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Harp Music: Fighting Spirit

img  Tobias Fischer

Harpists are often compared to angels – and these days, it seems absolutely everybody wants a piece of heaven. Mark Grimwade, founder of the web's biggest directory for harpists, certainly has a few colorful stories to tell when I ask him about the most unusual engagements for the musicians listed on his site: "We got a booking for an event called something like ‘Bicon’, which, because it was being held at a large exhibition hall in London, we presumed to be some sort of medical conference, as these are quite common. The very attractive harpist went along to play, only to find out that ‘Bicon’ actually meant Bi-sexual Convention. There were lots of people walking around in bondage clothing which did not cover much and she received much attention from the females attending the event." Disconcerting as it may have been, it was by no means a bad experience, he says, adding with a smile, that they had "a laugh about it afterwards." It would indeed seem that there's every reason for harpists to be cheerful. After many decades of operating within a tiny niche of the musical spectrum, the instrument and harp music in general have gradually staged a remarkable comeback on the strength of a tight community, renewed interest by composers and an ambitious generation of performers. So much even, that Grimwade speaks about an entire 'underground harp movement'. Its effects, he claims, can be felt across the entire planet.

One of those who has led the way for recent renaissance of the instrument has been the Official Harpist to the Prince of Wales, Catrin Finch. It has been Finch's personal accomplishment to not only return the harp to the spotlight, but to also infuse it with a sense of excitement. Even among fellow harpists, her achievements are widely admired – no wonder a colleague like Harriet Adie speaks of her as a 'trailblazer' and credits her with creating an audience for harp music as a whole. The reason Finch has been so astoundingly successful is that her discography has effortlessly straddled the fine line between commercial necessity and artistic freedom, oscillating between popular releases like The Harpist – filled to the brim with familiar tunes – and more ambitious projects such as her take on the Goldberg Variations. Most importantly, she feels perfectly happy in either territory, remaining entirely unapologetic about her recent project, Lullabies, a collection of dreamy miniatures aimed at small children.

Doesn't this kind of project, however, reinforce the very cliches about harp music she has sought to eliminate from the equation for so long? "Yes, it does reinforce the cliches I am trying to change, but we have to remember that as a working musician I must be realistic and make albums that people will want to buy!", she says, with disarming honesty, "There is always a fine balance between pushing boundaries and maintaining a career, and sometimes doing the cliched things helps sell the other side of what you are trying to achieve. The lullabies idea came about when we heard the news of the impending arrival of the "Royal baby", and jumped on the band wagon of baby fever! So it was a purely commercial decision." And yet, whenever she's completed one of these commercial projects, Finch loves to withdraw to the personal studio she runs with her husband, recording engineer Hywel Wigley, a wonderful converted chapel, 5 minutes from her home, to record the challenging and refreshingly different harp music that has sounded in a new dawn for one of music history's most underrated and misunderstood instruments.

The harp: A long way
It has certainly has come a long way. Alongside the flute and the drums, the harp is not only one of the very earliest instruments ever built by man, it is also one of the most universal, with examples being found in all cultures and on all continents. Earliest examples of primitive harps, comprising of only a handful of strings tied to a bowed piece of wood, can be traced back to Ancient Egpyt around 2500 BC. Since then, it has appeared in a wide range of variations and been the subject of astounding technological improvements. The most vital of these, perhaps, was the introduction of the frameharp around the time of Mediaeval Europe around the 8th to 10th centuries AD. The harp was still comparatively small at the time, sporting merely ten to eleven strings, and light enough to be played in one's hand. The inclusion of a forepillar considerably strengthened the construction, allowing for more tension – and thus, over the centuries, the gradual addition of increasingly more strings. In the 14th century, a hollowed soundbox was added, amplifying the dynamic level of harp music. By then, the number of strings on the instrument had already roughly doubled,  significantly expanding the tonal range for the performer.

One of the main challenges in terms of the construction, meanwhile, was how to make this increased tonal range available to the player. Simply placing the strings in a single line was unpractical, as it made the instrument far too big and impossible to operate. Instead, inventive manufacturers would opt for two rows of strings tuned for playing with two hands. This was later followed by the triple strung harp, which introduced a third row, accessible by slipping one's finger through the outer ones. The improvement was palpable, and yet, it was anything but sufficient to meet practical demands. It would take the advent of a constructionist genius to arrive at the technical breakthrough required to establish the harp as a fully-fledged instrument in the Western tradition. Born in Strasbourg in 1752, Sébastien Erard was just that genius, a man who equally important for the development of the modern piano as the harp. Or, as Ann Griffiths puts it in her detailed biography of Erard: "Had it not been for the truly revolutionary genius of Sébastien Erard, Salvi, Obermayer, Horngacher, David, Camac and even the Lyon & Healy harps would simply not exist. We harpists would all still be struggling with fragile little eighteenth-century harps by Cousineau or Naderman, completely unable to play even one chordal glissando, and forever stuck in the key of E-flat major."

Erard's improvements made the overall construction of the harp far more stable than ever before, prevented the typical string breakages brought about by previous mechanisms and meant that performers now had access to eight major and five minor keys. The Erard harp would remain the standard for harp manufacturers to this day and made its creator a rich man – already in its first year in business, his company made a staggering £25,000 in sales. As so often, however, it wasn't only the obvious improvements and intended effects that would make his invention so successful, but the possibilities his instrument offered to tweak it to one's own goals and purposes. As Griffits writes, the new mechanism had an effect on harp music in general: "The effect of the Erard harp was crucial to the development of harp-writing in the nineteenth century, and the experiments and innovative techniques of virtuosi such as Parish Alvars (1808-1849) revealed more technical and expressive possibilities for the double-action harp than Sébastien Erard himself could ever have imagined. The most typical of the newly possible effects is the chordal glissando, now ubiquitous, but totally unknown until the mid-1830s. Other effects such as bisbigliando, the combination of harmonics with glissando, pedal glissandi, modulations to remote keys, and the brilliant effect of the rapid reiteration of notes of the same pitch achieved by pre-setting pedals, were all invented by Parish Alvars using an Erard harp. His Fantasia (op.61) is dedicated to Pierre Erard."

At the same time, the importance of these achievements should not overshadow the fact that harp music still very much remained a niche style. In the Erard factory, for example, there were sixteen workshops producing pianos – and only three of them were dedicated to the harp. There were very good reasons for this comparative dismissal, explains harpist Floraleda Sacchi: "It was the instrument of Marie Antoniette", she tells me, "After the revolution many teachers and luthiers moved to London, but the instrument was then already considered as being linked to aristocracy and the monarchy. It consequently had a hard time in the bourgeois 19th century. The harp music repertoire, too, was often too sentimental. I think only Parish Alvars, F. Godefroid and Hasselmans deserve admiration. The rebirth comes in Paris with the art nouveau lines and impressionistic shades." The repertoire for harp music accordingly developed slowly, which in turn, meant that transcriptions of existing pieces originally scored for other instruments initially took centerstage. For better or worse, they have remained important until the present.

Harp music: Challenging transcriptions
Transcriptions can definitely be a challenging case, especially since there seems to be a tendency towards light pop fare when it comes to harp music. As someone who has gathered experience both in commissioning new work and translating popular pieces to the harp, I ask Catrin Finch how she feels about transcriptions. "Everything is possible in principal, but, that is not to say that they work well!", she says, "There are many things to consider when you approach a work to arrange - style of the composer, original instrumentation, chromaticism … And more often than not, it is a process of trying it out first and seeing if you are happy with the outcome. My principal is that if you cannot create a similar or better arrangement of the original work, then it is not worth doing. For example, personally, I do not think that a Rachmaninoff piano concerto would sound better on the harp than on the piano, and so it would be silly to even try. However, an early Mozart piano concerto would probably sound quite nice and work well on the harp." Her own approach has been to stick as closely to the original as possible whenever it's musically feasible.

For Adie, meanwhile, transcriptions have offered the chance of presenting facets of the instruments only few would associate with it. Together with Keziah Thomas, Eleanor Turner and Elizabeth Scorah, she has founded the harp music ensemble 4 Girls 4 Harps, which has turned into a live-force to be reckoned with. The quartet constellation adds considerable volume and timbral diversity, which is one reason why transcriptions of orchestral pieces have taken priority for the formation. The other is that, to the members of 4 Girls 4 Harps, the harp constitutes an orchestra onto itself and can accordingly be used to imitate the sounds of a wide range of other instruments. "But more often than mimicking we're using the orchestral original as inspiration for the dialogue, the structure, the timbre and the personality of the work - therefore, we choose pieces that are rich in those qualities", she says. The interest in these qualities has been remarkable so far: Their harp music programmes have turned into veritable spectacles and their schedule already contains dates as far into the future as 2015.

At the same time, transcriptions have never fully satisfied those who would like to see the harp develop a repertoire of its own, attuned to the specific requirements of the instrument and taking the full range of its possibilities into account. As Adie admits, as popular as some of the transcriptions have been for the group, the undisputed highlight of their shows is a piece of harp music written especially for the ensemble, Edward Longstaff’s "Saraswati", based on the Indian Goddess by the same name. Technically demanding ("By the end of it we all feel like we have had a good workout"), its showcases the full dynamic and sonic palette of the harp and makes for a moving impression of an Indian landscape.

So why have composers found it so hard to write for the harp? In her revealing article "Composing for the Harp", Joyce Rice has a strikingly simple answer: Because they simply don't know enough about it to come up with convincing pieces: "Probably the biggest mistake made by composers is writing for harp as if it were a piano. An apparently easy passage for the piano may be quite formidable or even impossible on the harp." She also notes about the technical aspects of writing harp music that "the harp is a plucked instrument; it physically takes longer to pull a string than to depress a piano key. The harpist sits at the upper end of the instrument’s range with the right arm wrapped around the instrument, compared to the pianist who sits in the center of the instrument’s range and can move both hands freely in either direction. This means that the harpist’s right hand cannot reach the lower strings. The harpist relies heavily on visual cues to locate specific notes (hence the colored strings), unlike the pianist who can feel his location on the keyboard by the arrangement of black and white keys. (…) Wild leaps and skips in fast-moving passages should be avoided, especially in orchestral parts when the harpist must watch the conductor, the score and the strings, which are all in different directions."

Her concerns are mirrored by the impressions of the performers. When it comes to commissioning new harp music, the one thing Catrin Finch notices again and again, is the surprise on the composers' face, when realising how strong and sturdy the harp is and how big and powerful its sound can be – compared to the feeble, fluffy sound they had formed as a preconception in their mind. Once they have become accustomed to this, they usually respond to the new situation with palpable enthusiasm. Just like Finch, Floraleda Sacchi, too, enjoys the process of working in tandem with composers to make their ideas work on the instrument, of producing certain effects and colourisations. Both have established these preferential working relationships with particularly interested composers, John Rutter in the case of Finch, Peter Machajdik in Sacchi's. Core to these collaboration is the notion of exploration and discovery, which allows both sides to gain something from the process. Or, as Sacchi puts it: "The idea that there is only one way and one correct version is just masturbation by musicologist. I love Machajdik’s music, we really share similar sensibility. He always leaves me complete freedom and I always try to play his pieces."

Harp music: Towards the edges
Sacchi has certainly taken harp music farther to the outer edges than anyone else. Her unique perspective is informed by an equal love for the classics and contemporary material, for 18th century harp master Krumpholz and John Cage, by an approach infused by philosophy, history and the arts. Sometimes, this can lead to frictions and seeming contradictions – despite being one of the organisers of the prestigious Lake Cuomo festival, for example, Sacchi strongly despises what she calls 'the stupid theatre of exiting the stage as though you were leaving, and then coming back for applause.' And yet, her perspective on the harp has been remarkably optimistic. It is reassuring to hear her speak about the repertoire for the instrument as being the 'biggest ever', if one factors in not just the European music tradition, but the entire 5000 years of harp music history as well. Or to hear her speak with great esteem of the remarkable new concerts which have been written in the past five years alone by the likes of John Williams, André Previn or Tan Dun. From her perspective, the initially slow building of the catalogue of compositions may actually turn out to be an advantage, as it means that for most gigs, harpists hardly have any choice but to focus on contemporary material. Finch notes that 50% of her program of harp music is made up of pieces written in the 20th and 21st century.

Sacchi, too, has returned to the world of new music again and again. Her recording of the Philip Glass harp concerto was a success with critics, audiences and the composer himself ("When I gave him the CDs he looked quite happy", she remembers) and she holds a deep admiration for the work of John Cage ("Every day there is an occasion to think of him"). Her own tribute to Cage, Happy Birthday John!, contains version of "In a Landscape", a suite for toy harp as well as "Death and Life", a composition requiring her to work with en ebow. The extension of the harp by means of electronics or extended techniques, still very much in its infancy, presents a fertile ground for discovery of an entirely new kind of harp music, despite some minor obstacles in the early stages: "Using an eBow with the harp is more limited than on a guitar, since you can only apply it on the harp's metal strings – meaning, just the lower register - and they are thicker than the guitar ones so it needs more precision. But it’s really interesting to develop some pedals. Extended techniques are part of harp music. I consider them musical items and I am completely comfortable with them. There is still really a lot to discover and the electro harp is still an open field for creativity …"

Creating connections
In the meantime, of course, plenty of work remains to be done in the traditional field of harp repertoire. Despite its public image as a niche, harp music has become a favourite for the most diverse occasions and events. One of those who have managed to help musicians connect with lovers of harp music has been Mark Grimwade of The Harpist Directory. The website of what is easily the world's biggest directory of performers offers visitors a huge catalogue of potential instrumentalists to choose from. Naturally, the quality of playing is the number one priority and the directory's database includes some of the leading harpists, some of which have been booked for prestigious events. At the same time, Grimwade has been instrumental in shifting performers towards a more professional approach in general as well: "We have been sent many photos by harpists that are terrible", he sighs, "One was a photo of her at home on her sofa dressed in an old thick woollen jumper. We have had several pictures of the musician showing the back of their head while playing the harp. The most common, usually taken by professional photographers, are either looking away from the camera or looking down at the floor."

Grimwade is the first to admit that not all bookings are artistically challenging or fulfilling. When it comes to the harp music requested by customers, the most common request is still Pachelbel's Canon, with “Stairway to Heaven” a strong second. But for those willing to use well-paid commercial assignments as a point of departure for a flourishing career which may at one point yield more personal work, there are definitely plenty of opportunities of working one's way up the ranks: Although harpists have proven equally popular at weddings and funerals, at receptions and veterinary hospitals, at trade fairs and nursing homes, there seems to be a growing trend towards unusual repertoire – ACDC's "Highway to Hell" and an integral rendition of Wagner's "Tannhäuser", clocking in at around three hours, taking the crown. And in many cases, a successful performance can lead to new opportunities: "We have provided a harpist to play in the bathroom, of a suite, in a 5 star hotel for a television advert promoting a product you use to freshen up after going to the toilet", recounts Grimwade, "As the harpist put it, it wasn’t the pinnacle of her career, but it is work and anything that promotes the harp and harp music to a wider audience is worth doing. By the way, the same harpist is booked to play at Buckingham Palace in October 2013, so this shows as a professional musician you need to be flexible and have a sense humour."

Grimwade has also observed an underground movement of self-organised harpists working at the border of classical repertoire and a more rock-oriented style. Clearly, the instrument is shedding its old image and taking on a diverse and inspiring position, connecting the old with the new and offering plenty of opportunities for fearless experimenters. The angelic cliches may still persist for a while. But it is precisely its fighting spirit, which may make the harp come out on top in the end.

By Tobias Fischer

For more information about some of the most exciting performers of harp music, read our previous interviews with 4 Girls 4 Harps. Harriet Adie, Eleanor Turner and Floraleda Sacchi.