For more than a century, Chicago has been home to the master harpmakers at Lyon & Healy. Combining precision engineering with old-world craftsmanship, the instrument makers are widely considered one of the finest manufacturers of harps in the world.
Known as the largest stringed instrument in a classical orchestra (not counting a piano), the harp also happens to be one of the most intricate and complicated instruments to construct.
At the Lyon & Healy workshop on Ogden Avenue, artisans are busy fabricating and assembling the more than 1500 parts that are needed to build the world-famous harps. It is work the company has been doing in Chicago since the late 1800s.
The company was founded by George Lyon and Patrick Healy, who, after years of repairing old European harps that really couldn’t handle the tough Chicago climate, decided to build a sturdier, more robust American harp.
“The first harp we built was in 1889. And in 1893 at the World’s Fair here in Chicago, we won approximately seven gold medals for all the improvements we made in the instruments,” says Stephen Fritzmann who began working with the company as an apprentice harpmaker back in 1979.
“Patrick Healy’s motto was having a harp travel around the world without losing a screw. And that was a big to-do back in the old days,” says Fritzmann, who is a master harpmaker himself, now in charge of restoration and national sales.
“Steamships and railroads and horse-drawn carriages [delivered] harps all over the world. That was a rough ride, I’m sure,” added Fritzmann.
The harps themselves are made predominantly of hard-rock maple, a very decorative, but strong, wood. The soundboard, which harpmakers say is the life of the instrument, is quartersawn Sitka spruce.
“This is very traditional. This is not a new formula,” says Fritzmann. “Our harps have been built this way since 1889. Not a lot has changed, because the recipes that they incorporated back then were extremely great.”
A Lyon and Healy harp can pass through the hands of at least 50 different artisans before being completed. In the woodshop, expert woodworkers painstakingly carve the intricate designs that adorn the concert grand harp.
From there, some of the harps will land in the hands of gilding artisans.
Susan Craig, a master harpmaker and harpist, carves the finishing touches on a Salzedo harp, one of Lyon & Healy’s signature pieces. It takes about three months to complete the harp.
“The base itself is all handmade also, of course, and it all has to be veneered and it takes quite a long time. Everything’s done by hand,” says Craig.
With the old-world craftsmanship, there are some modern techniques that have been embraced as well. Electronic tuners are used to calibrate the pitch of each note played on the harp.
It takes months and sometimes years before a harp can make its way up to the showroom. But it must undergo one final examination before it can be called a Lyon & Healy harp.
Erin Ponto is the harp checker, responsible for making sure the harps are durable, clear, and resonant. She spends hours playing each harp, ensuring that every pedal operates smoothly and every mechanism is finely tuned before the harp reaches a customer.
“We spend so much time building the harps and carving them and putting them together and I finally get to hear how it turned out and listen to the sound (to) make sure it’s up to par with our standards, that it has the Lyon & Healy sound,” says Ponto.
That means pushing a harp to the limit.
“We play it really loud – full volume. We move the pedals just like crazy! Really fast,” says Ponto.
“We’ll play every string – there are 47 – in all three pedal positions to make sure the sound quality is even,” she says. “We’ll switch up fingers in all the different pedal positions to make sure those are awesome.”
Then and only then, after Erin the harp checker has determined that the harp has reached maximum awesomeness, it is ready for someone to take away and make music of their own.