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Harp Literature Review

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When examining published literature on harp compositional techniques, we immediately run into the issue of scored versus oral music.

The ability to notate music has led some contemporary composers to claim invention of “avant-garde” techniques which have been musical practice for up to millenia. Given the purpose of this dissertation to provide contemporary composers with as wide a range of harp compositional techniques as possible, I will partially lay aside this controversy. Instead, the focus will be on what published material is readily available to composers and performers today.

To understand the current state of harp composition, I feel it easiest to work backward chronologically, starting in our present era. 

Distinguished harp music was played prior to the 20th century, as we know from the status and geographical spread of harps worldwide. However, this repertoire was rarely written down, or was written in sketch form only. The repertoire readily available today reflects this gap; our harp catalog seems young and small when stacked against, for example, piano literature. 

A primary purpose of this dissertation is to document techniques, past and present, ignored or minimized in the current general repertoire, and make them accessible to all musicians.

In academia, we tend to distinguish between folk and art music: this categorization is slippery regarding world harp techniques.

For example, many think of Celtic harp music as “folk” based. In reality, the Celtic harp was an aristocratic instrument. Its bardic musical training resembled an organized “art” approach rather than informal transmission.  49

The same holds true for the African kora, where the titled "griot" is held in high regard upon completing a comprehensive apprenticeship.

Therefore, for the most part, I avoid "art" vs. "folk" categorizations in this dissertation, as these terms do accurately relfect the musical cultures we will be exploring.

2.1a Current Pedal Harp Literature

The French School of harp playing - possibly the most influential pedal harp technique approach today - was founded by Alphonse Hasselmans (1845-1912, Belgium).

His influence is hard to overstate, impacting both technique and composition. His impressive student roster includes luminaries such as Henriette Renie, Marcel Tournier, Marcel Grandjany and Carlos Salzedo, among many others.  Hasselmans was responsible for making the Paris Conservatory:

…the international center for harp study. He taught most of the great harpists of the 20th century, and to this day almost every [author note: mostly pedal, although this lever-playing writer too!] harpist can trace his or her lineage of teachers back to this master.” 50

━ Kimberly Ann Houser

Other significant schools are the Russian School, where the most distinguishing features are a robust, muscular tone and a thumb that moves in a circular motion rather than straight in and out from the palm, and the Viennese School.

Being fairly recently invented (as discussed in Chapter 1), many important harp teachers also composed in order to widen the repertoire and provide for their students.  Hassleman’s teacher was Gottlieb Kruger, a student of English harpist-composer Elias Parish Alvars (1808-1849).  Parish Alvars’ seminal influence was strong: he was one of the early proponents of the double action pedal harp, and exploited its capabilities clearly in his work Grand Fantasia on Rossini's Moise, op. 58, where a “three-handed” (Ibid.) effect can be seen in this excerpt:

2.1 example

Example 2.1

Parish Alvars utilized a slide effect called “fluid sound”, sliding a metal stick (such as the arm of a tuning wrench) up and down the strings, an effect that can also be partially achieved via pedal slides. 51  In addition, Parish Alvars made extensive use of enharmonic spelling (if the harp is in equal temperament, G# and Ab strings will sound the same - later, Marcel Tournier called these “synonyms” 52), achieving effects described more fully below in the section on Renie’s work.

Hallmarks of Hasselmans’ compositional style include enharmonic spellings and their subsequent effects, overlapped hands playing in the same range from either side of the harp, and emphasizing the melody with the thumb over an arpeggiated lower texture. We see all of these features of his students’ composing styles.

In 1901 Henriette Renie (1875-1956), a student of Hasselmans, gave a series of concerts that established her as both a virtuoso and a composer. Renie helped popularize the harp as a solo instrument, inspiring other composers to write for the harp as well. Her teaching brought new insights to harp technique, and in her iconic Complete Method for the Harp, Renié states:

The entire basis of my method lies in one fundamental principle: suppleness. If one treats nature as an enemy, it rebels, and this is reflected in an invincible stiffness which interferes with everything.

Renie promoted three types of articulation:

• full: from the knuckle
• half: from the middle finger joint
• petite: from the last finger joint

She also felt that the thumb position should be adjustable according to the reach of the hand. Additionally, she taught the fingers should apply pressure to the strings before articulating. 53

Expression can only be rendered by a certain pressure upon the cord that is more or less intense...imperceptibly, the wrist accompanies the articulation of each finger, following the melodic line. 54

━ Henriette Renié

Lastly, Renie supported the idea of the right wrist resting lightly on the soundboard (Ibid.)

Regarding compositional style, Renie’s Legende, shows the extreme use of range now possible on large concert grand pedal harps:

2.1 example

Example 2.2

Other characteristic features of Renie’s compositions are use of sweeping arpeggios accompanying a melody, enharmonic respellings to create even or uneven parallel intervals depending on the situation, overlapped hands, strict attention to muffling (rests), and combined effects such as pres de la table plus nail playing. 55

Marcel Tournier (1879-1951) took over Hasselmans’ position as head of the harp department at the Paris Conservatory amidst allegations that Renie was overlooked due to her then-unpopular Catholic beliefs, resulting in an acrimonious split between their studios and followers.56 

Tournier focused on expanding the harp repertoire via his compositions, in contrast to Renie’s pursuit of both concertizing and composing. 57 His composing style embraced Impressionism - he was friends with both Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, who as we shall see have become important harp composers even though they did not play the instrument themselves - and brought the harp into a more contemporary realm.

Tournier’s posthumously published and wide-ranging book The Harp (Henry Lemoine & C Editeurs, 1959) is both a handbook for those wishing to understand the harp better in terms of function (for example, pointing out technicalities such as flat keys sound more resonant on the harp since the strings are open) and in terms of composing. Some important innovations were notational:

• discarding standard key signatures and favoring the actual pedal positions used (keeping the score clearer)

• establishing a way of clearly indicating pedal slides, resulting in greater development of this technique

• codifying enharmonic/“synonym” notational conventions 

Compositionally, Tournier also used short glissandi for the first time in Western art music (a technique undoubtedly used elsewhere in the world, being common in Middle Eastern, Asian, and African music), and the 'glissando chord,' where simultaneous multiple glissandi are achieved via holding a multi-finger chord stance (a technique also common in Latin American harp performance, perhaps influencing Argentinian Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto from both musical realms!)

2.1 example

Example 2.3

Marcel Grandjany (1891-1976) states:

I am a very old pupil of her [Renie’s] school; I can affirm that after all these years, Henriette Renie's works, her compositions and her Methode remain a monument to her. I am proud to say that my teaching springs from hers [Renie’s] 58

━ Françoise des Varennes "Henriette Renie Living Harp"

Renie accepted the orphaned Grandjany as a student when he was a child, awarding him a lifetime scholarship. 59 Grandjany studied simultaneously with Hasselmans, causing some friction. Grandjany expanded the harp repertoire in several ways:

• his own compositions
• transcriptions of works by great composers such as JS Bach
• unearthing lost harp masterpieces such as the Handel Concerto in Bb, originally written for the Welsh triple harp. 60

In 1935 he emigrated to the United States, eventually heading Juilliard's harp department and forming the American Harp Society in 1962, both of which impact harpists in America to this day. American harpist Susan Jolles explains:

There were many French techniques, which were mostly static. They only closed the hand, with no extra motion. Grandjany and Carlos Salzedo went beyond Renié by introducing wrist motions and arm motions, respectively. Grandjany’s idea was to use wrist movement to promote relaxation and looseness, both of which are essential for sound and health. 61

━ quoted by Laura Sherman



He believed that there was no “rigid solution to any problem…That is why no ‘Grandjany method’ was written. 62

━ Ruth Inglefield


In Grandjany’s own words:

I have lots of material, but my ideas keep changing…The harp is a very personal instrument—you touch the strings and you feel the music. So there can be no universal method, although there are certain principles that must be observed. 63

━ quoted by Margaret Barnett

Although Grandjany composed in a style reminiscent of his teachers, he also explored a more modern, spare approach as seen here in his Divertissement (1951):

2.1 example

Example 2.4

Carlos Salzedo, born in 1885 in Arcachon, France, was a towering presence in the harp world in his era and remains a strong influence today. He eventually headed the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadephia, Pennsylvania, which has become another major center of harp artistry. The sometimes rancorous debate between disciples of the various French harp schools is at odds with their founders’ feelings about each other. Salzedo said:

Go work with Henriette Renie; she is as high above other harpists as the sky is above the earth... 64

Your [Renie’s] great Methode is a gigantic, deeply captivating work. I wish that nothing should stop the marvelous dynamism of your devotion, one may even say sacrifice, to our cause. The harp is to Music what Music is to life. 65

━ quoted by Françoise des Varennes

Perhaps the strongest difference between Salzedo’s technique and other members of the French School is his encouragement of the use of rounded (versus flat) fingers, along with a horizontal (to the floor) arm stance. The latter allows the wrist to hover off the soundboard, versus other techniques where the wrist rests lightly on the soundboard.

Salzedo’s friend, conductor Leopold Stokowski wrote:

Salzedo has done for the harp what Bach did for the organ, Paganini for the violin, Chopin, Liszt and Debussy for the piano, which is to enlarge the technical and expressive potentialities of their chosen instruments. 66

━ quoted by Theo Libbey

As with all the other harpist-composers mentioned, Salzedo was an active teacher, maintaining a harp colony in Maine for many years. Also interested in “civic musicianship” and promoting new sounds, he founded the United States chapter of the International Society for Contemporary Music in 1923. 67

Salzedo’s pieces demonstrate great virtuosity and color, seen in collections such as Method for the Harp (co-authored with his second wife Lucille Lawrence, Schirmer, 1929), which lists many special harp effects. This method codified many harp techniques and effects into SATB notation for the first time. His “37 gestures” to be variously followed through after plucking a note, are perhaps his quintessential contribution to harp technique:

Like the orchestral conductor, the harpist must learn how to externalize music. This he does through gestures which should be inspiring and not dry; these gestures should emphasize, and not negate, the intent of the music... I explain to them (my students) that the harpist should consider himself like the orchestra while his gesture-making hands are the conductor who calls forth his playing and depicts phrases through motion. 68

━ quoted by Dewey Owens

Being pedal harp-focused and perhaps unaware of the vast scope of harp traditions worldwide, Salzedo curiously claimed in the introduction to Method:

At the beginning of the 20th century the harp was still in its infancy; it had practically no literature of musical worth. 69

━ Carlos Salzedo and Lucille Lawrence

However, Salzedo inarguably added many important pieces to pedal harp literature, including the well-known Chanson dans la nuit (composed as an etude but now a recital standard):

2.1 example

Example 2.5

Salzedo's composing periods can be roughly divided firstly into a Romantic orientation similar to previous harpist-composers to a modern phase featuring many effects, such as the Chanson above.

As we shall examine further in Chapter 3, many techniques Salzedo claimed as his own had been in practice for hundreds, if not thousands of years, such as the strumming technique we find documented in Egypt as far back as 1400BC. Regardless, his useful list of effects in Method for the Harp includes:

  • Xyloharmonic/Xylophonic effects (touching strings close to soundboard and plucking regularly on strings with the other hand)
  • Guitaric effects (also known as pres de la table)
  • Plectric/brassy effects (fingernails pres de la table)
  • Tam-tam sounds (slapping the soundboard)
  • Timpanic sounds (tapping on soundboard)
  • Vibrant sounds (pressing back and forth on the string between pin and peg)
  • Whistling sound (running hand/finger at various speeds along metal bass strings)
  • The 'Flux' series (advanced glissandi), including: Aeolian (brushing glissandi), Oboic (same as Aeolian but near the soundboard), Falling hail (nail-driven glissandi), Gushing chord (glissandi between specific notes), rolling surf (multiple fingered glissandi), and combinations thereof
  • Sliding effects (microtones achieved by using the tuning wrench), also called downward quivering glissandi and upward quivering glissandi
  • Muffling techniques/Sons étouffés
  • Anvil effect (hit brass plate with tuning key)
  • Thunder effect (causing the bass wire strings to clash violently)

Salzedo also had an esoteric affinity for the number 5, important in his Basque heritage, which he uses in time signatures, the number of pieces in a suite, and so on. This spiritual orientation has echoes in Renie’s religious inspiration, as well as the intention behind much harp music, as we shall explore in Chapter 3.

Yolanda Kondonassis, a disciple of Salzedo via her mentor Alice Chalifoux, further elucidates these effects in On Playing the Harp, 70 most of which also have ancient practice roots except the pedal effects:

  • Gushing thunder (hitting strings)
  • Pedal slides
  • Metallic quarter-tone effect (pedal set halfway, some sliding)
  • Prepared strings (such as paper inserted between strings)
  • Mutes/muffling
  • Gong effect (slap-pizzicato)
  • Washboard effect
  • Metallic tremolo (plectrum)
  • Wet whistle effect (rub wet rag on string)

Contemporary harpists Susann McDonald (a student of Renie) and Linda Rollo's method Harp for Today: A Universal Method for the Harp 71 is another direct descendant of the French School and is still influential on the world harp stage.

2.1b Giants of the 20th Century Composing World

In addition to Alvars Parish, Hasselmans, Renie, Tournier, Grandjany and Salzedo, many consider Claude Debussy (1862-1918, France) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937, France) among the most successful 19th and 20th century composers for harp. Both composers took great pains to understand the harp and its techniques.  In the words of Vessela Trichkova, principal harpist of the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra:

Ravel really knew how to use the harp’s potential. The “Introduction et Allegro” is written in a brilliant and virtuosic way, and is very comfortable to play. Still, it demands very good harp playing skills: 72

━ Vessela Trichkova

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Example 2.6

This 1907 work was commissioned specifically to show of the versatility of the Erard double action harp. There had been controversy between this and the more common, older single action pedal harp. Eventually the double action became the standard, outpacing other harp designs that were also in the running such as the chromatic cross-strung harp. Perhaps one of the very best-known harp pieces today springs from this period of development:

Debussy’s “Danses sacrée et profane” was written for chromatic [cross-strung] harp, but we play them nowadays on the pedal harp. All the arpeggios, glissandi, and harmonics show the magic of the harp. The most awkward passages, however, are the ones with many chromatics/pedal changes. Otherwise, both dances are very beautifully written with very relaxing and confident beginnings of each movement. (Ibid.)

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Example 2.7

2.1c Contemporary Harp Composers

The harp repertoire continues to grow; many could argue now is the most interesting time for harp art music composition. 

In Bulgaria alone, with its long history of strong musical sensibility, we enjoy composers such as Youliana Tochkova-Patrouilleau’s imaginative works like La legende d’Orphee et Eurydice. Here we see clusters, the chromaticism made possible by pedal harp, harmonics, pedal-shift effects, tapping on the soundboard, palm-on-string banging, among other textures and effects, all very reminiscent of Salzedo:

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Example 2.8

Dimitar Tapkoff’s harp quartet work Preludio exhibits even more chromaticism, taking full advantage of double action pedal technology:

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Example 2.9

Filip Pavlov’s Nocturne examines the poetic harmonic beauty of the harp within diatonic parameters. Harkening back to folk music while also incorporating modern compositional practice such as extended chords and polyrhythms, Nocturne reminds us of Grandjany’s later modern period:

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Example 2.10

Velislav Zaimov’s Sonata per Arpa employs extreme dynamics, from p to frequent use of ff (going against the common conception of the harp as only being a gentle instrument), and liberal use of percussive effects such as secco (again contrary to the stereotypical harp reputation): 

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Example 2.11

Tzenkin Minkin’s The Tears of Eol makes extensive use of varied glissandi (perhaps the most characteristic feature of harps), massive range shifts made possible by the large harps of today, cascading effects, rubato, and much chromaticism:

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Example 2.12

Current published literature for non-pedal harps such as lever harps and Latin American harps does not reflect the true richness of performance practice.

Part of this issue is that notation itself is problematic, for these reasons:

the current literature for non-pedal harp rarely captures ornamentation accurately, ornamentation being a huge part of these genres’ characters

•  rhythm can be difficult or even impossible to reflect accurately, such as variations in “swing” in kora music and the rubato common in Celtic airs

physical playing techniques - such as overlapping hands - can be tricky to translate onto paper, resulting in messy and complicated-looking results. There is great variation in harp technique in terms of degrees of pluck - how much pad, how much velocity, where to pluck on the string apart from the default middle-of-the-string or near the soundboard: all these become cumbersome to notate

microtonal variations such as those found in Middle Eastern genres are complicated to notate, although some systems exist, as we shall see in Chapter 3

since many of the genres we will examine are not Western, most practitioners have little reason to be intimately familiar with or even interested in SATB notation, so they rarely document (or conceive of in the first place) their music via SATB notation

2.2a European Early Music Harp Literature

The standard sound of early and Renaissance harps may surprise listeners more familiar with contemporary harp sonorities.

A nasal, piercing quality of tone was common via bray pins and fingernails, the former imparting a buzzing sound and the latter a bright, crisp sound. Combined with an “elaborate system of dampening” 73, contrasting lines and textures were clearly heard. These practices diverge sharply from the lush tones and homophonic textures we associate with harps today.

Often believed to be possible only on the modern pedal harp, chromaticism was widespread in early music. Chromaticism was achieved in several ways:

• stopping strings by placing the knuckle close to the soundboard or harmonic curve, thereby raising the pitch a half step or variation thereof. This technique is common in Latin American harp music today, as we will see later in this chapter, with this genre itself being partly an offshoot of Renaissance music

medieval harps sometimes had extra strings to accommodate the frequent occurrence of both B natural and B flat in early music repertoire

double- and triple-strung harps, sporting either two or three parallel rows of strings, are fully chromatic; their repertoires reflect their Italian origin in the late 16th century and subsequent adoption by the Welsh, where the triple strung is now the national instrument

cross-tunings (scordatura) allows for different chromatics across different octaves; for example, one octave may contain an F natural while another contains an F sharp, and the options explode from there.

We see some chromaticism in this harp excerpt from the Cantigas de Santa Maria of Alfonso X (1221-1284) of Spain, although the simplicity of this modern score does not reflect actual performance practice:

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Example 2.14

…a large collection of Christian songs – the Cantigas de Santa María and…a book of games (Libro de los Juegos). The former contains over 400 songs about the Holy Virgin. The texts are Christian, but some tunes are considered to have Islamic origins. The book of games shows several examples of chess boards, and a Berber player of the angular harp stands next to one. Indeed, some Cantigas may have been played on angular harps. 74

━ Bo Lawergren

Medieval music was transmitted orally. Notation from that era is minimal; it is not until the classical period under influence of the vibrant Italian music scene that we find detailed notation reflecting pitch, rhythm, and interpretation. 

This has, until recent times, led to performances being spare and stark because that is how the scores appear at first glance. (Nowadays, we see increasingly virtuosic interpretations of early music works.) Demonstrating the simplicity of early music scores is an excerpt of a Czech antiphonal/gradual from the late 15th century:

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Example 2.15

“Specific information on the playing technique of the Renaissance harp is quite scanty”  and “for both organ and lute there survives a very considerable corpus of music but for the harp the situation is strikingly different.” 76

━ Michael Morrow

Early harp maestro Andrew Lawrence-King explains:

The harp, unlike the lute or harpsichord, did not have a large amateur following to create a market for published solo music. Nevertheless there were a number of virtuosi who achieved international fame for their mastery…In Rome, Orazio Michi was considered second only to Frescobaldi as a musician, and unrivaled as a harpist. 77

━ Andrew Lawrence-King

As a result of all of this, educated guesses are necessary when reconstructing early harp music: “The harp was always a “two-handed” instrument; it would seem improbable to restrict it to a single line”  78.   

Starting in the 16th century the situation improves. We find specific repertoire scored for harp, although these are mostly pieces interchangeable between harp and keyboard or another instrument, not harp-exclusive. For example, Andrew Lawrence-King’s influential recording Harp Music of the Italian Renaissance (2004) features no pieces written specifically for harp.

Unfortunately, this keyboard connection contributed to harp-specific techniques being ignored. We see composers writing for the harp from a keyboard orientation, a tendency that is common even today.

The harp being somewhat rare, composers had greater access and understanding of the keyboard. Examples of how a keyboard bias looks are the harp-friendly techniques of overlapping hands and crossed hands being overlooked in favor of a more keyboard-friendly division of right hand = treble and left hand = bass. 

Further, this keyboard bias contributed to the harp’s relegation to a continuo role, as opposed to the solo status it had previously enjoyed. Frescobaldi’s Toccata ottava di durezze e ligature was originally written for keyboard but is now a core Renaissance harp repertoire piece despite note using many of the harp’s more intrinsic and evocative features:

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Example 2.16

Formal and informal research grows today regarding performance practice of early harp music: we will explore exciting findings that  have recently come to light in Chapter 3.

2.2b Celtic Early Music Literature

Coexisting with the Continental gut-strung harps was the wire strung Irish harp, which represented a completely different concept of tone and performance. 79

━ Jeffery T. Kite-Powell

Sporting a sturdier construction, strings of unusual materials such as brass, gold and silver, performers often holding the harp on the left rather than right shoulder, allowing a different perspective, and alternate tuning systems, Celtic harps (clàrsach Ghàidhealach/cláirseach Ghaelach in Scottish/Irish terminology), developed a contrasting repertoire to Continental European harps.

The Celtic harp’s high status in society also influenced types of pieces composed at that time.  Turlough O’Carolan’s (1670-1738, Ireland) intimate yet laudatory songs written for his aristocratic hosts, the strong connection between the Celtic harp and poetry as keepers of history, 80 and the practice of having a resident Celtic harper in European courts, leading to Cormack McDermott’s composing of courtly dance tunes (which, interestingly, are polyphonic), are all reflections of this unique history. Celtic bards enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, and thus were in a position to develop virtuosic and original repertoire.

By a fortunate twist of fate, a significant body of early wire-strung harp compositions and related performance practices were preserved in the final days of the bardic era:

The Belfast Harp Festival/Belfast Harpers Assembly of 1792 included 10 mostly elderly harpers, some as old as 96. Luckily, their repertoire of 40 pieces was notated by 19-year-old Edward Bunting, a classically-trained organist. Bunting later visited these harpers personally to gather more information. He published his findings starting in 1796, making the gathering of this repertoire his life work culminating in the third volume of The Ancient Music of Ireland in 1840. Although Bunting’s transcripts reveal a keyboard and Romantic orientation - as seen below in his version of Ellen a Roone - they are an invaluable source of information that would have been lost otherwise:

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Example 2.17

The Scottish wire-strung harp tradition has not been so fortunate. Reconstructions of its repertoire are derived from lute manuscripts such as the Staloch MS, fiddle manuscripts such as the McFarlan MS, and general music publications such as Daniel Dow’s Collection of Ancient Scots Music (1776).  Clues such as this help in reconstructing Scottish harp traditions: “The Gaelic word ‘port’ nowadays means simply ‘a tune’, but in the 17th century it seems to have referred to a specific kind of instrumental music for the Gaelic harp.” 81

Another avenue for restoring ancient Celtic harp practices is the ceòl mór (“great music”) style. Both pipes and fiddle independently absorbed older harp traditions dating back over 1000 years in Ireland and Scotland. Now known as pibroch music, this genre offers some of the most exciting possibilities for harp practice and will be explored in depth in Chapter 3.

Today, Ann Heymann and William (Bill) Taylor’s extensive research into early Celtic harps tells us the earliest written source of music from that region is the Robert ap Huw manuscript, dating approximately 1613. This anthology contains Celtic pieces composed possibly as far back as the mid-14th century. In it, we find reference to bray pins, dampening techniques, and fingernail use, as on the continent. However, we also find a different approach to these devices and a different approach to notation as we see in the Robert ap Huw manuscript below:

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Example 2.18

This strange and beautiful music is a fragment of a vast lost repertoire known to the medieval Welsh bardic Harpers. Fortunately, the manuscript provides a guide for the technique needed to play the music. Page 35 presents a thesaurus of musical figures, entitled gogwyddor i ddysgu y prikiad/the principles to learn the pricking (notation), describing different ways of striking a single string, ways of moving between adjacent strings and ways of playing various intervals. 82

━ William Taylor

Taylor’s modern examination of the different effects each finger has on both the plucked sound and dampening goes further than most published scores and offers great possibilities for color, texture, and interpretation. Rarely are these techniques even mentioned in published Celtic literature: these techniques will therefore be delved into further in Chapter 3.

Heymann developed her “Combination" and "Forked Finger" playing techniques via examination of scores and historical reproductions of harps, along with historical references.

The style of playing Heymann examines creates multiple layers of sound through detailed string dampening (or lack thereof, so that the string rings.) This is a more particular dampening approach than found on the continent, reflecting the fact that wire strings resonate longer than gut or fiber strings. Strict dampening also encourages more angular phrasing and focus on melody versus harmony; often both hands participate in the melody in contrast to the continental practice of having melody on one hand and harmony on the other. The monophonic approach of this style of ancient Celtic harp playing is similar to that of the Middle East and will be explored in Chapter 3:

“The music depends on the balance between tension and resolution [of one line], as opposed to the contrapuntal style of Continental composition.” 83

━ Bill Taylor

For such a grand tradition as Celtic harp, it is surprising that we have so little written music. The harp had a sad ending in Celtic culture (until the recent Celtic harp revival, which we'll discuss in Chapter 3.) The harp was almost completely wiped out despite the fact that harpers and harps had been held in high regard. This death started with the harp’s symbolic power - a mythological power, as alluded to in Chapter 1 - during the increasing upheaval between England and Ireland from the 12th century onward.

Carol Woods states:

In 1366, all harpers were expelled from the area around Dublin, because "Irish minstrels, coming among the English, spy out the secrets, customs and policies of the English." Anyone who gave a harper hospitality would be imprisoned, as well as the harper, whose instrument would be forfeited to the king. 84

━ Carol Woods

In the 1570s commissions were founded to “banish all Irish harpers,” culminating with the 1576 Privy Council in London’s stringent orders again for complete banishment of harpers within 'The Pale' (Dublin and all the other areas under English occupation). The fact that constant orders were issued to subdue harpers of course demonstrates their tenacity and popularity. However, Donal O’Sullivan writes:

The battle of Kinsale [1601] marked the end of Irish independence in any form for three centuries, and also the end of that system wherein learned poets and harpers had found a natural place. 85

━ Donal O’Sullivan

As Heymann and others have noted:

The native Irish harping tradition was an aristocratic art music with its own canon and rules, and only tangentially associated with folkloric music. The harping tradition did not long outlast the native Gaelic aristocracy which supported it. Tunes from the harping tradition survived only as unharmonised melodies which had been picked up by the folkloric tradition, or were preserved as notated in collections in which the tunes were often modified to make them fit for the drawing room pianofortes of the Anglicised middle and upper classes. 86

━ Ann Heymann

The latter statement clearly refers to Bunting’s works: as a primarily oral tradition, the harp was even more vulnerable to destruction. Between this, direct attacks against harpers and harps, and finally the entire collapse of its support system, the long tradition of the Celtic harp died.

Losing such a fully-realized voice, European harp performance and symbolism as a whole narrowed to a sweet, simplistic, salon/aristocratic realm. Consider Renaissance images of angelic female harpists, and later, Marie-Antoinette isolated behind her ornate pedal harp. These images are so pervasive that even today people are surprised to hear that Celtic bard harpers were mainly men (as is the case in Latin America and Africa today), and once wielded great influence.

Fortunately, the Celtic harp has undergone a massive revival since the 1960s and is one of the main types of harp available and celebrated today. Much more to say about these new developments, which will be discussed in Chapter 3.

[update: this dissertation was written in 2014 and since then, more Celtic harp research has been conducted. I'll be updating this section as time allows :) ]


Latin American Harp Literature

Alfredo Ortiz, one of today’s leading Latin American harpists, lamented the current situation of little published literature in his genre. 87  His DVD Special Effects for All Harps presents his interpretation of some of the vast array of Latin American harp techniques, yet these concepts are not captured in detailed score form. As we note below in El Solito 88, the written score does not reflect the nuances, textures, or drive of Latin American harp performance:

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Example 2.19

Harpist Ramon Romero states that the Latin American harp as a solo instrument really took off in the 30s and 40s. 89  It then suffered setbacks due to political upheaval, such Paraguay's 36 years of dictatorship which saw its beloved harpists - harp is the national instrument of Paraguay - flee to Argentina, Europe, Russia, and beyond (Ibid.) This type of dislocation has been unfortunately common in Latin America, further preventing documentation of its harps’ repertoires, techniques, and rhythms. Again, as with Celtic harps, we find politics negatively affecting art.

Influence from Renaissance harp techniques, brought over from Spain during the conquests, are apparent upon hearing Latin American harp, along with inspiration from other instruments such as guitar (particularly flamenco styles, in turn derived from Middle Eastern styles) and the indigenous musics encountered in each region.

To appreciate what the Latin American harp can do, one must study with and watch harpists in action. In Chapter 3 we will document some of these powerful techniques gathered via mostly oral sources.

[update: this dissertation was written in 2014 and since then, much more Latin American harp music has been published. I'll be updating this section as time allows :) ]


Asian Harp Literature

Laurence Picken’s extensive reconstruction of Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) scores bring back to life one of the oldest examples of written Asian music. 90 This court music included harp in its ensembles, and the music is heterophonic in texture: we encounter just one melody line for the harp. This seems overly simplistic given the harp's capabilities, so again we need to use conjecture to fill out the picture:

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Example 2.20

Japanese harpist Tomoko Sugawara, in collaboration with harp historian Bo Lawergren, commissioned Bill Campbell to build a kugo (ancient harp) that would have played the above music.  Her album Along the Silk Road (2010) is a goldmine of fascinating techniques derived from these and other scores and related research.  We will examine these more closely in Chapter 3.

The guzheng, China’s most popular harp today, makes extensive use of string bending to create both vibrato and altered pitches on an open string. There is very little precise notation of these and other guzheng techniques; much of this knowledge is transmitted orally from teacher to student. 91

Guzheng music uses numbers to represent pitches long with underscored lines to represent rhythm (see Ex. 2.21.) Few of these scores have been translated into Western notation.

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Example 2.21

The konghou, the modern Chinese double-strung harp described in Chapter 1, was created to reproduce the powerful guzheng techniques mentioned above along with modern techniques. Both konghou and guzheng practices will be documented in Chapter 3.


African Harp Literature

African harp music in general is the least notated and published harp repertoire genre encountered during this research. Kora is by far the most popular African harp; we stumble upon Western notation challenges immediately in terms of how to reflect the kora’s division between hands across two rows of strings plus the fact that the pitches are distributed in a non-stepwise fashion (seen in Chapter 1). Additionally:

...there are two predominant ways to pluck a string: open and muted. To create a kumbengo [ostinato riffs], the thumbs play a bass line, while the fingers play a treble melody; the instrument is intrinsically polyphonic. (Ibid.)

There is quite a bit of crossover between thumbs and fingers on the same side, especially with the technique of birimitingo [improvised solo runs]. 92

━ William Ridenour


The range of the kora is surprisingly small given the immense sense of space it communicates:

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Example 2.22

Guitarist Derek Gripper of South Africa has parsed out the voices in Western style notation form for several kora works, although the characteristic swing of this genre cannot and should not be pinned down. Below is Gripper's transcription of Jarabi by contemporary kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate (© Derek Gripper, 2011):

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Example 2.23

In kora music there are often non-notated improvisation and features such as:

…a knock on the hand support by the right index finger in a technique called bulukondingo podi. Another type of knock, konkong (Charry calls it “konkondiro”), is more common; it is a timekeeping pattern tapped on the round side of the kora by an apprentice or a male singer. 93

━ Roderic Knight

Roderic Knight states that the precedent for notating kora music in the key of F was established just prior to 1970 in an unpublished book of etudes produced for the Ecole des Arts in Dakar by Mamadou Kouyate. (Ibid.)

Knight records that there are 4 main tunings in general use: Tomoraba (also known as Silaba), Tomora Mesengo, Hardino and Sauta (Ex. 2.24), and in turn there are many variations on each of these.  However, all of them use a heptatonic tuning system.

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Example 2.24

Knight has created a more complete version of kora notation, incorporating both staff notation and tablature.  This excerpt is from Kelefabaa, one of the core kora teaching repertoire piece:

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Example 2.25

The “x”s in Ex. 2.25 refer to percussive taps on the kora, sometimes performed by a second musician.

These and other kora techniques and textures will be parsed out for pedal and lever harp use in Chapter 3.

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Example 2.26

The krar and begena lyres/harps of Ethiopia and Eritrea have no written scores at all, and their repertoires are solely transmitted orally.94 We will explore the fascinating techniques of these and other African harps in Chapter 3.


Middle Eastern, Ancient Harp & Lyre Literature

Middle Eastern music is oral in nature, and therefore scores are a recent phenomenon. Middle Eastern harps died out in the 18th century, leaving no harp scores behind.

Going further back in time, we encounter mostly historical reconstruction instead of original scores. Because these reconstructions are often performed by very specialized researchers and inaccessible to non-academics, these pieces of music and techniques are considered beyond the scope of this literature review, and will be instead examined in Chapter 3.

As a preview to Chapter 3, among the important practitioners in this field are contemporary lyre player Michael Levy of England, who has recorded extensively on his large collection of ancient style lyres based on extensive independent research.

Levy has been influenced in part by the seminal work of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura (1912-2000, France), who painstakingly reconstructed biblical texts to reveal ancient Hebrew (and possibly older) melodies. These melodies are vocally focused, but give us hints as to what music of that time generally sounded like.

Michalis Georgiou of Cyprus is active in reconstructing instruments and performing music of the classical Greek era, and we will reference his work in Chapter 3 as well.

Temesgen Hussein of Ethiopia is an invaluable source for both current African lyre playing and lyre techniques of the ancient world in general because his instruments are almost identical to those of classical Greece, and old Hebrew/Near Eastern times.

The oldest musical “score” revealed thus far is an ancient Mesopotamian specimen discovered in Ugarit by Anne D. Kilmer, an Assyriologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Kilmer transcribed this late Bronze Age hymn in the Hurrian language into Western notation. With the help of musicologist Richard L. Crocker and instrument maker Robert Brown a replica of a Sumerian lyre was made to perform this tune:

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Example 2.27

It is believed that the harp/lyre was the Mesopotamian accompaniment instrument of choice, so it is reasonable to speculate the harp/lyre played this song. There are conflicting versions of what exactly this score denotes, with arguments as fundamental as whether it is polyphonic or not.

Conventional Western musical assumptions that polyphony is either relatively recent or a rare worldwide phenomenon are starting to be challenged, and reflect this paper’s contention that more musical knowledge was employed by people past and present than we realize. Because ancient music scores are so sparse, our main options are piecing together information from artifacts (sculptures, paintings, and so on), descriptions in old texts, and observation of older instruments such as krars. We will explore all of these in Chapter 3.


Summary of Chapter 2


As we can see above, although harp repertoire was highly evolved due to its great age and status over 5,000 years, documentation of this repertoire has been sparse until the past 200 years or so.

Many interesting techniques have evolved in cultures orally and/or in settings without SATB notation, resulting in minimal documentation. Chapter 3 will attempt to recapture these techniques for modern harpists’ use.

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50 Houser, Kimberly Ann. “Five virtuoso harpists as composers: Their contributions to the technique and literature of the harp.” PhD diss., University of Arizona, 2005.

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72 Trichkova, Vessela. Personal interview. November 2012.

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79 Kite-Powell, Jeffery T. A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. Indiana University Press, 2007.

80 Heymann, Ann. Personal interview. November 2012.

81 Early Gaelic Harp. “The Port.” © 2010 Simon Chadwick.

82 Taylor, William, CD liner notes for Two Worlds of the Welsh Harp, Dorian Recordings, 1999.

83 Taylor, Bill. Sources for Fingernail Harp Technique from Wales and Ireland. Wire Branch of the Clarsach Society, 2012.

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85 O’Sullivan, Donal. Carolan: the life, times and music of an Irish harper. Cork: Ossian Publications, 2001.

86 Heymann, Ann. Personal interview. November 2012.

87 Ortiz, Alfredo. Personal interview. December 2010.

88 Ortiz, Alfredo. The International Rhythmic Collection for All Harps or Piano, Vol. 2. Corona, CA: Alfredo Ortiz Recordings and Books, 1996.

89 Romero, Ramon. Personal interview. May 2012.

90 Picken, Laurence and Noël J. Nickson, eds.. Music from the Tang Court. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

91 Wong, Winnie. Personal interview. February 2013.

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94 Hussein, Temesgen. Personal interview. November 2012.

Note: due to extensive use of multiple languages, there is great variation in spelling regarding instruments and terms.
The most common spellings will be used throughout, with note made of popular alternate spellings.


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