The Harp in the Legend of Tristan and Isolde

‘Tristan and Isolde’ by Edmund Blair Leighton (1902)

Posted by Dorothy Lander

Legend tells of Isolde who fell in love with Tristan, the nephew of her husband the King of Cornwall. At their deaths the king ordered the lovers be buried far apart but an ivy shoot grew from each grave and eventually entwined in a lovers’ knot to reunite them.

Ivy and other twining vines will feature in upcoming HARP publications:  Hmmm: M the Humdinger (an interactive tale of Nature’s Child who hums along with bees and hummingbirds) and The Book of Hands (hands of artists and caregivers created from the botanicals that hold special meaning for them)

What is not so well known about the legend is that Tristan was a musician who played the harp for his beloved Isolde. Mary Ellen Winn writes about the medieval French romance called the Prose Tristan in her 2017 article in the journal Early Music:

https://academic.oup.com/em/article-abstract/45/2/171/4043873

The medieval French romance called the Prose Tristan is known from more than 80 manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries. It develops the legend of Tristan and Iseut from the fragmentary poems of the 12th century into a vast composition in prose whose interlaced episodes extend for more than 600 pages in various versions, including seven early printed editions issued between 1489 and 1533. The hero is not only a skilled knight, whose prowess is unmatched except by Lancelot, but also a consummate musician, unrivalled as a composer, singer and harper of lais. Although only one manuscript contains music for all 17 lais contained in the romance, many are copiously illustrated with images of the harp, the sole instrument on which Tristan and other characters perform. Focusing on three lais, this study offers a selection of images of the medieval harp that document its appearance and use within one of the most popular prose romances of the Middle Ages.

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