Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Haiku Wednesday: The Harp



Music of angels.
If I make it to heaven,
I’ll need harp lessons!

You can see the harp there, at the edge of the orchestra, ornate, gleaming, golden, a serene harpist seated there, adding those key elements that make the music glisten.  On rare occasions, you’ll find the harpist center stage.

So many strings!  How do they tell them apart?  If you look at the strings of a harp, some are red, some black, some white.  The red ones are the note of C, the black ones are F. Still, there are six and a half octaves on a concert harp to keep track of.  But wait, there’s more.

Now that I’ve learned how a harp is played I’m reminded of a saying:

Be like a duck:  appear calm on the surface, and paddle like hell underneath.

That serene harp player is pedaling intensely where you can’t see.  At the foot of a concert harp are seven pedals (one for each note of the scale) that can change the pitch of the strings as needed.  A mechanism shortens the length of the string to raise the note by a half step or whole step.  So, like an organist, the harpist is using hands and feet to create those golden tones.  Sort of like driving a vehicle with manual transmission while typing from a manuscript and trying to thread a needle at the same time.  Oh, and you should probably look up at the conductor every now and then too!  In the video below, Amy Turk offers an quick inset video so you can see what her feet are doing as she’s playing (at times 3:55 and 6:10)

Here’s Amy Turk playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.  Wow!

Here is a more detailed explanation of how a harp is played.

Composers who have written harp music include CPE Bach, Beethoven, Britten, Dussek, Fauré, Hindemith, and San Saëns.  A list of harp compositions can be found here.  And works written for other instruments have been adapted for harp, as with the toccata above.  Catrin Finch’s Goldberg Variations is another stunningly beautiful example.

But the harp is not just for classical music.

Latin jazz on a harp?  You bet!  This is awesome.  (Edmar Castaneda talks about how he got started with the harp and jazz here).

Metallica on a harp?  Believe it.

I will never look at a harp the same way again!


Image attribution:  Angel with harp. Jan Matejko, Church of St. Mary in Krakow, 1895.  [Public domain] via Wikiart


3 thoughts on “Haiku Wednesday: The Harp

  1. Nice intro to the instrument, Chris. It’s very treacherous to write for, with the pedaling issues. The fully chromatic harp never caught on- too hard to play. Wow indeed!



    Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked your praise for one of the unsung heroes of a symphonic orchestra. 😊🎶


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