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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Eternal Harp

From the CD Shelf: I was asked to provide liner notes for a Dorian release that would collect tracks from eleven previously released albums, focusing on a variety of uses of the harp. “Make it atmospheric,” I was told, “more about the instrument than the tracks themselves.” Here’s the result.


LIKE THE MISTS that obscure the Celtic moors, the harp’s history is clouded by the impressive age of the instrument. A string is stretched and plucked: a pleasing tone emerges. The string is stopped or its length is changed: the pitch of the plucked note is different. Then an even more wonderful discovery, that strings of different lengths can be combined into one portable instrument. Not surprisingly, it was judged a voice of the gods. Apollo played it. That most musical of Biblical figures, King David, was depicted as a harpist in the iconography of Europe as far back as the 8th Century.

Although the variety of instruments is stunning, the components pretty much stay the same. A row of strings stretch from a neck, where they’re pegged in place, to a resonant soundbox, often a hollow piece of wood with soundholes. We’re also used to seeing a forepillar connect the neck and soundbox, giving the triangle its third side. The strings of a harp run perpendicular to its soundbox; run those strings parallel and you’ve got a psaltery.

Some of those early harps also were given a set of angled pegs where the strings and soundbox meet. The pegs, called brays, could be set to touch the vibrating strings, adding a buzzing quality to the sound. At one time it was thought that such a sound was able “to speak every profound feeling,” as one poet of the Middle Ages put it. On a practical level, a bray-equipped and -engaged harp gained a quality of sound that helped cut through the raucous noise of an open-air festivity.

While the modern pedal harp is a mainstay of the orchestra and probably gave us our first inkling of the instrument’s sound (much as the snobs hate to admit it, we also have Harpo Marx to thank for his enthusiastic promotion), this collection presents an array of other harps and presents them in a variety of musical contexts. Thanks to drawings and descriptions of old, master craftspeople have been able to create replicas of antique instruments in the cases where instruments themselves haven’t survived.

Each country or culture, it seems, put a unique stamp on the harp. Thus we hear the Celtic harp in a few incarnations, as well as Medieval harps, Welsh models (listen for the brays!), Iberian harps with one and two rows of strings, and Italian single-row harps with and without the brays engaged. Renaissance and Baroque instruments also are represented. What makes them so different? Harpist Becky Baxter spelled it out first in terms of construction: “Size, shape, and soundbox construction. The soundbox may be carved out of a single piece of wood or pieced together from several; it may have a staved back, a square back, or one that’s been steamed into an elegant curve.”

Beyond that, there are the features of tone production. Some are strung chromatically, each string a half-step different from its neighbor; they may be diatonic, letting you play a scale across the adjacent strings. And there are the pedals and levers that let you change the tones, although those aren’t so much in evidence on the harps in this collection. On William Taylor’s performance of “Kaingk Dafydd Broffwyd” and “Caingc Dafydd Broffwyd,” you’ll hear a playing style that used to be the norm among Irish and Welsh harpists into the 16th century: they struck the strings with specially trimmed fingernails, and different styles of attack produced tones of varying color.

The contexts offered in this collection prove the harp’s hardiness. As a solo voice, of course, it is a voice of infinite color, joyful or sad, bashful or heroic. But listen to the subtle differences when it’s paired with guitar or lute, the contrast of harp and violin, the beauty of the harp amidst a vocal ensemble, and the raucous joy of the harp, brays engaged, set to dancing with bagpipes.

“The sound from the pluck of a harp string lingers long after the impact of the harpist’s finger,” observes Baxter. “It seems as if the tone will go on indefinitely. Infinitely.” Harp playing, which stretches back into earliest mists of written recollection, has been an integral part of musical evolution (and enjoyment) ever since. And, as this collection proves, the music will endure as long as there are players and listeners to enjoy it.

– Dorian CD DOR-90019, 9 January 2001

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