The Aeolian Harp

music miscellany Aug 10, 2012


The Aeolian harp  is a stringed instrument that is played by the wind. It is named after Aeolus, the ruler of the winds in ancient Greek mythology. You have heard one if  you have ever had your harp outside, and heard the breeze play the strings by itself.  Enjoy this short tribute to the Aeolian harp.

The Aeolian harp summerhouse shown here is in Pyatigorsk, in the Northern Caucasus Mountains in Russia. It was constructed in 1828, designed by the Bernardaccy brothers who also designed the town’s mineral baths and fanciful Diana’s Grotto .

The harp inside the pavilion was not strictly an Aeolian harp. Instead of relying on the wind to stroke the strings, the two harps mounted on the floor of the pavilion were played with a device attached to the weathervane on the dome. When the wind turned the weathervane, the device played the strings. The sound could be heard throughout the valley:

On one of the loftiest peaks rises an octagonal building, consisting of a cupola resting upon slender shapely columns, which are encircled at their base by a graceful balustrade. The interior, open on all sides, contains an Aeolian harp, the melancholy notes of which, blending with all the mountain echoes, descend softly to the valley.

This was the observation of Mme. Xavier Hommaire de Hell who, along with her husband, travelled extensively in Turkey, Crimea and the Caucasus. The stories of their travels and research are told in their 1847 publication, ‘Travels in the Steppes of the Caspian Sea, the Crimea, the Caucasus.”

For a more modern take, listen to these harps by Mohican Wind Harps.

And finally, an excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, The Harp:
(DO read the whole poem!)

Aeolian harp,
How strangely wise thy strain!
Gay for youth, gay for youth,
(Sweet is art, but sweeter truth,)
In the hall at summer eve
Fate and Beauty skilled to weave.
From the eager opening strings
Rung loud and bold the song.
Who but loved the wind-harp’s note?

It shares the secret of the earth,
And of the kinds that owe her birth.
Speaks not of self that mystic tone,
But of the Overgods alone:
It trembles to the cosmic breath,–
As it heareth, so it saith;
Obeying meek the primal Cause,
It is the tongue of mundane laws.

And best can teach its Delphian chord
How Nature to the soul is moored,
If once again that silent string,
As erst it wont, would thrill and ring.


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