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John Egan’s Journey Toward Creating the “Most Perfect Harp”

by Mary Louise O’Donnell

E IGHTEENTH century Europe was


characterized by tremendous
developments in the design of the
structure and mechanism of the harp. Unlike
Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where the harp enjoyed
leading contemporary French harpists to perform
and teach in the capital. Some performers arrived
in Dublin via London after fleeing the French
Revolution, in 1789, and others were temporary
residents supplementing concert performances
a relatively privileged and respected position in with teaching duties. The unprecedented demand
the musical and social life, the harp in mainland for pedal harps increased the demand for lessons,
Europe languished for centuries in the shadow of generating a steady stream of harp students and
the harpsichord. The inability of the instrument to teachers in Dublin and its environs during the
match the chromatic capabilities of contemporary first half of the nineteenth century. Harp teachers
keyboard and stringed instruments, despite the including Mr. Poole, Miss Cheese, Mr. Powel,
development of double and triple-strung harps, Mr. Smith and Mr. Blewit regularly advertised in
stymied its development. It was the development of contemporary newspapers during the early decades
hook harps, single action and double action harps of the century. The arrival of renowned pedagogues,
that allowed an entrée for the harp into the rapidly such as Francis Penthonier, a former teacher at the
changing harmonic sphere of Classical and Romantic Royal Academy in London, to teach at the Musical
art music. The improvements to the pedal harp Academy for the Piano-forte and Harp at Upper
over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth North Gloucester Street, Dublin, ensured that,
centuries resulted in an instrument that was capable despite its geographical position on the periphery
of meeting contemporary harmonic demands. of Europe, students of harp in Ireland benefited
Indeed the elaborate gilt carvings on the capital from the pedagogical expertise enjoyed by fellow
and pedestal of these instruments in a rococo style harpists in Britain and on the Continent.1 The
ensured that the instrument, which was favored by popularity of the pedal harp in Ireland in this period
female aristocracy throughout Europe, was now not also stimulated an interest in the Irish harp, and
only sonically, but also aesthetically pleasing. The John Egan, a harp maker from Dublin, contributed
pedal harp, which had been brought to perfection significantly to the development of the design and
by the French pedal harp maker Sébastien Erard mechanism of the pedal and Irish harp in the early
and previous generations of harp makers, was now decades of the nineteenth century.
established as one of the most popular instruments of
the early nineteenth century throughout Europe, and John Egan: From Blacksmith’s Apprentice
in particular, in Ireland. to Master Craftsman
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, many foreign harpists performed in Egan’s date or place of birth is unknown and what
Ireland, and, in the early nineteenth century, the little biographical information is available about
vibrant musical life in Dublin attracted many of the
1 Freeman’s Journal, 15 July 1833.

40 THE AMERICAN HARP JOURNAL


him is courtesy of Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) 1812, and in addition to providing Irish harps for the
in her novel Patriotic Sketches of Ireland, written in use of the students, he received a bonus of £30 for
1807. In this short account of Egan, she mentions improvements made to the design of the basic Irish
how, while apprentice to a smith, he came in harp structure. His innovations were not restricted
contact with a French single action pedal harp to the Irish harp in this decade. As an accomplished
and how, on examining the mechanism, succeeded pedal harp maker, Egan was undoubtedly aware that
in constructing a similar pedal harp which he the design and mode of production of pedal harps
afterwards sold (Owenson 162). He began making in Europe was changing rapidly due to a series of
and repairing pedal harps in 1797,2 but no listing innovations made by Sébastien Erard, and he soon
is extant for his business until 1804. In the Dublin set up in direct competition with the formidable
Directory (1804), Egan is listed as “Pedal-harp- Erard family who were based in London, but also
maker, 25, Dawson-street,”3 and it was from this operated workshops in Paris, and, later, Dublin.
address that he operated his business until 1820. Sébastien Erard, who had revolutionised the
Egan quickly built up a large clientele in Ireland and design of single and double action pedal harps
Britain and could boast that many of the leading during the previous three decades, opened his first
literary, musical, and aristocratic personages of the warehouse at Messrs. Law and Sons, no. 2, Lower
nineteenth century possessed harps manufactured Sackville Street, Dublin, selling an assortment of
by him. He rapidly established a reputation, largely harps manufactured in London as well as all types
due to the efforts of Sydney Owenson who, in 1805, of harp paraphernalia, including sound boards,
used some of the money derived from the success music desks, Roman and silver strings, and stools.5
of her novel, The Novice of St. Dominic, to purchase Erard was harp maker to Princess Charlotte of
an Irish harp from Egan which, she noted in her Wales, and his impressive list of clients included the
Autobiography, became “her companion wherever she Prince of Wales, Louis XVI of France and his wife,
went” (252). Marie Antoinette. During the course of April 1817,
Egan’s business flourished in the early decades Erard and Egan frequently advertised, often placing
of the new century. The increased demand for advertisements in the same column of a newspaper.
pedal harps resulted in an unprecedented rise in This campaign, however, was short lived, and Erard,
the importation of these instruments, and even although retaining premises in Dublin until 1820, did
music sellers and publishers dabbled in the business not engage in any significant advertising after this
of selling pedal harps. It was, however, the sale of time.6
his pedal harps at half the cost of importation that In 1818, under the patronage of the Countess
provided the basis for Egan’s successful business. Talbot, Egan focused on the development of his
Egan remained the sole manufacturer of pedal harps pedal and Irish harps. His intense labours resulted
in the capital until 1816, when W. O’Reilly, a violin in the production of the Portable Irish harp in the
and pianoforte maker, began making and selling latter half of 1819. The instrument was essentially a
pedal harps from his premises at 12 Trinity Street, much smaller, more easy to move version of a single
Dublin.4 Although the design and perfection of pedal action pedal harp, but instead of pedals the harp was
harps was his primary focus during the early years of
the century, Egan continued to make improvements
5 F. J., 12 April 1817.
to the design of his Irish harps. He was harp maker 6 Sébastien Erard is listed in Wilson’s Dublin Directory from
to the Irish Harp Society of Dublin from 1809 to 1818-20 as operating from 17 Lower Sackville Street. Al-
though advertisements in the F. J., 12&14 April 1817, state
that Erard was available from 2-5pm every day to receive
2 F .J., 18 January 1817. customers, it is likely that he spent a considerable amount of
3 Wilson’s Dublin Directory (1804), 39. time abroad overseeing businesses in Paris and London which
4 W O’Reilly is listed in editions of Wilson’s Dublin Directory he had left in the hands of his brother, Jean-Baptiste, and his
from 1816-26, but from 1826 onwards, there is no listing for nephew, Pierre. For more information on the rivalry between
him or his business at any address in Dublin. Erard and Egan see O’Donnell chapter 5.

SUMMER 2011 41
fitted with a dital mechanism which allowed limited design of his pedal harps, and these modifications
harmonic capabilities. The Portable Irish harp is a to the mechanism of the pedal harp resulted in
perfect example of Egan’s inventive and innovative instruments, that he proudly boasted could not only
attitude towards harp making. From his new premises equal any harps manufactured in Europe, but could
at 53, Frith Street, Soho Square, London, Egan sold also be sold at a considerably lower price than the
his newly invented instruments and gradually began cost of importation. In her short narrative in Patriotic
to build a reputation for himself as a respected harp Sketches of Ireland on the “musical and mechanical
maker. In 1821, after nearly twenty-five years of talents” of Egan, Sydney Owenson alluded to a
toil, innovation and ambition, the desire to emulate significant modification to the design of his single
Erard’s royal patronage, which had so long eluded action pedal harps that enabled him to sell his harps
Egan, was finally realised. In late August 1821, Egan at significantly reduced rates. She noted:
was appointed harp maker to King George IV.7
…by an invention which he has all the mer-
Egan’s Pedal Harps it, he has so simplified the machinery, that the
springs hitherto found necessary to return to
In the first two decades of the nineteenth century the pedals, he has laid aside; which renders the
Egan produced single and double action pedal harps harp less liable to go out of order, much easi-
but also tried to emulate Erard by attempting to er to repair, and enables the ingenious inven-
further develop the double action mechanism that tor to sell a pedal harp nearly one-half cheaper
Erard had perfected by 1810. (See Figure 1.) Egan than it could be imported. (163n)
consistently experimented with and modified the
Despite the invention of the double action pedal
harp in the early years of the nineteenth century,
Egan continued to produce single action pedal harps
throughout his career as a harp maker. In January
1817, he formally announced the launch of his
double action pedal harp:

..his newly-constructed DOUBLE-ACTION


HARP, made on a principle the most simple, en-
tirely different from any heretofore made--a prin-
ciple never before applied to any Musical Instru-
ment…….The Ladies and Gentlemen who will
do him the honour to view and try his newly-
constructed Harps, will find them for beauty of
workmanship, and brilliancy of Tone, second
to none. He engages them made of best sea-
soned Wood and Materials of every kind; and
pledges himself, if any thing should be found
necessary to do to them for five years (String,
Tuning, and accidents excepted), to do it free
of expense to the Purchaser.8

Egan’s double action harps, which were


Figure 1: Egan’s double action mechanism.
undoubtedly based on the double action pedal
harps patented by Sébastian Erard in 1810,

7 F. J., 29 August, 1821. 8 F. J., 27 January, 1817.

42 THE AMERICAN HARP JOURNAL


enjoyed considerable success. (See Figure 2.) His
simplification and refinement of these harps over
many years enabled him to manufacture the
instruments cheaply and to sell them at half the price
of similar models sold in London.

Figure 2: Egan’s double action harp.

Egan’s proclivity towards innovation culminated


in 1817 with another advancement in the design
of pedal harps. The employment of increased
chromaticism in contemporary compositions
Figure 3
prompted Egan to develop the ‘Triple,’ or ‘Treble’
action pedal harp. (See Figure 3.) The newly
addition of a triple action, the harp could be played
invented instrument, which Robert Nicholas Charles
in all major and minor keys from seven flats to seven
Bochsa described as “the highest degree of perfection
sharps and, in addition, three additional major keys
the harp can arrive at,” 9 was capable of performing
G-sharp major, D-sharp major and A-sharp major.
compositions in any key. Although I am not aware
(See Table 1.) The capacity of the instrument to play
of any extant example of Egan’s triple action pedal
in thirty-three keys, eighteen major and fifteen minor
harp, the instrument, later renamed the ‘Royal Triple
keys, facilitated greater chromaticism.
Action Harp’, enjoyed some success in the 1820s

(O’Donnell 164).
Major Keys
In the Royal Harp Director (1827), one of Charles
Egan’s most successful publications, he includes C-flat G-flat D-flat A-flat E-flat

an illuminating description of his father’s ‘Triple B-flat F C G D

Movement Harp’ (Triple action harp). He asserts A E B F-sharp C-sharp


that before the invention of the Triple Movement G-sharp D-sharp A-sharp
Harp, the “Pedal Harp was imperfect” (15). The
double action pedal harp was incapable of being Minor Keys
played in three minor keys, namely G-sharp minor, A-flat E-flat B-flat F C
D-sharp minor and A-sharp minor, but with the G D A E B
F-sharp C-sharp G-sharp D-sharp A-sharp
9 Bochsa owned a double action pedal harp, a triple action
pedal harp and a Portable Irish harp made by Egan and was
Table 1: Major and minor keys playable on Egan’s Triple action harp.
highly complimentary about the standard of his design and
workmanship. See Egan, Royal Harp Director, 8.

SUMMER 2011 43
The addition of the triple action undoubtedly
required Egan to modify aspects of his double action
mechanism. The instrument was still tuned in C-flat
major, and the order of the pedals remained the
same, but the number of pedal notches was increased
from two to three on the F, C and G pedals, so that
when these pedals were depressed to the lowest
notch, the F, C and G strings could produce a
double sharp. (See Figure 4.)With the triple action

Figure 5: The modified fourchette mechanism.

Figure 4: Egan’s ‘Triple’ or ‘Treble’ action pedal harp. Although Egan’s pedal harps enjoyed tremendous
success in the early nineteenth century, his
mechanism the instrument could produce flat,
success as a pedal harp maker has been completely
natural, sharp and double sharps on F, C and G
overshadowed by contemporary harp makers, such as
strings throughout the entire range of the instrument
Naderman and the Erard family in France, and J. & J.
and when all the pedals were fully depressed the
Erat in London. The Triple action pedal harp, which
instrument was set in the key of A-sharp major.
was one of several inventions by John Egan, has not
It is probable that the wooden pedestal holding
been developed by harp makers over the last two
the pedals may have been enlarged and reinforced to
centuries and Egan’s legacy is now only evident in
support the additional pedal wires or rods for the F, C
the design of Irish harps. Curved soundboxes, necks
and G pedals. The fourchette mechanism would also
and forepillars became the models for non-pedal
have been modified and a third row of fourchette
harp makers in the early twentieth century. Perhaps
discs placed below the first and second rows and
it is now an opportune time to celebrate the work of
the series of wires linking the pedals and the neck
John Egan, an inventor and innovator in the field of
increased to facilitate the additional chromatic
pedal harp making.
capacity. (See Figure 5.)

Coda Works Cited

Unfortunately, as I have already stated, I am unaware Egan, Charles. The Royal Harp Director. London:
of any extant example of Egan’s Triple action pedal 1827. Print.
harp; the detailed description by his son Charles,
O’Donnell, Mary Louise. “Custodians of Culture: A
however, suggests that it was an ingenious response
Social, Political, Musicological and Cultural History
to the limitations of the double action mechanism.

44 THE AMERICAN HARP JOURNAL


of the Irish Harp and its Patronage from 1790 to
1845.” Diss. University of Limerick, 2009. Print.

Owenson, Sydney. Lady Morgan’s Memoirs:


Back Issues
Autobiography, Diaries and Correspondence. Ed. W.
Hepworth Dixon. Vol. 1. London: W.H. Allen, 1862.
Print.

_____. Patriotic Sketches of Ireland, Written in


Connaught. London: Richard Phillips, 1807. Print.

ABoUt tHe AUtHor

Mary Louise O’Donnell,


PhD, is a harpist, scholar,
teacher, arranger and
composer. Her research
interests include the fields
of ethnomusicology, Irish
traditional music, the
iconography, organology
and history of the Irish harp, music and identity in
Ireland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Complete sets and single issues of The
and the role of music as a vehicle for the transmission of American Harp Journal are available:
the utopian impulse. Forthcoming publications include
$250 complete
several articles contributed to the Encyclopaedia of
$10 single copy
Music in Ireland(EMIR) and an article for the latest
volume of Utopian Studies. She is currently working on
Back issues of The Teachers Forum are
a monograph on the Irish harp maker John Egan. V available for $3 per copy.

Back issues of Uncle Knuckles’ Knews


are available for $1 per copy or $30 for
a complete set.

All prices include shipping and


handling.

See To order or for more info, contact:

you Elizabeth Huntley


Editor, American Harp Journal
40th National Conference there! PO Box 278
Greenfield Center, New York 12833
New York City
June 30–July 3, 2012 elizabethharp@juno.com

SUMMER 2011 45
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