Harp lutes in Britain, 1800-1830: study of the inventor, Edward Light and his instruments

Hayato Sugimoto

The harp lute is a generic term given to certain types of plucked stringed instruments originally invented by an English musician-retailer, Edward Light, in London at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Combining elements of the highly popular contemporary instruments the harp and the guittar (English guitar), the ideal hybrid instrument, the ‘harp lute’ was constructed. Although the name ‘lute’ was given, since the body consisted of three or seven staves and integrated open major tuning with a natural scale for floating strings it is more closely related to the harp and the guittar than the conventional lute. Incessant application of inventors’ changes to the instruments generated appearances in a variety of forms, sizes, designations and number of strings. Being moderately priced but excessively decorated and relatively easy to learn, harp lutes, as liberal arts instruments, quickly became fashionable in the London music scene, especially amongst middle class ladies. Despite being highly decorative instruments, harp lutes were normally very economic to make. Their construction was adapted for the growth of mass-produced musical instruments, and was therefore moderately and affordably priced.

Although there is a great number of surviving harp lutes in public museums, academic institutions, private collections, and a large quantity of published music, as well as archival sources related to the instruments kept in public libraries within researchable conditions, there has been hardly any serious academic study of these instruments since a 1908 survey by Robert Bruce Armstrong. Thereafter, problematically, many accounts relating to harp lutes have relied on erroneous aspects of his research (the date of invention 1798, for instance, may be wrong). This lack of substantial information induced further issues so that, due to the complexity of the instrument designs and the existence of the similar kinds, ambiguous designations have been applied to each model of harp lute, bringing with it added confusion in determining terminology. This thesis, therefore, aims to clarify the terminology and to provide a complete account of the harp lutes, particularly those by Edward Light, in the British Isles during the first half of the nineteenth century. To enable classification of these instruments, it became important to research all available information on Edward Light as musical instrument retailer, musician and inventor. Thus, all models of the harp lutes will be revealed chronologically, shedding light on their constructional transformation as opposed to musical aspects – if readers need more information on musical aspects, they should refer to Armstrong (1908); the purpose of this thesis is to clarify the evolutionary process of the harp lute with partial reference to the social and cultural changes in Britain. There will less focus on music. The inventor Edward Light’s outstanding commercial acumen in musical instrument retailing and inventing will be highlighted, while in order to understand his attempts at harp lute manufacturing (in cooperation with the makers, e.g. Barry), which substantially underpinned Light’s significant success, a copy of a harp-lute will be made to shed light on the hidden secrets in harp lute making.

Edinburgh College of Art thesis and dissertation collection

Harp lutes in Britain, 1800-1830: study of the inventor, Edward Light and his instruments

Sugimoto2015 v.1.pdf (357.3Mb)

Sugimoto2015 v.2.pdf (204.6Mb)

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