By Nancy Hurrell, Harp Consultant, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Historical Resonance: Playing an Antique Egan Harp

The highly decorative Portable Irish Harp, with delicate strands of gilt shamrocks and ornate swirling acanthus on a colored ground, is collected as an art object and examples are displayed in museums worldwide - but what does it sound like?  Produced in the early 1800s by Ireland’s leading harp maker John Egan (fl.1803-1829), the harps were touted in newspaper adverts as having ‘great brilliancy’ and ‘sweetness of tone’. The instruments gained widespread notoriety for their splendid appearance and sound, and Egan harps graced the music rooms of the great houses of Ireland and were also played by members of the Royal Family in England. In 1821 John Egan was bestowed the prestigious Royal Warrant by the King along with the title of ‘Harp Maker to George IV and the Royal Family’, and the Royal Crest is etched on the brass plates of harps produced after this date. A century later, several harp makers imitated Egan’s Irish harp model, and it became the prototype for today’s popular Celtic harp. By the early 1900s, most extant Egan Irish harps were no longer playable, but were sold and collected as rare artifacts.

As antiques, Egan Portable Irish Harps are valued for their attractive sculptural qualities, handsome neo-classical decoration and Irish symbolism, and examples are preserved in several major museum collections around the world: Metropolitan (New York), MFA (Boston), National Museum of Ireland (Dublin), V&A and Horniman (London), Musikmuseet (Sweden), as well as significant instrument collections in France, Italy and Belgium and also Japan. Typically Egan harps in museums are cosmetically strung, having the appearance of being playable, but in fact the strings are kept slack. Although wood gives the instrument its characteristic sound, the constant stress of string tension on wood over time tends to pull up the thin soundboard, and the neck twists, bringing the harp’s playing days to an end. Real horror stories are known in which fragile antique harps simply collapsed as the strings were brought up to tension. Still, with modern techniques of historical restoration, it is now possible for a few Egan harps to be made playable again. 

In 2008 I had the opportunity to acquire an Egan Portable Irish Harp in Canada, and the instrument’s main parts were still intact and structurally sound. As a harp consultant for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I have experience re-stringing and playing two other historical harps of a similar age in the collection, and one of them is also an Egan Irish harp. At the museum, historically correct stringing charts were calculated for the harps using thinner stringing than on modern instruments. The museum harps were also tuned to a lower pitch (A=415), and after each gallery demonstration, the harp’s soundboard was carefully monitored, and the strings were once again slackened. On my own harp, a few missing parts needed to be replaced before stringing the instrument. The MFA’s Curator of Musical Instruments, Darcy Kuronen, recommended I contact master piano conservator, Tim Hamilton, who works on the museum’s historical keyboards. Tim replicated and replaced two brass ring stops (small rings at the top of each string which turn to fret the strings for key changes), and he also hand carved a complete set of ebony string pegs (original pegs were missing) whose function is to secure each string into the soundboard.

I re-strung the harp using historical string gauges and a low pitch (A=415) and finally heard the sound of my Egan harp for the first time. Although difficult to describe in words, the terms ‘clear’, ‘bright’ and also ‘old’ seem to convey the harp’s unique timbre. The thin spruce soundboard, rounded back soundbox, and the use of Irish oak for the base block, all contribute to the special tone quality. The treble almost ‘glistens’ and the thicker dry resonance in the bass octave sounds ‘old’ - quite unlike a modern harp. As a harp historian, I understand how the music from the period is perfectly idiomatic to the instrument played at the time. To find music specifically arranged for my Egan harp, I visited the Library of Congress and also the British Library in London to consult rare music collections published by the harp maker’s son, Charles Egan. The pieces in the C. Egan books range from Irish tunes to light classics and opera themes, and as I played them, I heard how perfectly the musical style fits the harp’s clear articulation and short resonance. The expressive sentiments in the music and the harp’s delicate timbre unlock the sound world of another time and culture, bringing to mind the romantic scenes in Jane Austen novels in which a gentleman suitor instantly falls in love with both the harp sound and the harpist!  

I have now performed several concerts on my Egan harp, and the audience reaction is universally the same: amazement at the distinctive, clear and different sound of the harp. My CD, The Egan Irish Harp, is the first ever recording made on an Egan harp, and I am writing a book: THE EGAN IRISH HARPS: Patriotism, Patronage and Players. For a link to a YouTube video of the harp, see:

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