre, the "Imperial" lyre, and in 1814, added two more strings to create the "Imperial" harp-lute. It is believed that Wheatstone’s and Ventura’s instruments were part of the reason that Light patented his British Lute-Harp in 1816, to prevent them from pirating his designs. In 1828, Anglo Ventura introduced his Harp Ventura, which was available from his shop in Portland Place. Similar instruments continued to be made and sold to upper and even middle class ladies, well into the nineteenth century, falling out of favor with the advent of the affordable mass-produced piano.

Though Edward Light designed all these variations on the English guitar, he did not make them. Records show that nearly all of Light’s instruments were made by Alexander Meek Barry, a harp-maker with premises on Frith Street in Soho, London. Barry married Ann Buchinger, the daughter of Joseph Buchinger, a music publisher, sheet music seller and instrument maker, also of Frith Street. Buchinger was, for a time, appointed musical instrument maker to the Duke of Clarence, who later became King William IV. It is not known if Mrs. Barry assisted her husband in the making of the various harp-lutes designed by Edward Light. It is possible she may have had the task of stringing the instruments once her husband had completed them. She may also have been responsible for tuning them once they were strung. Barry made harp-lutes in a selection of woods, including mahogany, walnut, deal, and spruce. The sound box of most harp-lutes was flat on the front, but bowed or vaulted on the back, in the style of a lute. The back of the sound box was made in much the same way as the sound box of a lute or harp, using a series of wooden staves fitted together, giving the sound box a half-pear shaped appearance in profile. The better instruments, made with high-quality woods like mahogany or walnut, had the front of the sound box lacquered and gilt, but the back was often simply highly polished to show off the fine grain of the wood. The backs of sound boxes for instruments made with lesser quality woods were usually lacquered in the same color as the front of the sound box, but were seldom decorated with any gilt ornament. The gilt embellishment seems to have been reserved for the front of the sound boxes, with the reception of some instruments which have a narrow gilt border around the back of the sound box. Ivory or bone was typically used to make the frets, the bridge and the pegs for the strings, though ebony was sometimes used for some or all of these features. Ebony was also sometimes used to make a button attached to the back of the sound box by which a lady might secure her instrument with a ribbon while playing. The rose for the sound hole was usually made of brass, often gilt, but in less expensive instruments, it might be left plain. Though Alexander Barry appears to have been fairly prosperous during the years he was making harp-lutes for Edward Light and later his son, records show he was imprisoned for debt in the 1840s. Hopefully, this was a temporary set-back, for it is known that his son, William James Barry, continued his father’s business from premises in Tottenham Court soon thereafter.

It does not appear that Alexander Barry ever sold any of Light’s instruments to individual customers from his own shop. They were all made and delivered to Edward Light, who initially sold them only from his house in Foley Place. Later, his son, T[homas?], who became a "Harp Master" and music teacher, also appears to have sold the instruments from his house in Clifford as well. Having been an organist at St. George’s in Hanover Square and music teacher to Princess Charlotte, Edward Light had much to recommend him as a music teacher for ladies of the upper classes. Though there were other competing instruments available at that time, Light’s harp-lutes were considered to be of the best quality. To ensure a steady income beyond the sale of his instruments, Light composed, or arranged, and published much of his own teaching material, both instruction manuals and sheet music written specifically for the harp-lute. Though any music composed for a pedal harp could be played on a harp-lute, some transposition was usually required. For those ladies who simply wished to be able to demonstrate their musical accomplishments in order to attract a suitor, it was much easier to purchase Light’s compositions, which needed no transposition. Light, well aware of the needs of most of his students, composed or arranged mostly strophic works, in which each stanza of a tune was set to the same music; or binary pieces, having only two parts. Most of his compositions were simple in harmony and structure and typically of rather short duration, so as not to tire the performer. Light’s published sheet music included psalms, hymns, traditional songs and ballads, as well as a number of dance tunes.

Edward Light was not the only publisher of sheet music for the wildly popular harp-lute during the Regency. As noted above, Charles Wheatstone also published an instruction manual for his own "Regency" harp-lute, as well as a host of sheet music which had been composed and arranged so that it could be played on any harp-lute. Thomas Bolton was also an established music teacher and composer who was working in London from the 1790s through the end of the Regency. His advertisements in the London papers read: "Ladies Instructed in Singing, with Accompaniment on the Piano Forte, Lute and Lyre — also Pupils Instructed for the Stage." Bolton’s most well-known composition, The Village Fete of 1810, remained popular throughout the Regency. He also published a Treatise on Singing in 1810, which included "anatomical observations" on the "management and delivery of the voice." This treatise was issued in a second edition in 1812. Bolton also published collections of songs for the guitar and the pianoforte guitar, the harp, the lute and the lyre. A serious lady musician would have had little trouble transposing these pieces in order to play them on the harp-lute. There were a great many sheet music publishers in Regency London, so a lady in search of new music for her harp-lute would have had many sources available to her.

And now, to address the title of this article. During the Regency, the intended purchasers and players of the harp-lute were the ladies of the gentry and nobility. This instrument was seldom, if ever, played by men, nor was it usually played by the women of the middling or lower classes. Though it could, and often was, used to play instrumental music, it was intended to be played by a lady to accompany herself in song. In fact, because of its strong, but light and dulcet tones, more than one music authority of the time considered the harp-lute "the most eligible accompaniment to the human voice." Since it was made for the use of ladies, the harp-lute and its variations and successors were all richly decorated and embellished with fine woods, lacquer and gilt. This decoration was usually in the Neo-classical style, to harmonize with the Neo-classical gowns most ladies of the time wore when they played for company. Many young ladies who learned to play the harp-lute were in quest of a husband, so they were eager to own and play an instrument which they believed enhanced the lovely picture they presented while demonstrating their musical accomplishments. Because some of the later harp-lute variations could be somewhat unwieldy, they were provided with a button on the back of the sound box to which a lady could secure a ribbon that she might run over her shoulder or around her waist. But the lady was expected to choose a length of ribbon for this purpose which would blend with her gown so that it would be as unobtrusive as possible. The ribbon must not spoil the picture she made while she played.

It must be noted that the exquisite decoration and sweet tones of the harp-lute were not the only reasons it was considered an appropriate musical instrument for a lady to play. Even before the eighteenth century in England, upper-class women were expected to have no part in public life and to conform to the ideal of femininity which was defined simply as beauty, passivity, and instinctive emotion. Rational or complex thought was considered to be beyond their ken. During the so-called Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, women were still excluded from any part in the musical life of the church, as well as the musical education it provided to many young men. Even more conservative, Oxford University did not confer a music degree on a woman until 1921. Very few professional musicians were women, even at the turn of the nineteenth century. The few women who did perform in public were considered to be fallen women, certainly by their families. For example, in 1760, Ann Ford, an accomplished singer, was planning to undertake a series of subscription concerts in London. Her father had her arrested rather than allow her to sing in public.

In the early nineteenth century, it was expected that well-bred young ladies of the upper classes would acquire a certain level of musical skill as part of their feminine accomplishments, the point of which was to enhance their prospects for marriage. These young ladies would be expected to demonstrate their musical accomplishments at the occasional private musicale or musical evening in the family home, preferably in the presence of possible suitors. Under no circumstances were these young ladies to play in public, outside their closely-knit social circle. More importantly, these young ladies were forbidden to play any instrument which might distort their face or body as they played. Thus, the violin, the cello, the flute or even the recorder, were quite out of the question for a lady musician of the Regency. Musical instruments appropriate for upper-class ladies were considered to be the English guitar, the harp, the lute, the harpsichord, the pianoforte, and of course, the harp-lute in its many variations, all of which could be played while maintaining a polite expression and perfect posture. However, once a woman had landed a husband, she was never expected to play for anyone outside the immediate family circle ever again. Instead, she was expected to take up her duties as wife and mother, devoting herself entirely to the well-being of her family, perhaps playing privately for their pleasure from time to time.

Vast numbers of harp-lutes were made and sold during the Regency. Quite a number of them were sold to lady musicians who also owned and played the pedal harp. The harp-lute had the advantage that it could be used to play music written for the pedal harp but it was only about one-quarter the size. The smaller harp-lute was very convenient for lady musicians who wished to play even when they traveled, particularly from their country home to London, or to the homes of friends for lengthy house parties. Even today, there are a number of great estates in England which include both a pedal harp and a harp-lute among their musical instrument collections. In most cases, both instruments were acquired and played by a female member of the family, often one from the Regency period. Thus, the lady could play her large pedal harp at her country home, but would not be deprived of the joy of music when she traveled, since her harp-lute could be easily carried along with her on her journey. Jane Austen almost certainly knew of the harp-lute and its typical use as a "traveling" harp. One wonders if the author, knowing most of her original readers were also aware of the instrument, intended the production of getting her pedal harp to the Parsonage, made by Mary Crawford, in Mansfield Park, as yet another sign of that lady’s arrogance and self-indulgence, when she might just as well have brought a harp-lute with her on her journey into the country.

Though they fell out of fashion as a musical instrument when the mass-produced piano became available after the middle of the nineteenth century, the harp-lute and its many variations did not disappear. They went into attics and storage rooms and cupboards. Over the years, they came out again and have now become collector’s items. Many are now in museums around the world. Others are now the property of musicians who have had modern-day luthiers (makers and restorers of stringed instruments) restore and restring these instruments to playing condition. These restored instruments are now being occasionally played for the pleasure of modern-day audiences. A Google image search on the term harp-lute provides a fascinating selection of photos of these beautiful instruments.

Next week, more about the harp-lute, and how you can have a harp-lute concert in your own drawing room.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to The Harp-Lute:   The Regency Lady’s Instrument

  1. As always, Kat, you astound with your knowledge! Admittedly my knowledge of the history of instruments is largely medieval, but this is one I’d never heard of…. I will now rummage through all my pictures of ladies playing instruments in fashion plates and see if I have one. I certainly have a lady playing a Spanish guitar from Ackermann, 1818 or 1819, I forget which… there’s one with a large lute in the background [and maybe not being played because the girls employed as models didn’t know how….] Plot bunny arises here, as with any music that can be sung too, of a servant slipping a young man what looks like references to Bible verses, which are in fact a key to read a message with verse and word number from a song sung by his lady love. And of course the chance for something hilarious if he miscounts…..

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I was lucky enough to see a lovely harp-lute years ago, which is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. At the time, I did not know the date, just thought it was a most curious but beautiful instrument. Last year, I happened upon a brief account of the harp-lute as a Regency-era instrument, and have been hot on its trail ever since. Though it took some time to find the details, I was amazed to discover how popular it was during the Regency, especially since it is practically unknown today.

      Love your plot bunnies, but I think I might have even more options for you in the follow-up article. Stay tuned!


      • I look forward to it…. and I must avoid involving the plot bunny that came to me looking at the puzzle books in a large well known supermarket which involved the Mission: Impossible team, cold war spies and codes.

  2. alinakfield says:

    Reblogged this on Simply Romance and commented:
    Author Kathryn Kane has a fantastic post here regarding a musical instrument that I’d never heard of before reading this. (Big sigh here!) There are so many things to learn about this period of history. Kathryn’s website, Regency Redingote, is a must place to visit for those of you interested in the Regency.
    She also has a new book out, Deflowering Daisy.

  3. Pingback: Thy Trembling Strings | The Regency Redingote

  4. Pingback: Teapoys:   Their Regency Evolution | The Regency Redingote

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