Boat Shaped Harp of the Burmese by Helena Heath


LL the world over, tradition tells of harp-shaped instruments, usually played by mysterious harpists in the cool depths of river or ocean. In Scandinavian lore, Odin, under the name of Nikarr, was wont to play on a harp in his home beneath the sea, and from time to time allowed one or more of his spirits to rise through the waters and teach mortals the strains of another world.

According to Finnish mythology, a god invented the five-stringed harp called 'Kantele,' which was for many centuries the national instrument of Finland. His materials were simple—the bones of a pike, with teeth of the same for tuning pegs, and hair from the tail of a spirited horse for strings. Alas! that harp fell into the sea and was swept away, and so the inventive god set to work to make another, this time of birchwood with pegs of oak, strung with the silky hair of a very young girl. This completed, he sat down to play, with magical results. Wild beasts became tame, birds flocked from the air, fishes from the sea, to hear the wonderful sounds; brooks paused on their way and winds held their breath to listen. Women began to cry, then men followed their example, and at last the god himself wept, and his tears fell into the sea, changing on their way to beautiful pearls.

The Burmese Soung. The Burmese Soung.

According to Greek mythology, Hermes made a lyre, which is a kind of harp, out of the shell of a tortoise, and on a vase in the Museum at Munich is a figure of Polyhymnia playing a harp with thirteen strings, of the form which was used in Assyria.

The harp (the Soung) shown in the illustration is a favourite Burmese instrument, and is chiefly used to accompany the voice: it is always played by young men. It also has thirteen strings, made of silk, and is tuned by the strings being pushed up or down on the handle. It would sound strange to our ears, as the Burmese scale is differently constructed from ours. Every learner of music knows, or ought to know, that our scale has the semi-tones between the third and fourth, and the seventh and eighth notes, which gives a smooth progression satisfactory to our ears; but the Burmese scale places the semi-tones between the second and third and the fifth and sixth, which is quite different and to us has not nearly such a pleasant effect. The Soung is held with the handle resting on the left arm of the performer, who touches the strings with his right hand.

The Arpa. The Arpa.

The Arpa or drum of Oceana is made of wood, and imitates the head and jaws of a crocodile, with a handle for carrying purposes. The head is covered with snake-skin, which sometimes gives it an unpleasantly real appearance. It is used by the natives of New Guinea, especially by those dwelling around the Gulf of Papua.