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Normally triangular in outline, all harps have three basic structural components: resonator, neck and strings. The earliest known use of the word harpa was in about 600 A.D.. In the ancient world, solo harpists and harpists in large ensembles were usually men while harpists who played in small chamber ensembles were often women. In the Western world until the late 19th century, professional harpists were usually men, while women played the harp as a domestic instrument probably from the 17th century. Today, men and women play harps throughout the world; but throughout Africa, in India, Georgia and Siberia women are rarely professional harpists and, in a few cases, are not even allowed to touch the instrument. The modern harp used in the orchestra today has over 90 strings and uses a complex pedal-activated system for chromatic alteration of the strings. It is plucked with the fingers or a plectrum as a special effect.
Among the memorable orchestra works with harp are Richard Strausss Tod und Verklrung and Don Juan (both 1888-9), Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela (1893) and Symphony no.1 in E minor (1898-9), Franck’s Symphony in D minor (1886-8) and Debussy’s Prelude l’apres-midi d’un faune (1892-4). The Debussy Prelude is scored for two harps, using chords, arpeggios, broken chords, glissandos and harmonics to excellent effect. Also notable are harp cadenzas by Rimsky-Korsakov (Spanish Capriccio, 1887) and Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake, 1875-6; Sleeping Beauty, 1888-9; and The Nutcracker, 1891-2).
Source: Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed February 28, 2005), www.grovemusic.com