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Jew's Harp (Jaw Harp)


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Historical Background: The Jew's Harp or Jaw Harp (5002) is a small musical instrument held between the player's teeth or against the lips and plucked with one or more fingers. It has been debated since 1511 as to whether the Jew's Harp is a percussion or chromatic instrument. Music scholars Fredrick Crane and Ole Kai Ledand support an earlier notion proposed by Marin Mersenne, a 17th-century musicologist. Mersenne's ideology subscribes to the classification of the Jew's Harp as an aerophone since the "full functioning of the instrument occurs only when a stream of air moves past its tongue."

The name Jaw Harp is a bit of a misnomer and does not hold much scholastic merit. For 400 years, this instrument has been connected in English with Jews and called a Jew's Harp (or Jews' Harp) since its earliest known mention in 1595. Prior to this, it was referred to as a "jewes trump" (Jew's trump). In Scotland and Northern Ireland, it was simply called a trump. The origin of "jewes" is unknown. Regardless, the proper name according to the Harvard Dictionary of Music is Jew's Harp despite today's popular use of the name Jaw Harp.

Actually, the world has given this "mouth harp" dozens of names. Germans call it "maultommel," which means "mouth drum." In Japan, it is called "koukin." Russians call it "vargan" (except in Siberia where it is called "khomus"). In the Philippines, it is called either "kumbing" or "kubing." Italians use the name "scacciapensieri" while the French go with the name "guimbarde." In Norway, it is called a "munnharpa" (sometimes spelled "munnharpe"). Even in England, the name "gewgaw" is also used for jew's harp. And, as a last example, on the Indonesian island of Bali, it is called a "genggong."

In the past, these instruments have been made from wood or iron. A 1,000-year-old iron koukin was found in Japan in 1990. Maultrommel frames have been discovered in Germany dating back to the 1400s. These are considered by some to be the oldest examples in Europe. However, there have been considerable quantities uncovered from earlier periods (Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian). By the 16th century, Jew's Harps were a common item of a peddler's stock of goods.

The Jew's Harp is actually native to many other parts of Europe, Asia, and Oceania (except for Australia). And with the exception of Eskimo tradition, no evidence (so far) suggests this instrument existed in North and South America or Africa prior to its introduction by European traders.

The Jew's Harp was introduced to the New World (specifically South America) in 1593 by a Spanish exploratory party. Five hundred Jew's Harps were part of a transaction used to acquire land from the natives. This is not the only occurrence of Jew's Harps used to obtain land. They were also part of a trade deal with Native Americans to purchase Maryland. A land deed dated 1677 lists 100 Jew's Harps as part of the payment for a tract of Indian land. Jew's Harps continued to be used to barter with Native Americans until the early 1800s. Archaeologists have discovered 17th- and 18th-century Jew's Harps among native artifacts from Maine to Florida. One archaeological site in Michigan produced more than 120 Jew's Harps!

When an old Jew's Harp was found, it usually was broken with the tongue missing. The majority of Jew's Harps from the North American Colonial period have been found in rubbish heaps and at the bottom of wells. Their quantities and condition suggest they were discarded as useless, which further suggests Jew's Harps were not only popular, but played until they broke -- and in significant numbers!

The Jew's Harp is considered by some Americans to be a "hillbilly" instrument used by backward frontier folk. This is certinly not the case for Europeans. In fact, the Jew's Harp was a respected instrument (even by royalty!) and held a remarkable prominence in Western European music well into the late 1800s. Some of Europe's virtuosos with the Jew's Harp include Benedictine monk Father Bruno Glatzl, Karl Eulenstein, and Franz Koch. During his lifetime, Eulenstein was considered one of the finest performers in London and played for such English nobility as the Dukes of York, Queen Victoria's mother (the Duchess of Kent), and the King of England!

One should not believe the Jew's Harp is something only a "hillbilly" plays. Even one of Ludwig van Beethoven's music teachers wrote a number of concertos for the Jew's Harp. His name was Johann Georg Alberchtsberger, an Austrian composer and organist who succeeded Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (at Mozart's request) as the assistant to the Kapellmeister of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna.

No matter what you call it, this instrument is fun to play. With enough practice and patience, one can become a virtuoso and perhaps even perform for royalty!

Fun Fact: The ironworks at Saugus, Massachusetts (near Boston), started producing Jew's Harps as early as 1650.

Fun Fact: The Jew's Harp has been associated with shamanism by Siberian and Mongolian cultures.

Fun Fact: Jew's Harps were introduced to European recital rooms around 1750 by Johan Heinrich Hörmann in his compositional setting "Partita in C."

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Jew's Harp (Jaw Harp)
Jew's Harp (Jaw Harp)
Item Number 5002

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