The Harp in Intermedi and Early Opera

Joachim Steinheuer

Synopsis: There are still many open questions about the early music repertoire for the harp. The musicologist Joachim Steinheuer evaluates written, as well as iconographic sources in order to present a closer understanding of the different uses of the harp in the intermedi, madrigals and the first operas. In this talk for the Harfenlabor’s 2016 Convening, Steinheuer identifies three main types of use of the instrument in the period covering the late 15th, the 16th and the early 17th century: as ensemble, continuo and solo instrument. The largest number of sources indicate the use of the harp as a continuo instrument, often the main continuo instrument. In the somewhat rarer instances indicating the harp as an ensemble instrument, it is rarely clear which voice it was playing, though on occasions it is indicated as playing the bass. Harp can also be found in a seemingly intriguing combination with lira (or lire) da braccio as accompanying the voice. As a solo instrument, the harp seems to be strongly aligned with the voice, in particular as representing the mythical figures of Apollo, Arion and Orpheus, often the main characters in the intermedi and early operas. Steinheuer’s richly textured analysis points out the emerging importance in this period of instruments symbolising the characters on the stage. Many riddles and puzzles remain, Steinheuer tells us, as the sources on the same performance, be they written and/or iconographic, can sometimes bring contradictory information. Through analysis and comparison of sources, Steinheuer provides an outline of the genealogy of the use of harp in the stage works of the period, and representations of it in painting and graphical arts of the period.


The musicologist Joachim Steinheuer provides rich overview of the different uses of harps in the intermedi, madrigals and early opera. Through intriguing comparisons of the various early musical and iconographic sources—offering, at times, unclear or contradicting accounts, riddles even—Steinheuer constructs a representation of the harp in the performance practices of the 16th and 17th century. Harp appears as an ensemble instrument, lead continuo and as a solo instrument, as well as in combinations that may appear strange to the modern ear, such as accompanying voice or voices with lira (or lire) da braccio. Steinheuer also considers the relations created in both musical and iconographic sources between the harp and the mythological figures of Apollo, Orpheus and Arion, in the early intermedi and in the first operas. Harfenlabor invited Steinheuer to present his research at the Convening around the Barberini Harp, a symposium that took place on December 14-16, 2016, at the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali and at the Istituto Storico Austriaco, Roma.

© Armin Linke / Harfenlabor 2020
Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND International 4.0

Cite:&& Joachim Steinheuer, <i>The Harp in Intermedi and Early Opera</i>, Barberini Harp Project / Convening, by Studio Armin Linke / Harfenlabor, May 16, 2022,, MP4, 35:02,