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This recording presents a programme of romantic music, virtually unknown except to its performers, for perhaps the most romantic of all instruments—the harp. The ancestors of the instrument stretch long back into antiquity. Its forbear the lyre, for instance, can be seen among the stone paintings of ancient Egypt and on Greek earthenware from 2000BC, and there are references to it in the Bible (‘Praise the Lord with harp’—Psalm 33).
The simplicity of those early harps, though, has long since been left behind and their modern descendent is a very complex instrument indeed. The note given out by a vibrating string, on whatever instrument, is governed by its length: the longer the string, the lower the note. Clearly, then, a string of fixed length has to be shortened, or ‘stopped’, to change its note to a higher pitch. On the violin, cello or guitar, for instance, this is done by using the fingers to depress the string on to the neck or fretboard, and all that is required is a high degree of finger agility to play these instruments in a variety of keys, modulating from one to another with the highest speed. This, however, cannot be done on the harp for two main reasons: there is no fretboard to provide support, and in any case its player needs both hands to pluck the strings.
This limitation was solved in the nineteenth century with the invention of the pedal harp. The modern harpist, like the organist, now needs agile feet as well as hands, since the body of the instrument hides a complicated mechanism of levers, operated by pedals, which enables the player to alter the pitch of the strings and thus play and modulate in a variety of keys previously inaccessible to it. The invention of this sophisticated instrument enabled composers to write music of much more colour and variety, and on this record will be found part of the subsequent legacy of music from the richest period of the harp’s history, the nineteenth century. Like other instruments, the harp had, and has, its share of virtuoso performers, many of them writing prolifically for it.
Alphonse Hasselmans was born in Liège, Belgium, in 1845 and studied in Strasbourg, Germany, with Gottlieb Kruger who himself had been a student of Parish-Alvars (see below). In 1884 he became professor of harp at the Paris Conservatoire, a position he held until his death in 1912. Hasselmans played a major role in the revival of interest in harp-playing towards the end of the nineteenth century. A good many compositions by other composers were inspired by his virtuoso playing and were dedicated to him, among them Fauré’s Impromptu, Op 86. Hasselmans himself did not attach much importance to his own compositions but his charming salon pieces, of which three are included on this record, added greatly to the harp’s repertoire, not least in their technical value.
Elias Parish-Alvars was born in Teignmouth, Devon, in 1808 and studied the harp with Théodore Labarre, François Dizi and Robert Bochsa before becoming the most celebrated performer of his day. He was greatly admired by Mendelssohn, and by Berlioz who called him ‘the Liszt of the harp’. He toured Europe from 1831 to 1836 and the near East from 1838 to 1841. His compositions include many of the national melodies of the countries he visited. He is reputed to have had a formidable technique (it is said that he played at sight, on the harp, the Chopin piano sonatas and the Beethoven and Hummel concertos) and many of his pieces must be among the most demanding in the harp’s literature. He was appointed chamber harpist to the Emperor of Austria in 1847 but died in Vienna only two years later of consumption.
The Belgian harpist-composer Félix Godefroid (born Namur, 1818; died Villers-sur-Mer, 1897) was a pupil of François Nadermann, the first professor of harp at the Paris Conservatoire from 1825 to 1835. He travelled extensively throughout Europe on concert tours. His opera The Golden Harp was performed in Paris in 1858 but it is for his concert pieces and studies for solo harp that he will be mainly remembered.
The Russian Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857) is perhaps much more familiar to us than some of his companions on this record. Generally described as ‘the father of Russian music’ he was of course the composer of much else besides harp music. These variations on a theme adapted from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (‘Là ci darem la mano’) are an early example of his work and were later transcribed by the composer for the piano.
John Thomas was born in Bridgend, South Wales, in 1826. At the age of eleven he won a harp at a National Eisteddfod and three years later, in 1840, Lord Byron’s daughter Ada, the Countess of Lovelace, sent him to the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied the instrument with J B Chatterton. In 1851 he played in the orchestra of the Opera and made the first of the many tours of Europe, continued over the next fifty years. In addition to many appearances throughout Britain and the continent he also adjudicated regularly at his native Welsh Eisteddfodau. On 4 July 1862 he gave a concert of Welsh music at St James’s Hall, London, with a chorus of four hundred accompanied by twenty harps!
Among his numerous compositions for harp, both solo and concerted, John Thomas published a collection of Welsh melodies and arrangments of Schubert songs and Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Both Bugeilio’r gwenith gwyn and Merch Megan, recorded here, are in the form of variations on traditional Welsh airs, whereas Echoes of a Waterfall is an original piece. Although he played the pedal harp rather than the triple-strung Welsh harp, Thomas was given the bardic name of ‘Pencerdd Gwalia’—‘Chief Musician of Wales’—in 1861. In 1872 he became harpist to Queen Victoria. He died in London in 1913.
The celebrated violinist Louis Spohr (1784–1859) had studied the harp as a boy in his native Brunswick. In 1806 he married the harpist Dorette Scheidler and began writing for the instrument to great effect. The harp of Spohr’s day was a smaller instrument than is used now, and to allow for greater resonance, and lessen the possibility of breaking strings, he tuned Dorette’s harp a semitone lower than the normal pitch. He would then write the harp part in a flat key, and a violin part for himself in a sharp key a semitone lower. That is to say, the harp in E flat would be in perfect accord with the violin in D. The set of variations recorded here, on an air by the Paris opera composer Étienne Nicholas Méhul (1763–1817) was composed in 1807 and makes great technical demands on the performer.
Susan Drake © 1981
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