'tis the breeze upon the strings'. This was the quotation with which
John Thomas, harpist to Queen Victoria, sub-titled the first edition
of his Aeolian Sounds, composed in April 1891.
The invention of the Aeolian harp is credited to Aeolus, the Greek
god of the winds, who made an instrument which played as if touched
by an unseen hand when the winds blew over the dried sinews he
had stretched over a turtle shell. Legend relates, too, that the
biblical King David possessed a magical harp which, suspended over
his couch, sounded of its own accord in the north wind at the hour
of midnight. By the early nineteenth century its sound was being
described as that of Nature's Music.
As known to the Victorian era, the Aeolian harp almost became
a pro-requisite of the middle-class home. Consisting of a pinewood
box, approximately three feet long, five inches across, and three
inches deep, it had two narrow bridges of hard wood over which
some twelve strings were stretched, and tuned in pairs to the most
exact unisons possible. The instrument was then placed in the open
sash window of the house, where the breeze brushed over its strings,
causing them to vibrate and to utter their ethereal, mysterious
sounds - seemingly, the music of another world.