A Questions to Harpists from a Composer

Posted In: Performing

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    manskou on #195150

    I’m writing a piece for harp and I want to ask you guys a question regarding the tuning of the harp. The piece I’m writing belongs to contemporary music thus there are numerous tuning changes during the piece.
    My problem is, do the notes I have to write have to match the name of the sting they are played spelling-wise? In example: If I want write Eb but tuned in the string of D (because a 1/16 later the player has to play E natural), should I write it as an Eb or a D#?

    Just to note, the spelling of the passage requires Eb.
    Thank in advance!

    Tacye on #195166

    The modern usual standard is for the score to reflect what the harpist will need to do, enharmonics are written as played.
    This was treated differently in some schools of harp writing – Marcel Tournier for instance wrote the theory spelling.



    carl-swanson on #195167

    I don’t understand your question. Are you talking about actually retuning the D string so that in flat position it produces an E flat?  If you want an E flat to be played on the D string, then write it as D sharp. The E natural 1/16 later could be played E natural or F flat. If you’re talking about literally retuning the D string in the middle of the piece, it will never be in tune. Retuning any harp string to a different pitch will take 2 or 3 days to settle onto that pitch.  Really, I can’t understand why you composers can’t simply write for what the instrument can do. There are literally thousands of pieces, mostly concertos, written in the last 40 or 50 years for the harp, all of which “stretch” what the instrument can do, and not ONE of them has gotten more than 2 or 3 perfomances at most.  Write within the scope of what the instrument can do and make it interesting to listen to, and that way it will get more performances.

    Gretchen Cover on #195168

    Well said, Carl.  It would also be helpful to work with a harpist on your composition, if that is possible.  I appreciate that you reached out to HC to ask your questions and please feel free to continue to seek advice or guidance. There is a website you should check out: http://www.composingforharp.com.

    Elettaria on #195180

    Yes, a D# would be preferable. Are you giving the harpist enough time to change the D lever or pedal? Is it for lever or pedal harp?

    carl-swanson on #195227

    Dear Manskou- I just reread your post. I think I understand what you are getting at.  Let’s say your piece is in E flat major, and you have chromaticism in one measure that is E flat, E natural, F natural, and G flat, and the measure is quite fast. The theoretical way of spelling these notes “properly” is the way I stated them. But what the harpist wants to see is how the note is actually played. So to get those notes the first note will be spelled D sharp, because that is what the harpist is going to have to play: the D string in sharp position.

    In printed harp music, there are spellings that would drive anyone else nuts. Things like B sharp, F flat, E sharp, etc.  But those spellings are in harp music because that’s the only way to be able to play the note.  I just finished transcribing Gollywogg’s Cakewalk from Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite, and the work that I had to go through to get the middle section playable was unbelievable. But I got it to work.  My next publication from Carl Fischer Music is going to be the entire Children’s Corner Suite for solo harp, and I really wanted to publish the entire suite, not just excerpts, if it was possible. Well, it is!     But in the middle section of Gollywogg’s Cakewalk, there are places where, in very quick succession, you have things like D natural, D sharp, E natural, F natural, and G flat, and so the actual notes you have to play are not spelled like that.

    There are two trains of thought on printed harp music. There is a very small minority of (very good) harpists who want to see the harmony of the piece, no matter what. So if the piece, or measure, is in E flat major, they don’t want to see D sharp, even though that is what they are going to have to play.  My preference, as is with the majority of harpists, is to see what string you put your finger on. So for us, if you put your finger on E sharp to play the note, then we want to see E sharp printed, regardless of how off-the-wall it looks to non-harpists on paper.  I just finished a new edition of the Danses of Debussy(which should be released any day now from Carl Fischer Music), and in preparing the new edition, I was comparing the Renie transcription to the original manuscript.  Renie used a lot of these non-standard spellings to make some of the thornier passages playable, but often wrote the note with standard spelling, putting it in parenthesis.  I decided to spell all of the notes exactly as they are played, so as to unclutter the music. This way, the notes to be played are spelled exactly the way you play them.

    My advice to you is to have several harpists look at what you’ve written and let them tell you how the notes should be written. Only a harpist can figure this kind of thing out.


    Elettaria on #195234

    Bernard Andres writes harp music in ways that would be frowned upon for other instruments, such as a key signature of two sharps and two flats together.  He’s a highly acclaimed composer for harp.  It makes it clear for the harpist and I’m all in favour of it.  Anyone bothered by a B# should try playing the sort of piano music that runs to double flats and double sharps!  I’ve studied music at school and university and if I want to see the harmony of the piece, a more harp-appropriate spelling isn’t going to deter me, any more than someone who’s studied English literature is going to get thrown by novels from two hundred years ago using “chuse” for “choose” and “shewn” for “shown”.  (I was originally going to suggest Shakespearean English, but it’s not that great a change.)

    carl-swanson on #195247

    Elletaria- I think I would have a difficult time remembering what notes are sharp or flat with a key signature like that, and no accidental in front of the note.  I’m guessing that harpists playing his pieces with non-traditional key signatures like that end up writing some of the accidentals again in front of the notes just as a reminder.

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