About this Recording
8.578182 - HEAVENLY HARP - Best Loved Classical Harp Music

Heavenly Harp
Best loved classical harp music


The harp, one of the most ancient of instruments, has had an interesting evolution which has resulted in the instrument that we are familiar with today. The concept of the harp is simple – strings of differing lengths stretched across a frame to produce a range of pitched notes. It is thought that the concept began to develop from the vibrations produced in the bow after an archer had released an arrow. Later, more strings were added to create different notes. There are references to harp-like instruments in the writings of the ancient civilisations of Greece, Assyria and Egypt, alongside Biblical references. It is one of the earliest forms of instrument where several discrete notes could be produced at the same time and therefore it became a popular instrument to accompany vocalists for many hundreds of years.

The original forms of harp were simple with each string of a different length, thus a different pitch. As there is no fret board at the top of the strings, they cannot be altered to produce accidentals, like instruments of the violin or guitar family. When music was predominantly modal, the player would retune the instrument before starting a performance in the correct mode. However, by the Baroque period, there was need for the harp player to be able to instantly access a wider range of notes. As a result, in the early 1700s Jacob Hochbrücher invented the single-action harp. This was very important in the development of the instrument as for the first-time players could change the pitch of the notes the instrument could produce whilst simultaneously playing with their hands. The length of the strings is altered using a complex mechanism operated by pedals attached to rods in the column of the harp which link to a mechanism in the neck that turn pins to clamp onto the string, altering the string length. Each string could therefore produce two notes a semi-tone apart (some strings were set to flats/ naturals with others naturals/sharps, so that the player could play in the most common keys), with each of the seven pedal responsible for changing all of the strings assigned a certain note (e.g. the ‘C’ pedal would change the length of all of the C strings, the F pedal the same for the F strings, and so on).

Before the beginning of the Baroque period, there are few notable examples of compositions for the harp until it was used by Monteverdi in Orfeo in 1607. Over the next century the harp became more widely considered by composers, with the rise of playing the instrument as a salon hobby for ladies in the upper circles of society. The harp often had around 40 strings, designed so as to not be too heavy for the lady player, whilst it was regularly adorned with giltcarvings of angels or flowers (to enhance the appearance of a room, rather than to encourage more practise by its owner!). The need for music to satisfy these patrons lead composers to produce studies, sonatas and other similar works to develop and challenge the technique of the player. In the 1720s Handel used the harp in some of his oratorios and even wrote a concerto, which was the start of the inclusion of the harp as a standard musical instrument, with Mozart’s famous Concerto for Flute and Harp written in 1778.

The music of the Classical period continued to become more and more chromatic, and once again the harp was limited by the number of notes that it could produce, as it could only produce B, E, A and D flats and F, C and G sharps, alongside all of the naturals. In 1810, Sébastien Érard revolutionised the instrument by introducing the ‘double movement’ (now referred to as ‘double action’) harp. This enabled players to access all of the notes (flats, naturals and sharps) with every string being shortened not just once, but twice. This resulted in a fully chromatic instrument, a system still in use today.

These technological developments occurring significantly after the piano had gained recognition amongst both professionals and amateurs, put the harp at a popularity disadvantage, never quite gaining enough support to produce the wealth of music composed for it as the piano. By the latter part of the 19th century the harp repertoire gained considerably from the interest of distinguished composers, as well as harpists themselves both composing and arranging for the instrument. Much of the repertoire in this collection is from this period, when the harp enjoyed its compositional heyday. Harpists were commonly entered into music conservatoires, resulting in more technical and interesting works to be written for the instrument. Furthermore, the harp was regularly included in orchestral music, when it was used by composers for its soft tones and effects such as glissandi. It was, however, often overwhelmed by the louder, more numerous other orchestral instruments. Harpists called for larger instruments to stand up on the orchestral stage, resulting in the swift increase in the size of the harp and by the early 20th century 47 strings became standard. The soundboard of the harp also changed shape, with extended areas added to the sides of the instrument, again to assist in the production of more sound. For nearly a century, the harp has remained in this design, both for solo and orchestral players, however in 2019 Italian manufacturer Salvi Harps introduced a 48-string model, perhaps indicating that once again, it is time for the harp to evolve to meet the demands of the modern player.

 1  Hasselmans: La Source, Op. 44

Born in Liège, Belgium, Alphonse Hasselmans (1845–1912) came from a family of distinguished musicians. He first studied the harp with his father and later in Strasbourg under Gottlieb-Krüger, who himself had been a pupil of Parish- Alvars. The early part of Hasselmans’ career was spent in Brussels, before he became professor of harp at the Paris Conservatoire in 1884, a position which he held until his death in 1912. He is a very influential figure in the modern history of the instrument composing a wide selection of repertoire and teaching many notable harpists of the twentieth century. Other composers were inspired by his virtuoso harp performances and dedicated many works to him. Hasselmans’ own compositions were written to add to the technical repertory of the harp and La Source is a notable example. Throughout this technically demanding piece fast, arpeggios depict a flowing stream.

 2  Reinhold: Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 28, No. 3

Hugo Reinhold (1854–1935) was an Austrian composer and pianist, whose prolific collection of works has been all but forgotten today. Born in Vienna, he was a chorister at the court chapel, before he was admitted to the Conservatorium der Musikfreunde where he studied under Anton Bruckner, Otto Dessoff and Julius Epstein. When he left at the age of 20, he became a piano teacher at the Akademie der Tonkunst, Vienna. During his lifetime his works were performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and the Hellmesberger Quartet. The Impromptu in C sharp minor was originally a piano work, but the opening and closing fast arpeggiated passages contrast with the central section’s sonorous melody accompanied by rich chords, and this makes the piece well-suited to the harp as this performance demonstrates.

 3  J. Thomas: Dyddiau Mebyd (‘Scenes of Childhood’) – II. Toriad y Dydd (‘The Dawn of Day’)

John Thomas (1826–1913) was born in Bridgend, South Wales. He first learned the Welsh Triple harp with his father and aged eleven, he won the eisteddfod at Abergavenny. Three years later Ada, Countess of Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter) sponsored him to enter the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied the pedal harp with J. B. Chatterton. Later he taught harp at the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music and the Guildhall College of Music. Thomas toured extensively as a solo harpist around Europe and in 1872 he succeeded Chatterton as harpist to Queen Victoria. He was a prolific composer for the harp, both solo and chamber works. Many of his works are arrangements of compositions by other composers, including Handel, Mendelsohn, Schubert and Rossini. Toriad y Dydd is a Welsh folk song, one of many transcriptions that Thomas made of traditional music from his homeland.

 4  Donizetti, arr. A.H. Zabel: Harp Solo from Lucia di Lammermoor (Act I, Scene 2)

Albert Heinrich Zabel (1834–1910), born in Germany, was harpist of the Berlin Opera at the age of 14 before joining the orchestra of the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg, where he remained for the rest of his life. When Anton Rubinstein founded the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, Zabel was appointed as teacher (later becoming professor) of harp. He composed many pieces for the harp, including a concerto and some 40 solo and transcriptions. Gaetano Donizetti (1797– 1848) was a prolific composer of operas, writing over 60 operas, of which one of his best known is Lucia de Lammermoor, written in 1835 based upon The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott. In the opera (Act I, Scene 2) Lucia stands by the fountain in the park waiting for the return of her lover Edgardo, singing of her love to her companion Alisa. The aria is introduced atmospherically by the harp, lending itself naturally to an arrangement in Zabel’s eyes.

 5  Grandjany: Fantasy on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 31

Marcel Grandjany (1891–1975) was taught by Hasselmans and Renié at the Paris Conservatoire, gaining the Premier Prix in 1905, before moving to the US in 1936. There he held many prominent teaching positions as head of harp at The Julliard School of Music, the Conservatoire de Musique et d’Art Dramatique, Montréal and the Manhattan School of Music. Whilst Grandjany was both an exceptional performer and revered teacher, he gained most enjoyment from composition. He took influences both from highly technical harp compositions of Parish Alvars, Renié and Hasselmans, alongside Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky to create some of the most notable harp repertoire. Until late in his life he regularly gave concert tours across Europe and North America, being one of the first notable harpists to programme solo recitals. He felt that there was not enough suitable repertoire for these and therefore composed and arranged music to fulfil his need. The Fantasy on a Theme of Haydn was published in 1958, it takes the form of a theme with five variations.

 6  Falla: La vida breve – Act II – Danse espagnole No. 1

Manuel de Falla (1876–1946) was born in Cádiz and received his first music lessons from his mother. He went on to become one of the first Spanish composers to win international renown. In the late 1890s he moved to Madrid to pursue his piano studies, entering the Madrid Conservatory where he won the maximum marks in all of his courses. De Falla’s opera La vida breve was first staged in Nice in 1913 having won First Prize for Spanish Opera in Spain in 1905. The first Danse espagnole is taken from Act II at the wedding of Paco and Carmela. It has been arranged several times, including versions for violin and guitar. On the harp it is perhaps even more successful due to the wider range of the instrument, resulting in more varied sonorities being achievable.

 7  S. Dussek: Harp Sonata, Op 2, No. 3 – I. Allegro

The Sonata in C minor is the third of Three Sonatas for Harp, Op. 2 by Sophia Dussek (1775–1847), a Scottish soprano and harpist of Italian descent. She made her London singing debut in 1791 with Haydn directing from the harpsichord. She composed both songs and works for the harp and keyboard. The Three Sonatas for Harp were originally attributed to Jan Ladislav Dussek, her husband, however the manuscript was discovered in 1978 which resulted in the pieces being reassigned to her. As a result, Sophia Dussek is one of the earliest successful female composers for the harp. She used a style that was similar to the works of her husband and other notable composers of the age, including Mozart. In this opening movement of the sonata, the performer is required to have a very solid technique to be able to achieve the flowing scalic passages clearly.

 8  Spohr: Fantasie in C minor, Op. 35

Louis Spohr (1784–1859) was a celebrated violinist, composer and conductor, who had studied the harp as a child growing up in Brunswick. He was one of the most prolific composers of his generation, writing nine symphonies, 15 violin concertos and numerous chamber and choral works. This piece, the first of two Fantasies for harp published under the same opus number, was written in 1805. After he married harpist Dorette Scheidler in 1806 he began writing regularly for the single-action pedal harp (which she preferred to the more modern doubleaction instrument). The harp in the early 19th century was a smaller instrument than the concert harp is today and Spohr would tune his wife’s harp down a semitone to allow the strings to vibrate more to produce a more resonant sound. This unusual strategy would have added to the sound of the chords and double-handed arpeggios that are a feature of the extended introduction of this Fantasie, before an intricate passage where the melody moves from one hand to the other, surrounded by fast, repetitive accompanying motifs.

 9  Rossini: Allegretto

Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) was regarded as the greatest Italian composer of his time and it was not until Verdi rose to prominence that he was replaced at the centre of Italian operatic life. He wrote 39 operas, along with a considerable amount of choral music, almost all in the first half of his life. After his opera William Tell, he wrote almost nothing for 20 years and then returned to composing, often smaller-scale works, during the latter part of his life which he referred to as his Péchés de vieillesse (‘Sins of Old Age’). This Allegretto was written during this period in 1853, for the harpist Contessa Rita Perozzi. In a lilting triple metre, it uses a typical melody over accompanying chords texture, and does not feature any specific harp techniques, although the ornamented lyrical theme does produce some challenges for the player.

 10  Renié: Danse des Lutins (‘Dance of the Leprechaun’)

Henriette Renié (1875–1956) was taught by Hasselmans at the Paris Conservatoire, winning the Premier Prix in 1887 aged just 12 (although she was unable to achieve the Prix de Rome as they did not allow women at the time). She went on to become the first woman to have a career both as a teacher, composer and notably as a solo harpist. Renié’s compositions and transcriptions feature heavily in the modern harpist’s repertoire, from short, beginner pieces through to advanced technical concert items and includes a ‘Method for Harp’, which is still used by many professional harpists today. Danse des Lutins (‘Dance of the Leprechaun’) was written in 1911 and is based on a poem by Sir Walter Scott about elves and spirits. This piece used the harp’s pedal action to great effect, requiring the performer to change over one hundred pedal positions per minute!

 11  Tournier: Vers la source dans le bois (‘Towards the Fountain in the Wood’)

The son of a luthier, Marcel Tournier (1879–1951) was pressed into learning a stringed instrument from a young age. He entered the Paris Conservatoire aged 16 where he was taught by Hasselmans, winning the Premier Prix in 1899 and the deuxième Prix de Rome in 1909. Upon Hasselmans’ death in 1912, Tournier succeeded him as professor at the Paris Conservatoire, a position which he held for 36 years. Heavily influenced by Debussy and Ravel, Tournier wanted to expand the repertoire for the harp, away from pleasant salon music, and into the more abstract world of early 20th century composition. His compositions expanded the technical possibilities of the harp and have had a lasting influence on the harp repertoire. The impressionistic Vers la source dans le bois was written in 1922. It has an outstanding use of enharmonics (where two strings next to each other are tuned to produce the same pitch) to create the illusion of falling water.

 12  Fauré: Une chatelaine en sa tour, Op. 110 (‘The Lady of the Castle in her Tower’)

Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) a French composer and organist, held posts at a number of churches and cathedrals before becoming a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1896, where his pupils included Ravel. An unostentatious figure, Fauré wrote no symphonies, concertos or other large works, preferring instead to write for the piano and small chamber groups. Around 1900, Fauré met the young pianist Marguerite Hasselmans, who became his artistic companion. When Fauré wrote his Impromptu in 1904, as a test piece for harpists entering the Paris Conservatoire, he dedicated it to her father, Alphonse Hasselmans who was the professor of harp. His only other solo harp composition, the equally technically challenging Une chatelaine en sa tour (‘The Lady of the Castle in her Tower’) is based on a line taken from a poem by Verlaine. Fauré had set the entire poem many years earlier in his song cycle La Bonne chanson, writing this solo harp work in 1918. Like the earlier Impromptu, Fauré utilises a range of harp techniques here, including enharmonics (where two strings are tuned to the same pitch) to enable the player to perform repeated notes at speed.

 13  Parish Alvars: Sérénade, Op. 83

Born in Teignmouth, England, Elias Parish Alvars (1808–1849) studied the harp with Théodore Labarre, François Dizi and Nicholas Bochsa (all themselves recognised harpists), before becoming one of the most celebrated performers of his generation. He toured Europe extensively, finally settling in Vienna as harpist at the Opera in 1836 and later as the chamber harpist to the Emperor of Austria in 1847. Berlioz called him the ‘Liszt of the Harp’ as he is said to have had a formidable technique – and is said to have been able to play the Chopin Piano Sonatas on the harp by sight. Parish Alvars wanted to elevate the harp to a similar stature as the piano, not just as a salon instrument. He wrote over 80 pieces for solo harp, along with two concertos, many of which are considered amongst the most demanding in the harp’s literature. He developed and pioneered several elements of harp technique that are considered standard today, integrating pedal and fingering skills in a completely new way. His Sérénade, dedicated to Charlotte Rothschild, for example, opens and ends with an extended passage that utilises harmonics played in one hand, accompanied by chords, which is very technically demanding.

 14  Pierné: Impromptu-caprice, Op. 9

Gabriel Pierné (1863–1937) was a French composer, organist and conductor, who studied under César Franck and Jules Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire. He wrote across all genres, including operas and ballets, as well as orchestral and chamber music. Whilst not a ‘harp composer’, he wrote two pieces for harp and orchestra (Concertstück and Fantaisie basque) and used the instrument within his chamber works. The Impromptu-caprice was written around 1886 for a competition at the Conservatoire, later published in 1903, when he also transcribed it for piano. It is a well-known showpiece for the harp, opening in a flourish with a cadenza before a melodic passage which later returns to conclude the work after a livelier, dance-like central section.

 15  Rota: Sarabanda e toccata – Toccata

Nino Rota (1911–1979) was a precocious Italian composer who started composing his first oratorio at the age of eight. He entered the Milan Conservatory in 1923, taking lessons with Ildebrando Pizzetti and Alfredo Casella. He was a versatile composer, most famously as a film composer of some 80 scores with his credits including music for The Godfather alongside many films directed by Federico Fellini. Additionally, he wrote extensively in other genres, including several operas, oratorios, symphonies and concertos, including a Harp Concerto (1948). The Toccata, from Rota’s Sarabanda e toccata for harp (written in 1945), is a bright movement written in a Classical style, although the addition of more modern harmonies in the chordal passages, alongside the use of harmonics, bring it into the 20th century.

 16  J. Parry: Harp Sonata No. 2 in G major – II. Siciliana

Welshman John Parry (c. 1710–1782) was the most notable harpist of his generation, even though he was blind. He played the Welsh triple harp, which has three rows of strings, as opposed to the pedaloperated instruments that were popular at the time. Throughout his career he had the patronage of the Williams-Wynn family, for whom he was expected to entertain the family and their guests at social occasions, while also being encouraged to develop as a soloist. Parry’s playing became noted by some of London’s most eminent composers, including Handel and in 1741 Parry performed Handel’s Harp Concerto in London. Later, in 1763, he became a member of the Royal Society of Musicians. This Sicilana is the graceful central movement from Parry’s Sonata in G major, which was originally published as one of four ‘Lessons’ in 1761. These were written to be played on either a triple harp or a harpsichord.

 17  C.P.E. Bach: 12 Variations on La Folia d’Espagne, Wq. 118/9, H. 263 (arr. for harp)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788) was the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach. From a young age C.P.E. Bach was taught keyboard and organ by his father and his first compositions were keyboard works and chamber pieces written around 1730. In 1738 he obtained a post in Berlin as a clavier player in one of the largest orchestras in Europe, in the service of Frederick II of Prussia. Later he succeeded Telemann as Kapellmeister in Hamburg, where he stayed until his death. During his life Bach wrote over one thousand works in numerous genres including songs, concertos, symphonies, solo sonatas and oratorios. Much of his reputation, however, is derived from Bach’s numerous keyboard sonatas which mark an important turning point between the grandeur of the Baroque and the later Classical style. They break away from both the Italian and Viennese schools of form, showing much more variety within their structures than other similar works of the period. The 12 Variations on La Folia d’Espagne was originally written for keyboard in 1778, opening with a short theme followed by twelve variations. Like early keyboard instruments, ornaments were used on early pedal harps to help sustain the sound through longer notes as the instruments themselves had little sustaining ability and therefore little is lost in the adaptation from one instrument to the other.

Nicola Veal
© Naxos Rights US, Inc.

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