About this Recording
8.570372 - THOMAS, J.: Harp Music

John Thomas (1826-1913)
Harp Music


The music on this CD brings together a range of music for two harps as well as for solo harp by the Welsh composer John Thomas. John Thomas, harpist and composer, was born on 1 March 1826, to a large respected family in the Welsh town of Bridgend. Although his first instruments were the piccolo and the violin, which were introduced by his musically-inclined father who performed locally as a clarinettist, the young John Thomas was attracted to the harp and it instantly became his lifetime passion. Interestingly, the first harp presented to John Thomas was a triple harp, which was so in vogue at the time in Wales that it was also known as the Welsh harp. He played it in the Welsh fashion, placing the harp on his left shoulder, and playing the treble with his left hand and the bass with his right hand – the opposite of today's concert harp technique.

Harpist John Parry (1776–1851) best described the triple harp when he wrote:

The compass of the triple harp, in general, is about five octaves, or thirty-seven strings in the principal row, which is on the side played by the right hand. The middle row, which produces the flats and sharps, consists of thirty-four strings; and the treble, or left hand row, numbers twenty-seven strings. The outside rows are tuned in unison, and always in the diatonic scale, that is, in the regular and natural scale of tones and semitones.

Besides his teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, where he himself had completed his study with the sponsorship of Lady Augusta Ada Lovelace, a harpist and daughter of Lord Byron, John Thomas presented Welsh music in London as well as across the continent, in Germany, Italy, Russia, Austria, and in France, where Hector Berlioz enthusiastically commented, "Voilà comment on joue de la harpe… Il m'a charmé, fasciné, magnetisé". He was also harpist to the Royal Italian Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre in London and as a result was inspired to compose numerous vocal works.

In 1861 John Thomas was awarded the Welsh bardic title of Pencerdd Gwalia (Chief Musician of Wales) at the Aberdare eisteddfod, and was appointed official harpist to Queen Victoria in 1872 and then to her successor, King Edward VII. He died in 1913 at the age of 87 in London.

In addition to achievements as a major harpist of his time, John Thomas was a prolific composer who greatly enriched the classical harp repertoire by drawing on his folk-music background. It is obvious that the music of his native Wales influenced all his compositions in terms of the melodies he used, such as the well known Men of Harlech theme, displayed in Scenes of Childhood, as well as his display of techniques meant to reproduce the effects of the Welsh harp on the double action concert harp of today, which John Thomas went on to play from the age of fourteen onwards.

John Thomas' compositions present a broad range of specific harp techniques. He was able to compose for the harp most skilfully, since he was such an accomplished performer himself. For example, in The Minstrel's Adieu to His Native Land, a piece in the form of theme and variations, each variation uses different aspects of harp playing, such as broken chords, ascending arpeggios and harmonics. The two hands overlapping arpeggio sequences in the fourth variation produce the full sound and the maximum effect the harp can muster. The use of harmonics in both hands one octave apart in the second variation imitates the repeated note effect so common in Welsh harp music. A similar effect is also seen in the last variation of The Rising of the Sun where he also uses the repeated note effect with octaves, which evokes his beginnings on the Welsh harp. In Staccato Movement, he creates the staccato-like effect on the harp, whose strings usually keep ringing after plucking, by quickly stopping the vibration of the strings with the back of the fingers.

Longing, sorrow, and nostalgia often abound in the compositions of John Thomas, such as in David of the White Rock. After a slow moving introduction, the hauntingly beautiful melody featured is to be found in the bass, while the treble part accompanies it with flowing broken arpeggios. Autumn and The Parting also represent fine examples of his recurrent feeling of loss and grief. The second movement of Grand Duet is, again, a perfect example of the deep inherent sadness and sighs, which are often expressed in his music. John Thomas was often inspired by various poems, which reflect the mood he strove to portray. For example, he used texts from poems by Thomas Moore as mottos on which the pieces are based in The Minstrel's Adieu to His Native Land, The Parting and Autumn.

Alternatively Thomas also creates a more energetic atmosphere, such as in 'Love's Fascination' (from Scenes of Childhood), which begins with a highly dynamic theme, full of vitality, simultaneously showcasing the most effective harp compositional techniques such as chords, arpeggios, octaves and harmonics. In 'Dawn of Day' from Scenes of Childhood, John Thomas displays his virtuoso style of playing in what is perhaps his most tragically expressive work. Especially in Grand Duet, he demonstrates his flair for writing complementing parts, where one harp at a time carries the melodic material without ever doubling up with the other harp. He also alternates rôles for both harpists to have the opportunity for each to present their musical interpretation clearly. Drawing on his heritage of Welsh folk-music and on his skills as a harpist acquired as a virtuoso performer, John Thomas most successfully combines those elements in such a work as Cambria.

Ann Griffiths



Lines from Poems by Thomas Moore

The Minstrel's Adieu to His Native Land
When the light of my song is o'er,
Then take my harp to your ancient hall,
Hang it up at that friendly door
Where weary travellers love to call
Then if some bard, who roams forsaken,
Revive its soft notes in passing along,
Oh let one thought of its master waken
Your warmest smile for the child of song.

The Parting (from Lalla Rookh)
By the bliss to meet,
And the pain to part.

I love that moaning music which I hear
In the bleak gusts of Autumn, for the Soul
Seems gathering tidings from another sphere,
And, in sublime, mysterious sympathy,
Man's bounding spirit ebbs and swells more high
Accordant to the billow's loftier roll.


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