Shall We Dance…?

The idea of making a transcription of Ravel’s La Valse came as we were searching for a theme we thought would be nice, something happy, somethig people enjoy, something that keeps people together. Dance. But there are millions of all kinds of dance music out there, how could this be something more special, more specific? Dance music without dancing?

Especially in Vienna, dance is part of life, all teenagers go to ballroom dancing classes! Especially in winter time, one can go to a ball almost every day, begining in November through to June, most famous are the Vienna Opera Ball, Vienna Philharmonic Ball and the Life Ball. I myself played many times at different balls there, it’s a huge tradition, high society entertainment, with lots of dancing. I even tried to see if I could pick some good “material” from the Strauss & co. world, but there are so many, I simply gave up.

So instead, I started to browse the symphonic literature and found surpisingly many dances, so we just had to choose a nice selection. We already had a title for the bunch “Shall We Dance…”, so I started to work on it. One of the priorities was giving both instruments equal treatment for melodic and accompanying material.

Weber’s Invitation to the Dance seemed an obvious opening piece. It was so popular in the early 19th century, that Berlioz orchestrated it, using harps. Transcribing this was actually quite straightforward.

The Valse from the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz worked similarly – it was important for us to keep the original harp excerpts as harpists learn them for orchestral auditions.

Salome’s Dance of the Sevel Veils started to make my life a bit more busy. I remember Katrina saying that she would never play any other than the original in orchestra, so I started to work on it without telling her. When I had most of it done and I was with her in Germany to practice together, I carefully told her while out for a walk, that well, I tried it anyway, and if she still doesn’t like it, I would play it with someone else. Of course it is now in our rep and we have recorded it.

The main difficulty with Salome was that we need to make this huge, in orchestra practically unplayable ending doable.

Already many years ago, I had the impression, that we have to play everything as fast as possible. Since I had a reasonable technique, I was going with this trend, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartók, no matter what, I played as fast as possible, until one point came, where I suddenly felt, hey, this music is just not enjoyable that fast. This was Kreisler’s Recitative and Scherzo Caprice. Even my prof at the Liszt Academy said, hm, he always played it much faster, but yes, it does make sense slower. Many years later, visiting the old Liszt Academy, seeing former colleagues, I was a bit annoyed when they asked me, “do you still play so fast?”

When I had the chance to play the opera Salome, I was simply shocked. And ever since, when I listen to recordings, I’m surprised that conductors absolutely don’t care if we musicians are sweating blood, taking it to the extreme, totally inconsiderate of the technical difficulties. Personal anecdotes relate that Richard Strauss himself said that many of his technically difficult spots are basically just colour. However, this Salome ending is a different case. Already the start of the last section is so transparent and quiet, that just one wrong note in the violin section makes it messy.

It was a long process, but I believe I managed the right compromise, using some “violinistic tricks” and of course a good steady harp base to make it most effective. Even so, the last couple of bars are still a bit sacary, but oh well, some challenge is nice to have, isn’t it?

Speaking of challenge, thanks to Nathan Milstein, we have a couple of very interesting works for solo violin, one of which is the Mephisto Valse by Liszt. When it was first published, I had to have the music right away and practiced it like crazy (recorded it too). And because it is a Valse, a dance, I took the challenge and included it into the series of dances.

Actually, this is only one of Liszt’s Mephisto Valses, somehow only this one became famous, also for orchestra, but I think the piano version is really fantastic. This is a different world! His unique atmosphere with the melancolic slow sections mixed with the really devilish fast parts, he brings us to an unparalleled space of music.

It is not easy technically for both instruments, particularly because the tiniest details are important without giving the slightest impression of technical show off. There are only the millions of dancing little devils who suddenly change face and end up in a romantic love scene, but finally realize that this was only a dream and the dance goes on.

The only dance in “Shall We Dance…” that originally was also ballet is the Dance of the Hours by Ponchielli, part of his opera “La Gioconda”. Perhaps this is the loveliest music of all, it is light, easy going and fun.

I didn’t know the Jazz Suites by Shostakovich. But I knew those melancholic, nostalgic sad Jewish sounding valses and had no idea he used them for his Suites. And I definitely wanted to use them also.

After listening to all, I decided the ones I was going to include, but I didnt want to make movements. So in this case, I wrote a quite long “medley” of the most popular parts, some happy and some sad, ending with what to me, is this so much like circus music ending. Its a really fun music.

The First Attempts…

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had the idea of writing music for quite a long time, but I just didn’t have the time and didn’t think I could do it.

We played here and there together, Spohr, Saint-Saens, Damase…, and even asked an American composer to write for us, the Poème by Michael Kimbell.

But after a while, it just wasn’t enough. I remember my first attempts, for example the Bolero by Ravel, which was almost unplayable, but wow, the audience loved it. Then we added some Gershwin and Piazzolla pieces.

I always loved Bach. So did, well, does Katrina too, starting with learning the violin partitas as training for the fingers. And then she discovered that Bach keyboard music works very well on the harp. One day, she came up with the idea of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. I also thought it was a great idea, so we had a sort of competition, she for harp, me for violin. She started with the Fantasy, me with the Fugue; well, honestly, I wasn’t yet sure about the Fantasy because of the exisiting transcription for solo viola by my countryman Kodály.

When we were ready, we played the complete work in concerts in such a way that she played the Fantasy and I the Fugue (I think the othe way around too). Later we both made spearate recordings of the Fantasy and Fugue.

I’m not sure any more what was then my first “real” transcription for harp and violin, but I know I had a lot of trouble. Nothing was working with the pedals. I know, all of you harpists laugh now, of course, a violinist shouldn’t write for harp. Sure. So I learned the hard way; I tried to imagine playing, trying to feel how much time I would need for certain pedal changes, which enharmonics to use, and so on.

My first attempt of the Dukas Sorcier Apprenti was a slap in my face; here I hadn’t considered if it works or not, sent it to a harpist friend, who wrote back, well, sorry, but I can’t make pedals for this.

The hardest piece so far was La Valse by Ravel! I rewrote it 3 times until it became “almost” playable. As the work is extremely chromatic, it was almost impossible to manage, but I made some (actually quite a few) changes, so it became more friendly to the harp player.

Just recently, actually only a few days ago, I finished the version for string quartet and harp of Ravel’s La Valse, now with a really friendly harp part!

More Harp…

Then there is one other problem:

unfortunately, because the major development of harp construction and technical advances for players started after much great music had already been written, the harp part is mostly less interesting. Often the harpist has to sit through long sections of works without playing a note, to fill in some hardly audible chords, or even worse, to play a cadenza alone with cold hands! Both scenarios are not very welcome by musicians.

Sometimes the harpist can actually go home, have dinner between entrances; obviously if he/she lives nearby.

And then there are those few operas where the orchestra needs eight harps, even on stage in order to hear them – a wonderful sight! I’m sure every harpist knows which music I am referring to – yes, that’s right! And some other composers used two harps doubling each other in order to be heard.

Well, of course, a number of composers used the harp mostly really as a background colour, which is alright. But these days, we just don’t have enough music for the hundreds of fantastic harpists. They finish their studies, go to competitions, if they win maybe they get some soloistic or chamber music possibilities, but finally most of them either find a place in an orchestra or in a teaching position. Often it is quite sad, because there are so few orchestra postions available, and especially with budget restraints, full-time harp positions are among the first to be cut. So that takes young players back to becoming background musicians, as ist was common 30-40 years ago.

It is my goal to encourage harpists to use their skills which they acquired during their studies to enable them to keep performing.

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.