This week, we’ve devoted our show to the dreamy and heavenly sounds of the harp. Call us a “lyre” all you want, but our show this week is called “Pulling On The Harp Strings.”
No need to harp on this any longer... check out our playlist below:
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), Swan Lake: Act II: Pas d'action – There are a handful of orchestral excerpts that harpists consider to be essential harp repertoire, and the harp cadenza in the “Pas d’action” from Act II of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is one of them. The excerpt comes immediately after the famous dance often referred to as the “Dance of the Little Swans,” featuring bassoon, oboe, and four perfectly in sync swans on stage. Immediately after this extended harp cadenza comes a love duet for violin and cello as the lovers Siegfried and Odette dance together for the first time. Tchaikovsky actually borrowed this love duet from an earlier opera called Undina, a work all about a water sprite. Tchaikovsky thought the opera Undina wasn’t up to his standards, so he destroyed most of the work in 1873. He saved the love duet, however, and it 1875, he made it part of Swan Lake.
- George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Concerto for Harp in B-flat Major – Although they only show up occasionally in the modern orchestra, the harp is an ancient instrument, dating back to at least 3500 BCE. Variants of it have existed in every culture, but in Europe, they preferred the triangular shape that we know today. Starting around the 1600s, the biggest challenge for harpists was playing chromatic notes. Modern harps rely on pedals to alter the pitch of strings up and down. But there’s evidence Handel preferred the Welsh triple harp, a type of harp that added extra rows of strings to account for all the chromatic notes. Handel’s one and only harp concerto came from a larger ode to the patron saint of music St. Cecilia called Alexander’s Feast. The work, which premiered in London in 1736, contained recitatives, arias, and three concertos for harp, lute, and lyrichord—an odd keyboard instrument with a rotating wheel like a hurdy-gurdy!
- Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), Fantasia on "Greensleeves" – From the earliest stages of his musical career, Ralph Vaughan Williams was interested in the folk music of his native England. In 1913, he used the traditional English melody Greensleeves in his incidental music for both The Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard II. Fifteen years later, he used it for the third time in his opera Sir John In Love, which was in turn based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. From this setting of the folk melody, Vaughan Williams arranged his famous Fantasia on Greensleeves and featured the harp heavily in the orchestration. Like the Greensleeves melody, the harp was closely associated with Merry Olde England. Though it originated among the Celtic tribes of Ireland and Scotland, the harp was made the national instrument of England in the Medieval era, and quickly became synonymous with the popular melodies heard by Shakespeare in the Renaissance.
- Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), Introduction and Allegro – Before the 19th century, the harp was not a particularly versatile instrument. One could create chromatic notes with individual sharping levers that raise each string by a half step, but changing entire keys was a cumbersome process. After the classical era, as composers began to write more harmonically complex music, it was necessary to find a way for the harp to change keys quickly if it was going to keep up. In 1904, the Pleyel Company commissioned Debussy to write his Danse sacrée et danse profane to showcase a solution to the problem, a chromatic cross-strung harp that used two rows of strings to achieve all possible notes. A year later, the Érard Company asked Ravel to write his Introduction and Allegro for a competing instrument, the double-action pedal harp, which used foot pedals to control groups of mechanical sharping levers. The pedal harp quickly became the preferred instrument among professionals and is now the standard model for solo and orchestral music.
- Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), Lucia di Lammermoor: Act I, Cavatina: "Regnava nel Silenzio" (Harp cadenza) – The “Lammermoor” of Lucia di Lammermoor refers to Lammermuir Hills in Southern Scotland. These verdant hills were the setting of both Donizetti’s opera and the book upon which it’s based, The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott. Scott wrote about the mysterious, often violent folklore in the Scottish Highlands and that country’s lore began to intrigue continental Europe in the 19th century. You can hear these spooky, violent Scottish themes in Lucia’s Act I cavatina “Regnava nel Silenzio,” which is preceded by one of the most famous harp passages in all of opera. In the aria, Lucia talks of a ghost she has seen at the castle, brutally killed by an ancestor of her lover Ravenswood. She sees this as a portent of bad things to come and breaks off her romance with Ravenswood, which eventually leads to her complete mental breakdown. The use of harp gives this scene a particularly eerie quality.
- Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787), Orfeo ed Euridice: Act II, Scene 1, "Laissez-vous toucher par mes pleurs" – With Orfeo et Euridice, Gluck struck out in a new direction that was more flexible than the French tragedie lyrique and less bound to showcasing divas than older Italian opera. You might remember the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the original star-crossed couples. Eurydice is killed by a snakebite, and Orpheus travels to Hades to attempt to retrieve her. Orpheus is a musician by trade, known for his beautiful voice and his skill on the Greek lyre, an early version of the harp that often accompanied the voice. He charms the king of the underworld into releasing Eurydice using the power of this instrument. Orpheus’s lyre was thought to be divine, originally made for Apollo, the god of music. In this iconic scene from the opera, Gluck uses the modern harp instead of the harpsichord to accompany the soloist in several arias, representing the sound of Orpheus accompanied by his magic lyre.
- Alberto Ginastera (1916–1983), Harp Concerto, Op. 25 – Besides a few orchestral showcases and the occasional 18th-century concerto, for most of music history, the harp wasn’t considered to be a prominent solo force. That all changed in the 1950s with Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto, a work that pushed the limits of the harp. This favorite piece among harpists came at a time where Ginastera was shedding some of his more traditional Argentine roots and experimenting with a sound that was more avant-garde. Unlike many composers who wrote for the harp, we know that Ginastera cared deeply about how he composed for the instrument. This painstaking process was both good and bad. For one, it made for an excellent and challenging concerto. But on the other hand… the concerto was commissioned by Edna Phillips, the harpist for the Philadelphia Orchestra. It took Ginastera eight years to complete the piece, and by that time, Phillips had already retired!
- Henriette Renié (1875–1956), Legende – Henriette Renié may not be very well known to the regular classical music lover, but she is a household name, a “legende,” if you will, among harp enthusiasts and professionals. Easily one of the greatest harpists of all time, she was deeply influential in all aspects of harp music, respected as a performer, composer, and teacher. Renié was discovered as a child prodigy on the harp by age eight, and she entered the prestigious Paris Conservatoire when she was only ten years old. That same year, she took second place in the Conservatoire’s yearly competition. The judges initially intended to award her first place, but by the rules of the competition this would have granted her a professional rank and she would have no longer been permitted to take lessons at the school. A year later, she was awarded first place after a performance that is still regarded as one of the greatest ever given at the Conservatoire.
- Stevie Wonder, "If It's Magic" – Many pop music scholars refer to Stevie Wonder’s stretch from 1972 to 1977 as his “classic period,” a time when the singer could do no wrong. This particular magical song comes from that period—it’s on the 1976 Grammy-award winning double album Songs In The Key Of Life. The album was considered to be Stevie’s masterpiece, the culmination of 15 years in the music business. It also contained a deep roster of guest appearances, including George Benson, Herbie Hancock, and Minnie Riperton. On this song, the accompaniment is performed by jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. Ashby was already a legend by 1976. As an African-American female in the 1950s playing an unconventional instrument, she seemed doomed to fail. But Ashby almost single-handedly brought the harp out of the orchestra and into the world of bebop, winning awards from Down Beat magazine for her jazz skills in 1962.