Music Post: Angelic even when profane, the music of the harp


English-speaking lovers of classical music can easily misunderstand the title of Claude Debussy’s “Dances, Sacred and Profane,” a sensuous pair of pieces that really doesn’t seem to fit either of the title’s adjectives. It helps to know that in French, “profane” can simply mean, “secular.”

The harp is a fascinating musical instrument, full of contradictions. It can produce simple beauty but playing it is quite complicated. It is a fairly quiet instrument, suited to chamber music, but composers love it so much that they spotlight it in big orchestras. It is one of the oldest instruments, but the modern harp dates only from 1904 or so. Debussy figures in that story, and so does Maurice Ravel. More on that in a moment.

It’s generally accepted that harps date back to 3500 B.C. if not earlier. Harps can be seen in the earliest surviving art. Even in 3500 B.C. the harp was a large instrument, held so both hands could reach the strings, from either side. There were other kinds, smaller, held differently, but it’s astonishing to see how far back the harp looked much the way it does today. It’s also interesting to note that harps were found on several different continents, looking similar to each other whether in the Middle East, Africa or Korea.

In one of the Marx Brothers movies, Harpo, who really could play the harp, pounds on a piano until it falls apart, whereupon he pulls out the framework of the piano strings and plays it as a harp. There is something to this sight gag: while piano strings and harp strings are quite different, the shape of the array is similar since the strings are shorter for higher notes, longer for low ones.

The late Baroque era saw a key development in the harp: pedals attached to hooks, which raised the pitch of some strings a half step, making it easier to play “black key” notes on the fly. The earliest example of this was in the 1720s in Germany (Bach lived to 1750; Beethoven was born in 1770) and by the 1800s there were harp concertos and touring harpists. The harp was associated with beauty and femininity – think of the waltz from Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique.” But there were limits to how many strings could be readily altered for accidentals (sharps and flats). The German inventor (working in Paris) Sebastian Erard in 1811 patented a double-action pedal. The Belgian composer (working in Paris) Cesar Franck featured harp prominently in the middle movement of his 1888 Symphony in D.

In 1904 the Pleyel form came out with a new chromatic pedal harp – any note was possible! – and commissioned a piece from Claude Debussy to demonstrate this. The result was “Danses sacree et profane” for harp and orchestra, which immediately entered the repertory and has stayed there ever since.

The rival Erard company, which had invented the chromatic pedal harp in the first place, then commissioned Maurice Ravel to demonstrate its newest model. The result was the Introduction & Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet & String Quartet. It came out in 1905 and it, too, immediately entered the repertory and stayed there. Ravel wrote it rapidly on deadline to avoid postponing a holiday and, perhaps because of that, thought it wasn’t his best work, even leaving it out of his catalog of compositions. But it’s worth noting that he didn’t think much of “Bolero,” either. (“My most popular piece,” he said. “Too bad there isn’t any music in it.”)

From the 1880s, when it became the epicenter of the classical world, through the Second World War, Paris was a congenial place for chamber music, and the harp was often featured. Marcel Tournier and Gabriel Pierne and Vincent D’Indy and Germaine Tailleferre all wrote wonderful pieces for it. Now virtually all self-respecting composers get around to writing for the harp at some point.

A quick postscript: most of my shows on “Howard’s Day Off” are built around the desire to play a single piece. In this case it was a single album, by the Pacific Harp Project, a Hawaii group featuring Mega Bledsoe Ward on harp, Noel Okimoto on vibes, Jon Hawes on bass, and Alan Ward on drums.

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