Glory of the Harp
Dowland • Croft • Handel • Parry •
Dussek • Cardon • Mozart • Spohr & c.
The Single Action Harp played in this recording was made in 1820 by Erard Frères, Paris, and possibly belonged to Mme: Recamier. It is similar in design to one made by Erard in 1794.
For several centuries before, harp makers had tried to solve the problems of making a fully chromatic harp. Earlier examples had extra strings, running parallel to the diatonic strings or even crossing each other in the middle.
The triple strung harp was the apotheosis of the chromatic harp, a true Baroque Harp perfected in Italy, and surviving today as the Welsh Triple Strung Harp. There are three rows of strings two outer rows tuned diatonically and the middle row tuned to sharps and flats.
With so many strings to tune and with complicated fingerings, harp makers strove to find a simpler solution. At the beginning of the eighteenth century a system of seven pedals was invented (one for each note of the diatonic scale) and which could raise the tuning of the strings by one semitone, little hooks pulling the strings onto a bridge.
Harps of this type were tuned in Eb major and could modulate to E major. Until about 1794 the hook system was used exclusively and harp makers became rich with the great number of gorgeously decorated instruments made under the patronage of Queen Marie Antionette.
Sebastian Erard, famous for his extraordinary improvements in piano construction, revolutionised the design of the harp mechanism. Instead of hooks, forked discs turned and gripped the strings. In 1810, he perfected the double action harp whose pedals could produce flat, sharp, or natural out of every string. Tuned in Cb major the harp was now chromatically complete. His system has remained similar to that used in harp construction today.
Joseph Haydn, in a conversation with Sebastian Erard, said, that of all musical instruments the harp was the only one that ‘communicated directly with the heart.’
At a time when the early forte-pianos were competing with the harpsichord, the Single Action Harp’s range of dynamics and colour inspired many composers to write for the instrument. Being so fashionable this harp spawned a huge amount of music, much of which is still completely unknown today.
In this recording, I have brought together, not only pieces of quality that were written for the harp, but some of my transcriptions of keyboard pieces. Mme: de Genlis, the famous eighteenth century harpist said, (rather optimistically) that she played the complete keyboard repertoire on the harp,‘with a few minor adjustments.’!
Large harps in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had very similar sounds, pungent attack with clear and sonorous basses, also thinner stringings give a lute-like quality.
Antonia de Cabezon 1510-1566
Pavane and Variations. Blind from birth, this distinguished keyboard player and composer became a court musician to Charles V and to Philip II of Spain. In 1557 these variations were published in a volume which is probably the earliest publication for the harp.
Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz 17th Century
Hachas. This lively dance was published in 1677 but nothing is known about the composer’s life.
Martin Peerson 1572-1651
The Fall of the Leafe. Martin Peerson was organist at St Paul’s Cathedral. He included the harp in his consort music, but sadly, most of his music has been lost. The Fall of the Leafe is an early piece of descriptive music in a memorable and obsessive style.
John Dowland 1562-1626
My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe. John Dowland was the most famous lutenist of his age and was Court Lutenist to the King of Denmark and later to Charles I of England. This delightful dance, a mere trifle, was written for the lute and I transcribed it for the harp.
William Croft 1678-1727
Sarabande, Ground. William Croft wrote much dignified and effective music for the church that is still in use today. He was organist at St Anne’s Church in Soho, at the Chapel Royal and at Westminster Abbey where he is buried. These two pieces are taken from his harpsichord works; The Ground, reminding one of Purcell’s haunting Passacaglias, has been described as an aural demonstration of the Holy Trinity.
George Frederick Handel 1685-1759
Aria con Variazioni. I have long believed that these variations were played on the Welsh Triple String Harp and possibly composed for it. The theme was made famous by Brahms who used it for his Handel Variations. In Handel’s large output of keyboard music, it is the only work that I know, which is in the key of Bb and without any accidentals. In 1732, Handel used the harp in his new orchestration of ‘Esther’ and these variations were published in 1733 by Walsh. Many figurations, and the same key, are found in his Harp Concerto in Bb which was performed by William Powell in 1736.
John Parry 1710-1782
Padre Rafael Anglés 1730-1816
Aria in D minor. Anglés devoted much of his life to writing music for the church and was organist at Valencia Cathedral in 1781.
Padre Narciso Casanovas 1747-1799
Sonata in F. Many priests were composers (a long line which includes Vivaldi and Anglés).This delightful one movement sonata sparkles on the harp.
Sophia Corri Dussek 1774-1831?
Sonata in C minor:
Rondo - Allegro
Jean Baptiste Cardon 1760-1803
Sonata in F minor:
Rondo - Allegretto
Wolfgang Amadeus 1756-1792
Sonata in C K545:
Rondo - Allegretto
Jean-Bernard Mayer mid C18-1820
Variations on a Theme of Mozart. Fètis states that his name was Jean-Bernard but it also appears as Jean-Baptiste. He was mentioned in one of Leopold Mozart’s letters to his son (9th Feb: 1778) as one of the musicians to be wary of. However he was a superb musician - harpist and wrote these beautiful variations on a minuet taken from Mozart’s Sonata for violin and keyboard (K377) written in 1781. Mayer’s Method for Harp was published in 1783, and he eventually settled in London where he was harpist to the orchestra of the Italian Opera. He died in London in 1820.
Louis Spohr 1784-1859
Fantasia in C minor. Virtuoso violinist and distinguished composer, Spohr married the harpist Dorette Scheidler in in 1806. On their honeymoon he composed several major works for the harp, most notably this Fantasia. Spohr’s musical God was Mozart and one can hear his influence in this work. It is one of the most important pieces of harp music from this period.
Philip James Meyer 1737-1819
Variations on a Theme of Spohr. Both P.J. Meyer and J.B. Mayer were in Paris when the harp had such an important place in the musical life. Marie-Antionette created such a vogue for playing the harp that there were forty-six harp teachers in Paris at the time. Like Mayer, Meyer also settled in London where he was reputed to have introduced the single action harp. With his two sons, Frederick and Phillippe (both harpists) he established a school of playing. Meyer (senior) was a distinguished composer and these variations on Spohr’s very ‘mozartian’ theme (from his opera Faust) demonstrate his imaginative and distinguished treatment of Spohr’s beautiful theme.
music on this CD can be obtained from www.morleyharps.com
St. Mary's Parish Church, Chipping Norton, November 2007
©2008 David Watkins