Why Harp…?

Even though there have been huge developments in the harp-making industry in the last century, and there are many wonderful harpists around, I believe that the majority of music lovers still see this beautiful instrument as some gorgeous golden giant, played by sweet girls with lovely curls, wearing fancy gowns, most suited for background music at high society banquets and parties. At symphonic orchestra concerts the harp is also a lovely piece of stage decoration which is often a disappointment when the audience sees the player, but the sound is barely noticeable. Of course, when there are wonderful cadenzas, especially in operas and ballets, everyone enjoys the marvellous spectrum of the lovely instrument, heard but hardly seen in the pit.

And yes, this is exactly what I wish to point out here: the harp is no longer a background colour for some social occasions, it is a highly professional “music making tool”! As with all instruments, there are innovative advancements that instrument factories and players are constantly working on to improve.

If I look at two harps, let’s say an old Erard and a new Lyon & Healy next to each other, the difference is clearly obvious. Already the size and the whole construction in every aspect is completely different.

It is possible to take part in a tour at harp factories observing all the production stages, where they show the process of harp building beginning with wood selection, preparation, how to glue and what kind of methods are used to make the harp more sturdy, etc.. For me, as a violinist who can do small repairs such as bow rehairing, it was amazingly interesting when we took part at a tour of a harp factory. If you are interested, I think the big factories have online tours, so one can get a feel for it. However, being there, smelling the wood, hearing the noise of the tools, and seeing the masters working on the hand-made parts make it a memorable experience. Perhaps, currently, the most interesting and important aspect is the development for a bigger, warmer and rounder sound, having more “bass”, a more brilliant “treble” with more projection of sound, so it can be a more soloistic instrument. In addition, of course, the harp needs to be more robust for transporting, without becoming heavier, using the best materials for mechanical parts and longer-lasting strings. After all, quite often the harpist must manage to transport a harp in a suitable vehicle by him/herself. It may be safe to say, that long gone are the days when performances were interrupted by strings breaking in the middle of a piece!

Comparing the sound of even just 20-30 year old harps with any of the modern instruments from the USA, France, or Italy will prove this great advancement in harp making.

Luckily, we can observe similar developments at music institutions worldwide. The “one professor for one or two students” era is long since past. Visiting any music schools, universities, the harp faculty is most probably very busy, especially when there are few practice rooms with instruments!

However, there is one problem, that is not exclusive for harp, for an instrument used singly in an orchestra of 100 players. Similar to the piano, which is needed even less in an orchestra, and there are many more pianists around, the available work for them falls into categories as soloists, accompanists, chamber musicians, correpetitors and, of course, teachers.

And here I am with my strong sugestion: harpists should get involved in much more chamber music and play as soloists! This wonderful instrument is continually gaining more potential for use on stage as a solo instrument. I am absolutely convinced of that!

I do believe though, that we need some changes in concert programming by showing the harp as a major solo and chamber music instrument, and by widening and expanding the repertoire and by refreshing the taste of listeners to actually gain more interested audiences.

Birth of a Violin & Harp Duo

Perhaps it seems a bit unusual that I, as a violinist, am working on all kinds of transcriptions with harp.

As we get older, I often think that our memories of our early years in our lives start to fade and other than some special moments, we don’t really remember much before the tender age of ten.

In my case, I do have quite a number of vivid moments in my mind and one specifically was that of my father trying to find a harp and harp teacher because he wanted me to learn how to play this great instrument. I could never find out what the reason for his idea was, and ‘till today I have no clue why he gave up on that idea. Instead he then decided I should become a violinist, so I have to believe what he had told me, that he was hoping to encourage me to transcribe the violin literature for the harp.

As far as I know, at that time in Hungary, there was only one harp professor in the whole country, who for many years later still had only a handful of students at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest.

My father never found a harp, and I never became a harpist – end of story!

Many years later, I found out that my father-in-law, who played the flute as a serious hobby, also loved the harp and collected many LP’s with flute and harp music. He unfortunately was never in a place where there was a harpist with whom he could have played chamber music together. Even my wife learning piano would have liked to learn to play the harp, but there also, was no teacher nearby.

When our daughters were small, we encouraged ballet lessons as a way to learn movement and posture with classical music, so in Canada, where there are some excellent ballet companies, they took part in classes. It was really so cute to watch little girls practicing their pirouettes and arabesques in costumes or tutus. Especially our younger daughter loved the classes at the Royal Winnipeg and National Ballet Toronto, and when we moved to Vienna, Austria, she was accepted at the Opera Ballet School.

If you like ballet and know the basic literature of ballet music, it will be obvious to you that it has a certain colour, it is somewhat different than any other music, and if you listen more carefully you will notice that there is a much more important role for the harp than almost any other style of music.

I remember she was listening those days to music on constantly changing devices, of course a lot of ballet music too, until she came to us one day and asked very simply: I would like to learn to play the harp, can I?

Earlier, when she was just 5-6 years old we had tried to begin with instruments, of course violin, piano, but she just didn’t like the idea, but at this point, she sounded quite serious about her choice of instrument, so we looked for a teacher and made a day trip to the nearest harp factory in south Germany, and bought a simple, student instrument.

After one year we had to trade in this instrument for a full professional harp, the small one just wasn’t enough any more.

As a violinist myself, I never thought about writing music as I was busy as a concertmaster for decades, but in the last ten years or so as Katrina became a professional harpist, I developed more and more interest in it. We tried with some simple works, and realized how much fun it is actually. Also, as I had more spare time, we started to play together, of course first Saint Saens. We put together our first full program, and realized that the literature is, well, not extremely huge for harp and violin. Even, we had to put some solo harp works on the program if we didn’t want to play too many of the somewhat less interesting duos of the literature for this ensemble.

At this point, my idea of enlarging this niche of the literature, was ready to go.