Bach fugues for the harp?

Posted In: Repertoire

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    Anonymous on #194317

    Hello everyone, 😉

    Firstly, I’d like to point out that I’m not a harpist, I’m a pianist, an amateur pianist who’s been playing the piano for a little over 11 years now, but I also deeply love the harp, thanks partly to an old classmate in senior high school who was studying to become a professional harpist.

    I’m no longer in touch with her, but during the time our friendship lasted, she made me realize just how many pieces from the literature of other instruments (the piano included, of course) could be successfully transcribed for solo harp, and how the harp repertoire has been, and is, enormously enriched by this.

    So, my question is: would it be possible to transcribe Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” for solo harp? Mind you, I don’t exactly mean the whole thing, because I imagine some of the most complex fugues (the two five-part ones come to mind) might be next-to-impossible to transcribe for only one harp, (?) but perhaps most of the preludes, as well as some fugues.

    The question is probably stupid, but like I said, I’m not a harpist, and while I love the instrument and its repertoire, I’m afraid I don’t really know much about the way it works to really have a good idea about all its capabilities and limitations. I do know a bit about a few things, like the pedals, how they are used to give the harpist the possibility of playing chromatically, and not just diatonically, but my knowledge is, overall, very limited.

    And yet, I can’t help but thing that more than a few of the pieces in Bach’s WTC could work for solo harp, since Catrin Finch already managed to transcribe the Goldberg and the Italian Concerto! 🙂


    Tacye on #194321

    Renie transcribed ten of the Preludes and more recently Laura Sherman has published a number of them

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #194336

    Bach often does not sound good on the harp because his textures are so thick. A four or five-voice fugue is almost certain to be unplayable or unlistenable. There’s a reason there are very few fugues in the harp’s repertoire. Just Salzedo’s Fugue in his Variations took over a year for me to learn.
    While some of the preludes are playable, few, if any, of the fugues are, and even if someone could do it, it would sound awful. If the experts did not already transcribe such familiar music, there is probably a good reason they did not. I think the Goldberg Variations sound awful on the harp, even if you slow it down to half-speed, no matter who plays it and how well. It’s not harp music.
    You raise an interesting point. Harp music and piano music were at one time, basically the same thing, and Beethoven even complained that piano music wasn’t more idiomatic to the keyboard. But the harp had its own set of favorite patterns, even in the classical period.
    There are many examples of pieces written for piano that are essentially harp pieces, sometimes titled so, but published for piano out of convenience, commercial interests, or laziness.
    The harp was more popular until pianos became cheaply manufactured. The upstart piano has taken over the world, but it remains a poor substitute for a harp. It’s so much easier to play the piano, of course. At least you can put a vase of flowers on top of one, and store things underneath it. It makes good furniture.

    Anonymous on #194373

    Thanks for the links, Tacye! I didn’t know either of those publications. 🙂

    I also thank you very much for your contribution to the discussion, Saul. Indeed, I already imagined that some of the most complex fugues of Johann Sebastian might be simply unplayable on the harp, at least if we’re talking of just one harpist playing them, but I thought that two-part fugues (sadly far from numerous in Bach’s repertoire, I know) and maybe even three-part fuguettas might be translatable.

    From what you wrote, it seems that’s true to a certain extent, but they just can’t sound well enough on the harp. I agree on that point; the harp lacking some mechanism (other than the harpist’s hands, to the best of my knowledge) to mute the strings, a more or less complex fugue might already sound pretty muddy. Just like playing a fugue on the piano while keeping the sustaining pedal pressed down all the time, or even just using it, in my opinion, (yes, I’m really a guy after András Schiff’s heart, when it comes to that) is bound to make for a very messy rendering.

    I’d be very grateful if you could point out a couple of examples of those pieces that were written originally for the harp, but actually published for the piano. That reminded me a little of some of Scarlatti’s (Domenico) sonatas for the keyboard that you could almost swear they were really meant for strings, like a quartet or maybe a chamber orchestra.

    It’s true that the piano’s first appearance in the musical world wasn’t exactly greeted with universal acclaim; far from it, I believe there were very few people who were really happy with early pianos, and from what I know, Johann Sebastian himself wasn’t among those. And yet, some people still think that the old fortepianos’ timbre had more clarity to it, than the somewhat muddier one of the modern piano.
    Still, it can’t be denied that the latter has its own set of advantages over its predecessor (or predecessors, rather).

    Now, as for your opinion about the piano, while I respect it, and know you’re entitled to it just as much as anyone else, I must say I don’t share it. And not because of some pianist bias, but simply because I believe that an objective appreciation of the instrument can easily show that, while not a “perfect” instrument, whatever that might be, it’s much more than just “good furniture”, a mere decorative object.

    The piano is indeed easier to play than the harp in some aspects, but I don’t think that the difficulty degree of an instrument, when it comes to playing it, necessarily makes it a “better” or a “worse” instrument. And the fact is, it doesn’t exactly take a week to really learn to play the piano well; to do that, it definitely won’t do to sit at one and just mash the keys about idiotically.
    And while the harp is clearly superior to the piano in certain things, like its production of glissandi and arpeggios, there are some things it can’t do and that are possible at the piano, and vice versa, of course.

    But quite honestly, I don’t think it has to come to a sort of battle royal between instruments, trying to determine which one is the best. Each instrument has its own capabilities and limitations, just like each one has its own particular timbre, range, etc, etc. And I believe it’s far more satisfying to enjoy each one of them, or just to stick to the one that suits you better, and leave the others alone, than to try to figure out which one is superior, while scorning the others for not being as “good”.

    And I can assure you I’ve never been a fan of placing anything on top of my piano (or that of anyone else, for that matter), least of all, perhaps, a vase of flowers. Just imagine if someone knocks it over!
    I actually hate it when people do that sort of stuff, be it placing anything on them, (unless it’s perhaps a cover to protect them, of course) or storing anything underneath them, or just doing anything that will reduce the instrument more or less to what you said: “good furniture”.
    I know some pianists will occasionally place things like little Beethoven busts, and while that’s certainly much better than a vase of flowers or a cardboard box, I still don’t exactly love that kind of thing.

    But back to the harp one more time: I do think it’s a shame that the harp is not more popular nowadays. At times, it would seem like many people don’t even care for it, or merely consider it an instrument to be listened to only when you want to relax or fall asleep, and that’s it!
    It is an instrument of breathtaking beauty, and I genuinely believe that it deserves far more attention than the one it currently gets. I also believe it’s a shame that, at least where I live, most of the time one gets a chance to listen to it, it’s in the context of an orchestral piece, for example, where its voice is more often than not almost totally drowned by the other instruments of the orchestra.

    Like I said, I’m afraid I’m not terribly knowledgeable about solo harp repertoire, so maybe what I’m going to say is wrong, and if so, I’d of course appreciate it if you could enlighten me a little more; but I get the impression that it’s an instrument for which so much could be written (or could have been written already), and yet there appears to be only a handful of solo works for it.
    Well, maybe not a mere “handful”, but its repertoire still seems to me to be much less extensive than it should be.

    Best regards,

    balfour-knight on #194379

    Hello, Adolfo,

    Well, I feel I can add my two cents worth to this thread. I have enjoyed reading it, and bravo for what you just said about the piano! I am a concert performer on the piano, harp (both lever and pedal) and organ, with a Master of Music degree. I also did extensive work on harpsichord, after designing and building my own, many years ago.

    Speaking of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, THE instrument they were intended for was the Harpsichord! The performer can add the 4′ octave set of strings to the basic 8′ and have a very bright timbre which delineates the fugal voices like nothing else can. A good well-chiffed tracker pipe organ can come very close, of course. (Yes, I built my own 9-rank organ.)

    The pedal harp has a very Romantic sound about it which does not lend itself to very much clarity in busy contrapuntal Baroque Period music. Such music sounds better on a bright timbred Celtic lever harp, such as the Dusty Strings FH 36S. The problem then becomes the chromatic nature of Bach’s music, which requires too many levers to be flipped to make the playing practical. Rhett Barnwell has really delved into this sort of thing, and you can feel free to check out his Bach for Lever Harp selections on his website, seraphim music in Atlanta, GA.

    Since I have the ability to play the keyboard instruments in addition to the harp, I generally play Bach’s music on harpsichord or organ. I do the same for Jazz piano, only playing a small amount of it on pedal harp. My lessons with Park Stickney taught me great techniques for adapting jazz to the pedal harp, which I do and enjoy, but why hassle over “Take Five” with all the pedal changes when I can just go over to my wonderful grand piano and play it much better on that?

    Well, I look forward to more replies to this great thread!

    Best to all of you,

    Tacye on #194380

    I think the thread needs this, which featured live at the Edinburgh Festival recently.

    balfour-knight on #194381

    Absolutely incredible, Tacye! Thanks for sharing this. Does she also play the Fugue? This Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue was one of the staples on my harpsichord concerts back in the 1980’s, and it is difficult enough on keyboard, I cannot imagine doing it on lever harp from memory!

    Best regards,

    Tacye on #194383

    Your mention of too many lever changes to be practical made that irresistable – sometimes impracticality is fun.

    I don’t know if she plays the fugue, I can only say she didn’t in the concert last week.

    balfour-knight on #194386

    That was great, Tacye–impracticality can be fun, and all of us need a challenge from time to time. I would LOVE to hear and see her play that Fugue!

    Anonymous on #194398

    Hello, Balfour,

    Thank you for your kind words, and also for your two cents! Both of them coming from someone of such stature as yours, I couldn’t be gladder that you decided to join us in this discussion.

    I find it wonderful that you play so many instruments. You know, I also adore the organ and the harpsichord; I even have some of the repertoire of both instruments, partly out of a collector’s spirit, partly to follow the scores while listening to my favorite recordings, and partly because I enjoy trying them out on the piano (only when actually possible, of course). 😉

    And I find it perhaps even more wonderful that you have even designed and built your own organ and your own harpsichord! I’ve never been much of a craftsman myself, I’m afraid, but if I were I’m pretty sure a harpsichord would be one of the instruments I would love to build the most. I always admire that in any musician, and I remember being pleasantly surprised when reading, a few years ago, in the booklet that came with an “Art of the Fugue” recording by Gustav Leonhardt, that Leonhardt himself “in the tradition of the old musician-artisans (…) is also an expert on the construction and design of the harpsichord and Baroque organ.

    Indeed, Bach’s WTC was originally meant for the harpsichord, or at least the sources I’ve read so far seem to confirm that. I might also add that that’s the instrument I love to hear them played on the most! Like you very well pointed out, the harpsichord’s registers give it a range of timbre possibilities which are not available to the piano. As Ralph Kirkpatrick states it in my edition of ‘The Goldberg Variations’:

    The variety of registers makes possible the use of different tone colors for various sections, and the adding or subtracting of registers produces various degrees of volume. Also the two keyboards enable the player to employ two different qualities of tone at the same time. A kind of richness of which the piano is incapable is the full octave doubling produced throughout by the use of the four- and sixteen-foot stops. When these are used in conjunction with eight-foot tone, we have for every note struck the normal tone, the octave above, and the octave below sounding simultaneously.

    I recently had the pleasure of coming across these recordings on You Tube, and I must say I deeply loved this harpsichord’s timbre!

    That being said, and considering how well a lot of Bach’s music lends itself to be played on different instruments and instrument combinations, I still thought it would be a good idea to find out once and for all (and with what better help than that from harpists?) if it was possible to play Bach on the harp, and especially his fugues. And I have to say your reply helped me enormously in better understanding why it’s not such a good idea to play Johann Sebastian on the harp.

    I haven’t had the pleasure of listening to Celtic harps as much as I would like to, but after what you said, I’ll make sure to listen more to it. And I also remember seeing some photos of a type of chromatic harp that, if my visual memory serves well, had two rows of strings, instead of one. Right now, however, I cannot for the life of me remember if it had levers or not; would such a harp even need them, in the first place?

    I’ll definitely have a look at Rhett’s website, thank you so much for telling about him!

    I’m so envious that you get to play Bach on actual harpsichords; the closest I’ve come is playing him on a particular Roland digital piano model that has got the most beautiful harpsichord (and harp, too!) tone I’ve ever heard. It’s still of course a very poor substitute for the real thing, but getting my hands on a real harpsichord is next to impossible where I live.

    Oh and, Tacye, just like Balfour, I’d also like to thank you for sharing that video, it really is quite a find! I’m constantly on the hunt for videos of solo harp transcriptions, and yours made my day. Impracticality can indeed be fun from time to time, to be sure; and I should know, having played Paganini, Ysaÿe, Piatti and Ernst on the piano! Not always so practical, perhaps, but it can be so awesome. 😉

    Ah, if only the C-sharp major fugue from the first book of WTC could be played on the harp!

    Best regards to everyone,

    balfour-knight on #194402

    Hello, Adolfo,

    Thanks so much for what you said in your last post. I do enjoy playing some Bach pieces on the harps, both lever and pedal. I used to consider myself to be rather a purist about playing music on the instrument it was written for, but one can have so much fun trying out music on a different instrument!

    With the harp, which has a rather limited actual repertoire of music actually written for it, I like to experiment with all different kinds of things to see what works. I recently had a gig where I was asked to play music from World War II. Standards which I play frequently on piano, like “Mona Lisa”, worked very well on my Dusty Strings FH 36 S lever harp. I actually had never even tried many of them on harp until I needed them for that gig.

    I am going to try that C# Fugue to see what I can do with it on the harp. I will let you know how it turns out. That C# Prelude works very well and sounds nice on the pedal harp, by the way.

    Best thoughts,

    Biagio on #194403

    This is a very interesting thread and I have enjoyed reading it – thank you all for contributing and Adolfo for originating it. I just can’t resist meandering off topic in response to a couple of items, so excuse me please:-)

    Multiple string rows: Adolfo this may have been a double strung (two parallel rows tuned diatonically) with sharping levers on each string. Or it might have been a cross-strung – naturals one side and chromatics t’other, crossing in the middle. Laurie Riley is the “Queen of the Double”, Harper Tasche “King of the Cross.”

    Popularity: well what can I say? A good pedal harp costs a great deal (and weighs a great deal) so it may not be as popular as the piano! On the other hand there has been a huge explosion of interest in the smaller harps over the last 3 decades and a great deal of music for them. And you are right, quite a bit has been transcribed from piano – and also cello, violin and guitar. Or the other way around: ancient Celtic music transcribed for piano, Spanish guitar for the Latin American harp.

    Maybe we will “see” you buying a harp someday!

    Best to all,

    Tacye on #194404

    The harp repertoire is far less limited than it sometimes seems. I think that because the harp is seen as being unusual and variety by itself people tend to reach for the same old pieces, because they tend not to have been done to death by other people as much as the most popular piano pieces. And not just the harpists – concert organisers and conductors can be guilty of not feeling a need to look beyond the Mozart and Handel concerti and Ravel and Debussy for chamber music.

    Saul mentioned harp pieces that were published as harp or piano for commercial reasons. The classic example for me is the Prokofiev Prelude in C (the dedicatee is a harpist) but also no 7 in his Mimoletnost/Fugitive Visions which has been so pinched by the pianists that many harpists don’t know we can claim it The Haydn D major keyboard concerto was published in his lifetime for harp (in C, only the first violin part survives) and there has been speculation about five of his keyboard sonatas.

    Gretchen Cover on #194405

    The “Little” Fugue in G Minor BWV 578 was transcribed by Dr. Erin Freund and is available on She also has a sound clip on the website.

    Tacye, thank you for the link above.

    carl-swanson on #194406

    Adolfo- The Prokofiev Prelude in C is one piece that comes to mind as one written for harp which is also played on Piano. But in looking at the larger picture, ours is really the first age where we tend to be very rigid about what instrument plays what music. Generally we tend to look down our noses at transcriptions as well. That was not true at all in earlier ages. I just finished work on a new edition of the Debussy Danses for Carl Fischer Music (which will be released sometime in May) and in my research I discovered that Debussy himself made an arrangement of the Danses for two pianos. In addition, he was not the least bit bothered by the piece being performed with piano and orchestra.

    I think a good deal of the looseness in people’s thinking in earlier ages comes from the fact that there was no radio, no television, no recording. So if you wanted to hear for example a Beethoven symphony in the 19th century, you were most likely to hear it in a version for piano/4 hands. Again, Debussy and his friends(Vincent D’Indy, Ernest Chausson, etc.) spent many evenings playing through Russian symphonies, Wagner Operas, etc. in 4 hand piano arrangements.

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