Harpmaker for world

Interesting history of an instrument that I'm mostly indifferent to: the harp. However, Harpo Marx was a maestro, and Joanna Newsom's new album is pretty good too (and she name checks Lyon and Healy on the liner notes). One of the few mass produced items assembled in America strictly by hand. I'd love to tour the factory.

Lyon Healy Harp

City shoulders the load as harpmaker for world | Chicago Tribune

In a dim warehouse on the city's West Side, ragged bundles of German beech and splintery Midwestern maple quietly await their metamorphosis.

The hunks of raw wood are ugly now. But months in the hands of master builders will mold them into instruments of musical elegance.

Chicago, the city of heavy industry, is also, as it turns out, the world capital of harpmaking.

Lyon & Healy Harps, on Ogden Avenue, is the foremost producer of concert harps. It is also where the modern harp was invented in 1889 and the hub from where it has spread in the last century to concert halls from Taipei to Topeka, Cape Town to Cleveland.

The worst of them are flawless, say the company's marketers. Beginning pedal harps start at $9,950. For a concert grand, add $10,000 more. The Prince William used by the Chicago Symphony's Sarah Bullen is worth the price of a nicer BMW coupe.

For $179,000, one could buy a one-bedroom pied-a-terre on North Lake Shore Drive with a view of Belmont Harbor. For the same price, it could be furnished with a Lyon & Healy Louis XV Special, and nothing else.

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The pedal harp was born in France and patented by Sebastian Erard in 1810. It was embraced by European romanticism and surged over the Atlantic only to suffer in the American cultural wilderness.

The ocean crossing was bad enough, but North America's weather extremes posed a still harsher challenge for the harps.

So many were repaired by Patrick J. Healy and George W. Lyon--young Boston instrument dealers who had come to Chicago in 1864--that they decided to build their own. The first took 10 years and was finished in 1889.

Lyon and Healy replaced fragile French plaster parts with rugged wood construction--a decided advantage--and Chicago harps quickly supplanted their dainty European cousins. From then on, their evolution came largely at the hands of Chicago harpmakers.

Because harpists wanted to travel, materials grew sturdier. As people grew taller, harps grew larger. While concert halls grew, harps grew louder. City noise intruded on the halls, the harps grew louder still in a co-evolution still proceeding, said Steve Fritzmann, a master harpmaker and Lyon & Healy's national sales manager.

..It is wood chosen for strength and resonance, and perfection supplied by human hands. A modern harp's 1,400 moving pieces are glued, clamped, spun, trimmed, bent, rasped, sanded, fit, finished, gilded, assembled, strung and tuned--all by hand.

At Lyon & Healy, 129 people do this. They tried using machines to assemble parts once, Fritzmann said. The process failed.

It is easy to imagine why they tried. Harps hide far more moving parts than meet the eye.
For 18 years, Maria Valadez has worked assembling the harps' invisible metal musculature, fitting long strings of moving joints into the harp's neck, each built by dozens of workers to smoothly convert a harpist's pedal movements into a command for a harp to switch keys.

Sandwiching the workings between curving brass plates one day this week, Valadez tightened dozens of tiny black screws to finish one assembly--only to find a scratch on one brass plate. It had taken a day to assemble this single package of moving parts.

She reversed direction, taking it apart just as slowly. A tiny wrench to loosen each screw, a screwdriver to continue the work. A day to build. A day to undo. The complexity is hidden, but demanding. It is everywhere, even in the sturdiest pieces.

The entire body of a harp wants to implode. When tightened, the 47 strings of a concert harp create 2,000 pounds of tension between the neck and body, the 80-pound instrument straining against a ton of potential energy eager to destroy it.

To resist the forces as it was improved, the body of the modern harp underwent a vivid evolution. It had to grow a skeleton.

Upstairs from the drama playing out on Valadez's desk, another worker picks up a block, measures and marks it into a thin, 4-inch piece, then sands it to size on a motorized belt. When the worker finishes, he has created the backing for a rib.

The four aluminum ribs hidden inside each harp make it exceptionally strong. They permit a thinner spruce body, which reverberates more, and thus is louder.

When finished, workers hang the bodies like sides of beef from overhead hooks. Others bring feminine curves out of blocky columns turning on lathes. On the third floor, master woodcarvers peck like birds at the designs on columns and bases.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on November 29, 2006 10:50 AM.

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