'Highly successful throughout are the playing and recording: both immaculate' (Gramophone)
This record presents a programme of romantic music—much of it virtually unknown except to its performers—for the most romantic of all instruments, the harp. The ancestors of the harp 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 2000 bc, and there are references to it in the Bible (‘Praise the Lord with harp’, Psalm 33: 2a). The simplicity of those early harps, though, has long since been left behind and their modern descendant 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 sound. 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 thereby play and modulate in a variety of keys previously inaccessible. 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.
Gabriel Pierné was one of the many French composers who flourished in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth but his name today appears rarely in concert programmes outside his native country, despite the attractiveness of much of his music. A pupil of Franck and Massenet, he was something of a child prodigy. He wrote a few operas and ballets of some distinction, as well as an appreciable amount of orchestral and chamber music. Whilst not specifically a ‘harp’ composer, he wrote two orchestral pieces for it—a Concertstück and a Fantaisie basque—and included the instrument in several chamber works. The solo Impromptu-Caprice, an early piece, was also published for piano.
Alphonse Hasselmans was born in Liège, Belgium, in 1845 and studied in Strasbourg with Gottlieb Krüger 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 being Fauré’s Impromptu, Op 86, which appears on this disc. Hasselmans himself did not attach much importance to his own compositions but his charming salon pieces added greatly to the harp’s repertoire, not least in their technical value.
Whilst Pierné is perhaps not today to be counted among the very greatest of French composers, Gabriel Fauré certainly is. He was born in 1845 and lived to the age of seventy-nine, dying in 1924. Probably the most unostentatious, unflamboyant composer of his age, he cared nothing for the excitements of large orchestral or virtuoso pieces and wrote no symphonies, concertos or other similarly colourful music, preferring instead to write for the piano and small chamber groups, as well as for the voice; he wrote many songs of outstanding beauty. Fauré left only two works for harp, both of which are included on this CD—the Nocturne of 1904, dedicated to Hasselmans, and, from 1918, Une châtelaine en sa tour … The latter’s title, ‘The lady of the castle in her tower …’, is a line taken from a poem by Verlaine set many years earlier by Fauré in his song cycle La bonne chanson.
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 of consumption in Vienna only two years later. One of over eighty pieces which he wrote for solo harp, the Grande fantaisie consists of an introduction (the ‘fantaisie’, Maestoso) followed by a theme (Moderato con espressione) and three variations (Allegro moderato, Brillante and Lento). These are followed by a cadenza and finale (Allegro grazioso), concluding the piece in a blaze of virtuosity.
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 made the first of many tours of Europe which were to continue 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 voices plus twenty harps. Among his numerous compositions for harp, both solo and concerted, he published a collection of Welsh melodies, and arrangements of Schubert songs and Mendelssohn’s ‘Songs without words’. Although he played the pedal harp rather than the triple-strung Welsh harp, he 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 harp Étude on this record is preceded by his arrangement of one of Wales’s most beautiful and well known folk songs, Dafydd y garreg wen—David of the White Rock, or ‘The dying bard to his harp’.
Albert Zabel was born in Berlin in 1834. Through a scholarship obtained for him by Meyerbeer he studied at the Berlin Institut für Kirchenmusik where his harp teacher was Louis Grimm. From the age of eleven he toured for three years with Gungl’s band, travelling to Russia, England and the USA. At fourteen he was appointed solo harpist to the Berlin Opera and in 1855 he moved to St Petersburg to become solo harpist with the Imperial Ballet, remaining there for the rest of his life. In 1862 Anton Rubinstein founded the St Petersburg Conservatory and appointed Zabel as teacher of the harp. He became professor in 1879 and, subsequently, honorary distinguished professor in 1904. He died in 1910 in St Petersburg. The Valse caprice, one of his very last pieces, published in the year of his death, was dedicated to his wife, Eugénie.
The Russian Mikhail Glinka 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, notably his two most well known operas Russlan and Ludmilla and A Life for the Tsar. The Nocturne was written for piano or harp in 1828 though not published until fifty years later in 1878, over twenty years after the composer’s death.
Perhaps looking slightly out of place among these prominent harp musicians of the nineteenth century is Claude Debussy, since he is acknowledged to be among the most original and influential composers of the twentieth. He was, however, born long before the new century, in 1862, and wrote much music before 1900. The Suite bergamasque, a four-mouvement work for the piano, was written in 1890 and it contains one of the composer’s most celebrated pieces, Clair de lune (‘Moonlight’). Like many pieces for the piano it translates well to the harp without any alteration whatsoever to the notes. Perhaps one can excuse its inclusion in a programme of nineteenth-century harp music on the grounds that without the championship of the harp by the other composers on the record, and their influence on harp construction and playing technique, it could not be heard in this very attractive form.
Susan Drake © 1989
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