@odeharper blog

Pleyel Chromatic Harp No 806

There are special bonds between harpers/harpists and their harps. Perhaps with such a large instrument, and great care required, there is a deep commitment to each harp you welcome into the fold. I like to think of my collective of harps as my Harp Garden, each with its own special endearing qualities that draw me to play them.

I have a particular penchant for older harps. They require a bit more care and consideration, but they bring a rich sense of history into my life. Perhaps I identify with them, hoping to be appreciated for my life experiences. Perhaps I appreciate their need for a bit more attention as they age, and I enjoy the honorable feeling providing that.

I have been working on a particularly thrilling project during the pandemic, the restoration of my antique Pleyel Chromatic harp, No 806. A narrative about my Pleyel restoration should take its place prominently here, as both a chronicle and as encouragement to others who might be considering saving one of these extraordinary harps.

My Pleyel is the "Erable" or figured maple model, sold 8 Oct 1917 to Madame Lemoine, 4 Rue de Dames, Paris. The Lemoines were publishers, and responsible for printing the Pleyel instruction guide. Henry Lemoine Publishing still exists; https://www.henry-lemoine.com/en/apropos/ identifies this harp's Mr Lemoine as Henri-Félicien Lemoine (1848-1924). The Pleyel chromatic harp manual mentions Godefroid and Boscha exercises "of which MM Lemoine have just released a new edition with the fingering adopted by Mme Tassu-Spencer for the harp without pedals." (IMSLP #470856, Méthode de harp chromatique sans pédales, Tassu-Spencer, published in Paris by Henry Lemoine, 1899. Plate 18831.H.) This harp had been subsequently owned by a woman from Bruges, brought to this country but fell to decay after her death. It was rescued from her son's house and brought to Boston a few decades ago by Carl Swanson.

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Molding and veneer losses were repaired by a professional furniture refinisher who used reclaimed figured maple veneer from 200-year old furniture, then painstakingly polished and regilded as original in gold leaf, Pleyel No. 806 (photos property of S. Pereira)

When I began restoration, there were a number of condition problems. It was very dirty, with staining to the neck, back and sides, where it likely would have been rubbed as it was played. The strings and wires were deteriorated or missing. There were minor losses to trim, cracking and lifting of veneer and misplaced hardware. Much of the hardware was seized and required tedious cleaning and rebluing. But the harp was strong and straight, and in fine shape for its age.

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Alibert pegs and bass springs soaked in Biox, scrubbed with a wire brush then applied bluing for black oxide protective finish. //Wrapped bass wires pass through the soundboard and loop onto springs attached to a heavy internal support within the Pleyel chromatic harp's solid internal structure. //Detail of seized three-part Alibert peg assemblies, soaked in Biox to loosen, in ultrasonic cleaner basket. Some pegs are beginning to release in this photo, but still have to be disassembled to clean each piece thoroughly, in order to ensure free movement. The teeth hold the pin securely after the string has been brought to tune. //Photos property of S. Pereira

The Alibert tuning peg assemblies were patented by Wolff in 1875, and named after their designer. They are three-part screwed tuning pegs that made it possible to fine tune each string by modifying the angle of the tuning peg assembly. Gross tuning helped hold the high tension string in general placement while the geared portion allowed for fine tuning. To fine tune a string, the gear is backed up to open it, the string is tuned, then the gear locked into place. To clean and restore the hardware, they were carefully removed, taken apart, soaked in Biox solution, scrubbed with a wire brush by hand and rinsed in an ultrasonic cleaner then re-blued to prevent rust. Some parts had to be tumbled with very fine grit. Preservation of the original parts was important. I could not find any machinists locally who could replicate the parts, despite an exhaustive search. The originals varied in size and tolerance. I was, very thankfully, able to find a few odd original screws, springs and Alibert assembly parts from Castermans Harpen, in the Netherlands, left over from an old restoration.

I enlisted help from Valerie at Salopian Strings to build a proper string set for my harp. The sharp strings needed to be colored correctly, and the wires are wrapped. It is a complicated set to build, with sharps and naturals. The bass wires have loops that attach to its bass spring, and their length needs to be extra long, to allow them to attach beyond the soundboard to the support beam inside the harp. Some of the bass wires are still not-quite-right, the wrong dimensions for my model perhaps, since they had to be unwrapped to fit through the eyelets and through the holes in the Alibert tuning pegs. For the time being, I avoid playing any repertoire that requires the lowest bass while I wait for qualified help to determine the correct bass wire configuration for my model. And so my restoration saga will continue another day...