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Jew’s harp

plucked idiophone

Exceptionally decorated for an instrument of this type, this Jew's harp may date back to the 16th century.  Made of a wrought iron frame, it has an iron tongue fixed to the frame by a mortise. The Jew's harp is part of the family of plucked idiophones: idiophone designating an instrument where the instrument as a whole produces the sound, without the use of strings, membranes, or being blown into.  The decoration, made by etching, is made up of tendrils and stylized plants.  It also shows the inscription: IUSTINVS LIEVAX AVDENARDE - VAST INT HAND VER VAN TAND ("Safe in the hand, far from the teeth").

Present in Wallonia under the name of gawe, more rarely trompe or, exceptionally, épinète* the jew's harp has also been known in Flanders since at least the 13th century (tromp, mondtrom, boertromp or, more recently mondharp). It is already mentioned in an erotic song transcribed at the end of the 14th century in the Gruuthuse manuscript. On this subject, note that the instrument seems to have had, here and in other parts of Europe, an erotic connotation, an aspect emphasized by certain paintings of the time. Is this due to its oral character?  This does not prevent a disciple of Memling from representing a Jew's harp in the hands of an angel adoring the Virgin with the Child. In practice, it seems to have mostly been played by youths, especially young boys, according to sources that often mention it in this respect. It also appears at fairs, as shown by paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Sebastiaan Vranckx, or Pieter Brueghel III, where the musicians, always of the lower classes, often peasants, play for their pleasure, but also for a small audience.

In light of the written and iconographic sources, the golden age of the Jew's harp in our regions is between the 15th and 17th centuries. In the 18th century it was seen almost solely as a children's toy.  There was a certain revival during the romantic era, as evidenced by a remarkable poster from September 1821 which announced a great competition for the liefhebbers van het tromp-spel in Oudenaarde. The Brussels dance master Joseph Mattau (1788-1867) brought the playing technique to a high level of virtuosity. But the use of the instrument, apart from a few exceptions, disappeared almost completely here after the Second World War.

Jew's harps were probably often made by ironworkers: "It was a small instrument of iron or steel totally forgotten today, shaped by ironworkers"** ... In the Liège region, they were apparently also being made by weapons manufacturers. Held horizontally in the musician's left hand, the two branches are placed in front of the half-open mouth, pressing against the teeth. Activated by the right hand, the iron tongue can vibrate freely in the oral cavity. The instrument emits only natural harmonics.  Thus, to change the notes, the musician must adapt the dimensions of his or her oral cavity, as if pronouncing vowels. Although the Jew's harp is mainly used in popular music, its virtuosity can be astonishing, as can be seen in Johanne Georg Albrechtsberger's concerto for Jew's harp, mandore and orchestra.

* J.F. Xhoffer, Dictionnaire wallon, Verviers, 1860.

** G. Ducarme, de Rance, contribution to the Musée de la vie wallonne, 1929, n° 12 G.I.I.

Jew's harp, "Reuzenlied", Bernard Vanderheyden