Music Study – The Harp

Formerly very numerous, the family of instruments of plucked strings is to-day reduced exclusively to one individual, the HARP, which was formerly, even during the best period and even while it was still very imperfect, its most beautiful representative. It shares with the organ and piano the faculty of being sufficient in itself and requiring no accompaniment ; it is an autonomous instrument, that is to say, it furnishes both the melody and harmony. As a singing instrument, however, it is certain that it leaves much to be desired, for it is incapable of sustaining a tone, but it atones for this defect, inherent to its nature, by the beauty and richness of its timbre, by the distinction of its sonority and its capacity for producing certain passages that are peculiar to it ; moreover, it combines admirably with nearly every instrument, which makes it as valuable in the theatre and concert as in church, and multiplies its uses.

The age that seems the most suitable for beginning the study of the HARP is somewhere about eight years; a little sooner offers no great objections from the physiological point of view, if these three conditions exist :

1.-That the child be rather tall for his age and well constituted.

2.-That the study be directed by some one who is very competent and experienced.

3.-That a harp for study can be found that is small and light enough to be handled without muscular fatigue.

On the contrary, to begin too late, that is to say when the joints are no longer sufficiently supple, would prevent the pupil from ever attaining a com plete mechanical development. However, an adult of twenty or twenty-five years, who has the musical temperament, particularly if he has already studied some other instrument, can still become a good harpist.

No special condition of conformation is particularly demanded for the study of the harp, unless it is a very delicate ear ; the harpist must be constantly tuning and retuning his harp ; this is a necessity ; nevertheless, rather long arms and tips of fingers that should be fleshy rather than lean and bony, are certainly desirable. The second phalanx of the thumb should also be examined ; if it is too supple and curves backwards, it may cause some embarrass-ment. On the other hand, it is certain that any deformity whatsoever would be an absolute defect, first because of the inconvenience, and then because the harp, on account of its elegant form and the essentially graceful pose of the player, attracts and holds the eyes of the hearer more than any other instrument. We can see this at a concert as well as at the theatre ; from the moment the harp is heard, every eye turns to it irresistibly. A painful or ridiculous impression would therefore result from any deformity in the player.

The normal time to devote every day to this study is several separate quarters of an hour at first ; then, two hours, four hours, and, in exceptional cases, six; more would be excessive.

” All the exercises should be practised very slowly ; the pupil must watch particularly the articulation of the phalanx ; he must exact great suppleness, and immediately stop the study when the muscles of the hand suffer from the slightest stiffness or -numbness.”

No matter what the intelligence of the pupil may be, it would be an illusion to believe that he can dis-pense with a teacher, at least during the first months, and as long as the position of the body as well as the hands is not perfectly assured. He would inevitably fall into bad habits that would be particularly harmful to the beauty of his tone as well as to the development of his agility. Later on, if in addition to this study, he is already a good musician, he can try to do without a master and prosecute his studies alone, but only upon the condition, however, that he does not aim at acquiring transcendent virtuosity and limits his ambition to a mediocre talent.

Otherwise, direction is indispensable. And, in this case, it may be remarked that the frequency of the lessons, lessons at short intervals, are of more importance for the harp than for the majority of instruments, which is explained by these two facts, that one contracts defective habits in a few days and that the study of the harp, considered as a whole, is relatively brief,—only a few years.

The harp is one of the most inconvenient instruments for reading at sight; first, on account of its form, which does not allow the executant to get as near the desk as his eyesight demands and place him-self in the most favourable position ; and finally, and more especially, because upon this instrument, and upon it alone, the accidentals, fiat, natural, or sharp, are obtained by moving the pedals, which are seven in number, and these have to be moved before the string is attacked. The harpist, therefore, more than any one else, is obliged to attach the greatest importance to this study, and also, more than any one else, never to undertake playing any piece without first having read it over from beginning to end, so that he may anticipate the modulations as well as the accidentals of a chromatic nature, and avoid as far as possible any surprise.

From this reason also arises the necessity of knowing how to read in advance, as well as of possessing that special memory of the eyes (see page 99), which might be called instantaneous memory, and which permits us to embrace several bars with a single glance without thereby losing the precise memory of what we are playing.

For this reason, also, a knowledge of the laws of harmony, which often permits a reader to divine what he has no time to. read, should be considered a valuable equipment.

By its very nature, by its facility in executing arpeggios, which owe their name to it, as well as by the short duration of its vibrations, which are much shorter than those of the piano, the harp is essentially an instrument for accompaniments ; and for a long time it was exclusively employed as such, and correctly enough; for it is truly in this rôle that it is in its best place. Nevertheless, aided by the progress of virtuosity and the manufacturer, one can, by means of art and address, succeed in producing a certain illusion of song, particularly in the soli and in the absence of every instrument that really has a singing quality, in comparison with which it would suffer. The middle strings are the ones that lend themselves best to this effect, which demands a well trained touch, at once powerful and supple.

Before the invasion of the piano, and again under the First Empire, the harp, although infinitely less perfected than it is today, was the favourite instrument of the female sex, who, after having abandoned it for a long time, have seemed for several years past to be returning to it. It is a fact that of all instruments, the harp is certainly the one that allows of the most graceful attitude and the most charming movements of the body and arms, the one that most harmoniously combines the pleasure of the ear with that of the eyes.