As you might have guessed from the album titles, harps figure prominently in the music of Winter Harp. But, in addition to large and small harps, a number of other rare instruments make up the unique sound of the Winter Harp ensemble. Winter Harp musicians play a number of unique medieval instruments, all hand-made specifically for the ensemble.
Standing at a height of five feet, the imposing bass psaltery is the only one like it in the world. Made of cherry and Sitka spruce, the 35-string psaltery features a Gothic rose sound hole intricately carved from wood and parchment. Psalteries date back to Babylonian and Sumarian times, 3,000 years ago. Premier luthier Edward Turner made Winter Harps bass psaltery and alto psaltery.
Where did the concept of a bass psaltry come from? In February 1998, Lori Pappajohn and Joaquin Ayala had a fortuitous meeting with premier instrument maker Edward Turner. They were looking for someone to make rare medieval instruments and were delighted to discover this award-winning luthier whose works are found throughout the world.
Lori and Joaquin had a specific instrument in mind -- one that didnt exist -- but could if someone was adventurous enough to take on the task. They wanted a deep-voiced psaltery. Based on their concept, Edward Turner designed a five-foot tall bass psaltery. Its 35 strings produce a haunting, ethereal sound.
For hundreds of years, the medieval organistrum was an instrument that was pretty much lost to history. But in the 1970s Canadian instrument maker Edward Turner made one of the first organistrums of the 20th century. That instrument is in the collection of the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. When Winter Harp learned of this instrument, the ensemble commissioned Edward Turner to make a second one. Mr. Turner's organistrum is a replica based on a stone carving on the frieze over the entrance of the 12th century Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Elaborately carved, the organistrum takes two people to play. One person turns the wheel to produce the drone sound while the other person turns the pegs to produce the different notes. It is related to the hurdy-gurdy, also known as the Vielle a Roue.
Basically it consists of a huge guitar shaped box with a square key box attached to it that has revolving vanes which stop the strings at pre-determined intervals to sound notes. A wooden rosined wheel "bows" the strings. Not all the strings are stopped, thus giving a bag-pipe-like droning effect.
The origins of the instrument are lost in the mists of antiquity, but possibly it was brought into Europe by the Moors when they invaded Spain in the 8th century. The earliest recorded construction methods were recorded by Odo of Cluny in the 10th century.
There are various theories regarding the playing action of the organistrum, with some scholars concluding that the keys slid up and down (like in the later symphony or in the modern hurdy-gurdy). The Codex of St. Blasien copied by Martin Gerbert in the 1700's clearly shows the keys revolving, though some scholars dismiss this idea as unworkable. The instrument Joaquin plays has revolving keys that work perfectly. Another theory put forward by some scholars is that the instrument is entirely fictional and that it never even existed (which goes to prove that you can be a brilliant academic and not have a clue).
This unique instrument, with its wistful sound, was replaced after medieval times by the violin. However, it is still played in Sweden
The nyckelharpa is a combination of a violin and a hurdy-gurdy. Its four strings are bowed like a violin, but the notes are made with keys like a hurdy-gurdy. Its name means keyed (nyckel) stringed instrument (harpa). Underneath its four bowed strings are 12 sympathetic strings which give the instrument an especially rich resonance.
The Nyckelharpa first appears in one form or another around 850 AD. Here is a picture of Joaquin with a much later model.
The symphonie is an early hurdy-gurdy, dating back to 12th century in sourthern France and northern Spain. The wheel that is turned bows the strings to make sound. The keys, when pressed by the fingers, create the different notes. It also includes drone strings which give it an almost bagpipe sound.