About the harp

This article is based on one originally written for Classic Fm magazine

aldeburgh_harp‘Don’t you wish you played something smaller like the flute or the violin?’ everyone asks when they see a harpist heaving her pedal harp from venue to car! When wrapped up on the trolley, it is essentially like dragging a man around with her, weighing about the same, only the harp gets no say in whether it comes or not and the man is more likely to put up a fight!

In the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century this lavish accessory was seen as one of the jewels in a young lady’s treasure trove of accomplishments she had at her disposal to persuade a man of her eligibility – he could even gaze longingly at her whilst she serenaded him – without any embarrassment being felt from either side. The association has stuck and still today, the majority of harp players are female. Yet there are many fine male players and it is certainly not a male exclusion zone ! These days, it seems more likely to make any potential love interest run a mile once they see what a lifetime of heaving the harp on the girl’s behalf they could be condemned to – not to mention all her money (and even his – heaven forbid!) being spent on the gorgeous instrument and its transport, maintenance and spare strings.

Harpists are never the girls in the nippy, high performance sporty little cars. You can see the harpist coming a mile off in her Volvo or Astra estate… Dads beware! If your daughter asks for harp lessons you could be in for years of expense to come, but your heart will melt when you see her sitting angelically behind the world’s most glamourous instrument producing the most exquisite sounds from even the most basic level because the harp sounds wonderful from the first notes plucked.

Much more versatile than you would suppose, it even finds its milieu these days in pop music, jazz (check out jazz harpist Park Stickney, or Deborah Henson-Conant, for example) as well as the world of classical music with its musically spot-lit performances in Tschaikovsky ballets and the whole gamut of orchestral masterworks from the nineteenth (when it really developed into the kind of harp we know today) to twenty first centuries.

Less well known is the wonderful wealth of solo and chamber repertoire and we mustn’t forget the smaller sister of the pedal harp and the instrument on which most players begin – the celtic harp, also called a lever harp, or clarsach. This has a rich repertoire of traditional music from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany.