Harp, Cousineau père et fils, 1780-85, inv. 0246
Signature of the maker, inv. 0246
Scroll detail, inv. 0246
Decorative detail, inv. 0246
Jacques-Georges Cousineau, Méthode de harpe, Paris, s.d., p. 10
Diderot and d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers : Recueil de planches, sur les sciences, les arts libéraux et les arts méchaniques, Paris, 1767
béquilles systeem, inv. 0246
The Cousineau pedal harp inv. 0246 (fig.1) is one of the first instruments acquired by Victor-Charles Mahillon (1841-1924), the first curator of the Musée instrumental du Conservatoire (now MIM), which opened in 1877. The instrument bears the inscription "COUSINEAU PERE ET FILS LUTHIERS DE LA REINE", painted in a speech scroll on the sound board (fig.2). The harp was probably built around 1780-1785. The serial number 'No 17 R' appears at several places on the instrument, which stands out by its fine decoration. The scroll of the head is richly decorated and the sound board bears delicate chinoiserie (fig. 3 and 4).
Georges Cousineau (1732-1800) and his son Jacques-Georges Cousineau (1760-1836) were harp makers based in Paris. They worked for Queen Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793), among others. Jacques-Georges was himself a harpist and published a harp method in the early 19th century.
Cousineau father and son are known for several major improvements to the harp. Since the Renaissance, one of the challenges of this instrument was access to the chromatic tones. Most harps have seven strings per octave, one for each scale degree (C-D-E-F-G-A-B). An invention dating from the early 18th century allowed the strings to be shortened by a semitone by means of seven pedals placed at the base of the instrument and to use three flats (B-flat – E-flat – A-flat) and four sharps (F-sharp – C-sharp – G-sharp – D-sharp). This system is illustrated in Cousineau's treatise: three pedals are placed on the right of the base and four pedals on the left (fig.5).
If all pedals are released, the instrument plays in E flat major. When a pedal is depressed or engaged, the strings corresponding to the degree shown in the diagram are raised by a semitone. For example, the E pedal shortens the vibrating length of all E-flat strings to E-natural. The instrument then sounds in B flat major. This so-called "single-action" system does not allow playing in all major and minor keys, but it offers possibilities unknown to harps of earlier centuries.
To shorten the strings by a semitone, the pedals are connected (by rods included in the pillar) to a mechanical device placed on the instrument's neck. This is where Georges Cousineau made an important improvement. Before him, the commonly used system made use of crochets (hooks) that shortened the vibrating length of the strings, as illustrated in Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie (fig.6).
With this crochet (hook) system, the shortened strings were not properly aligned with the other strings, a major drawback for the smoothness of the performance. Cousineau therefore devised a system known as the système à béquilles, in which the depression of a pedal caused two metal béquilles (crutches) to rotate, one clockwise and the other counterclockwise, in order to wedge the string without causing it to move out of its plane (fig.7).
This system was clearly successful, but it had its weaknesses. The gut strings wore out quickly under the effect of the crutches and had to be replaced regularly. The patent for the double-action harp, registered by Sébastien Erard (1752-1831) in 1810, made it possible to overcome this disadvantage while giving access to all major and minor keys. The double-action harp was eventually adopted and is still used in orchestral harps today.
Text: Anne-Emmanuelle Ceulemans
- Victor-Charles Mahillon, Catalogue descriptif et analytique du Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles, i, Gand, 1893, p. 338-342.
- Laure Barthel, Au cœur de la harpe au XVIIIe siècle, s.l., 2005, p. 58.