instrument - suite

For many people, the classical harp is a poetic yet mysterious instrument. Although it is a familiar sight, they know little of all the rest. For the imposing silhouette of the harp conceals a technology much more complex than one might imagine.

Without the inspired invention of the famous Sébastien Érard (who also devised the double escapement used by every pianist today), the harp would have remained an incomplete instrument. After a period as the ‘queen of instruments’ during the Renaissance, the harp went into decline at the end of the seventeenth century because of its lack of sonic power and its inability to play in all keys. As a result it was unable to follow the evolution of musical language, being powerless before the inspired chromaticisms and modulations of Bach, the technical feats and rich harmonies of Mozart. After a number of fruitless attempts at modernisation or partial developments, the double-action harp made its appearance in 1811 in London, where Érard had taken refuge from the French Revolution. Some years later, in the same city, it found an ideal ambassador, the English virtuoso harpist Elias Parish Alvars (1807-49).

The principle was simple: seven pedals operated by the feet, each of them associated with a note of the scale, finally made it possible for the harp to play in all keys, from flat to sharp by way of the natural. Parish Alvars then went on to create a genuine harp idiom, freeing the instrument from the yoke of keyboard-playing composers who treated it like a harpsichord or a piano. He invented modulating glissando effects and enriched the harp’s technique by the use of wide-spaced, sonorous chords and glissés in thirds and sixths. The inventor of ‘diabolic combinations’ according to Liszt, and nicknamed ‘the Liszt of the harp’ by Berlioz, he laid the foundations of modern harp technique.

Even though, from that time on, the harp had harmonic capacities almost equivalent to those of the piano, and an extremely rich palette of colours, it nevertheless remained a more difficult instrument to master, less immediately approachable, and its less powerful sonority, connected with its dimensions at this period, meant it could not rival the sound of the piano.

But harps continued to develop in size and power throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, arousing the enthusiasm of such composers as Wagner, Berlioz, Debussy, Fauré, and Ravel, who made widespread use of the instrument in their orchestration and their chamber music. The solo repertoire also expanded, thanks to compositions of harpists themselves, who were best placed to write works exploiting the full potential of the instrument: one may mention, among many others, Bochsa, Hasselmans, Renié, Grandjany, Salzedo, and Tournier, all of them outstanding interpreters.

Finally, in the twentieth century, great concert artists like Lily Laskine, Nicanor Zabaleta and Ksenia Erdelyi commissioned works from renowned composers: this was the origin of such concertos as those of Glière, Jolivet, and Ginastera. Today the harp’s palette of timbres increasingly interests contemporary composers, who find it offers fertile ground for their unbounded creativity (as in Berio’s Sequenza II).

Unfortunately, in our society where concert halls are filled first and foremost on the names of famous performers and composers with an assured place in history, the harp suffers from its ‘insider’ repertoire written by harpists themselves and its unfamiliarity to the public. Yet it is a rich and varied instrument, with infinite chromatic possibilities and a unique sound, created by direct contact between the skin of the finger and the string.

Discover the harp and learn to love it: it’s worth the effort!