Flat Chords: Yes or No?

Posted In: Teaching the Harp

  • Participant
    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #88136

    I hear quite a few harpists playing chords flat (unbroken). To my ear, it produces a clunky line without elegance, because you have these sudden peaks of sound that fade off, rather than curving line. Even though Salzedo and Lawrence were such modernists, for the most part, they broke chords at least slightly (cracked) and very rhythmically. It was harp tradition since before Bochsa, but not for stylistic reasons, Lawrence held, but for acoustic reasons. On the harp you can hear a chord better when it is broken because it is clearer what the notes in it are, and I add, it gives you a smoother line. Sometimes I want a flat chord for effect, but then it is a real challenge to bring out the inner notes clearly. I don’t mark all the chords in my compositions, but definitely mark if they should be played flat. I feel as though playing flat chords is imitating pianists who, I might say, lack the good taste to break their chords. I am curious, those among you who have listened to many recordings from before 1920, how much more often you heard the piano chords broken. I think it was done much more, though unmarked, because I have sometimes heard it, but also because of the tradition of chords marked harpege in the baroque period. I never read of a proclamation being issued to ban the breaking of chords, so I suspect it never completely stopped until the 1920s or so. What do you think?

    unknown-user on #88137

    I’m not so sure what

    Han Hsieh on #88138

    My opinion is the same as #2, playing with what the music score says; unless the piece is open for adding ornaments.

    Esmeralda has a nice statement from other thread that can also be used on this one…….

    in general music… we seem to focus too much on presenting our personal interpretation of the work, rather than producing it the way the composer heard it in his mind and bringing out his personal individuality rather than ours.

    A harpist over doing broken cords is like a singer over rolling his/her tongue on every “R” sound when singing Italian songs. There are great musicians who refrain from injecting their personal essence into their performance, and rather remained true to the composer’s original expression.. Arghur Rubinstein’s Chopin collection is one of the best example.

    Finally, I do heard some harpists play flat cords clunky. Could it be

    kreig-kitts on #88139

    This reminds me of an article I read some time ago (which I managed to find) about the effect of classical music recordings on performance styles.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #88140

    I was kind of making the point that breaking chords isn’t a personal style. I’ve never heard it over done, but flat chords, yes. We can’t just go by composers’s markings unless it is clearly specified, or it is clear by their writing that they know the harp well enough to communicate how it will sound. That is not often the case, and we have to help realize their intentions. Perhaps that is where this is arising from. I don’t think that is interfering by the harpist, or arrogant or anything like that. Their training in writing for harp is minimal at best. Have you ever read the harp sections in orchestration books? That is about all they have to go by, I suspect. I have found and observed that when the composer works with a good harpist who helps them find the best expression in idiomatic language the best results are obtained. This being said, when a harpist starts telling me, a harpist, how I might better rewrite something, I am a bit insulted. But that only happened once. The composer does have to want input. Some don’t. And so we have odd parts by Stravinsky, for one example.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #88141

    Thank you, Krieg, for that link. I may have read that a while ago. It confirms my suspicion about pianist’s chords. A shame more don’t hear the early recordings, to know the real style left behind. I heard them on the Ysaye recording of Faure’s Berceuse. After all, it was Beethoven who said that the piano must develop its own voice, one apart from the harp; implying that they were one and the same until his midlife. While interpretive gestures may have seemed distasteful for a century or so, I hear music that is just wrong without a real shmear in the violin. The fanaticism for cleanliness and cold perfection is deadly, dulling, and personality killing. I just wish I had full-time access to recording like Gould did.

    catherine-rogers on #88142

    I was taught to slightly crack most chords (on harp) unless the notation indicated otherwise. I discovered this must be an American habit when our orchestra had a guest conductor from Europe several years ago who asked me to stop arpeggiating the chords. I didn’t know what he meant until I realized he didn’t want the chords cracked or rolled at all, just played flat. I don’t remember what the music was. I did what he wanted, but I didn’t like the sound of it.

    unknown-user on #88143

    I don’t think it really has anything to do with Americans or European.

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #88144

    I agree with much of what you said, only I don’t think of rolling chords as more delicate. For example, the Faure Impromptu, as you mention, with the chords all rolled can be as rich and powerful as the ocean, depending on your crescendo. I was taught to play the opening chords of the Debussy Danses with the left hand broken and the right hand unbroken. I wouldn’t do it in the Faure. Now in the Interlude from the Ceremony of Carols it is not necessarily clear what Britten wants unless you listen to Osian Ellis. It is also a question of how much liberty you want to take in a situation where you more-or-less know the intent of the composer.

    I have found that since I began working on arpeggiating all chords with a conscious rhythmic value to each note, that it has really changed the shape and flow of pieces, and brought a lot more clarity. I didn’t realize how vague I was playing even though I always finished on the beat. When you consciously choose to break some chords slower or faster than others you have so much more phrasing in your control. So, even if you always break chords, you have so much subtlety available to you. I think that it is just the voice of the harp, and the contrast is important. I think the rolled chord is more sensual, sexual and passionate because it is shaped, delayed, completed, and is more visually detailed.

    Elizabeth Volpé Bligh on #88145

    I have found that you can really alter the sound of a flat chord by playing either with curved fingers or flat fingers. It also sounds different if you close your hand or you don’t. That’s what I love about the harp. There are so many choices open to us for variations of colour and expression. And, yes, rolling the chords at different speeds, or only rolling one hand, all give us different effects. Since we don’t have the dynamic range of a piano, this is how we can make up for it.

    carl-swanson on #88146

    Elizabeth- You bring out a really good point, and that is that it is important to use the full range of nuance available to us on the harp. One of my big BIG beefs about so many harpists is that they don’t use multiple dynamic levels simultaneously.

    The opening chords of both the Danses and the Faure Impromptu require bringing out either the lowest note(in the Danses) or the highest(in the Impromptu) slightly in order to focus the listener on the melody. Without that, these passages are flat and boring. In the fiendishly difficult middle section of La Rosignole of Liszt/Renie, the right hand plays both the trill and the melody simultaneously, AND has to play them at two different dynamic levels. In the Impromptu Caprice of Pierne where the opening melody starts(after the introduction) Pierne says”Really bring out the melody”(Le chante BIEN en dehors). Almost every time I hear that piece, the player is blasting his/her way through the gorgeous melody, with both melody and accompaniment at the same(loud) level. And in the second movement of Tournier’s first Sonatine, I think most players don’t even realize that there is a melody in there.

    When I teach this technique of playing multiple dynamic levels simultaneously, I tell the student that the first step is to play the passage playing the melody as loud as possible and everything else as soft as possible. Once the student can do that, then the next step is to adjust volumes, shape the melody and the accompanying material, and make music. It is not unusual in music for the melody and the harmony to have dynamic shifts that are not the same. So each hand has to be able to play at least two dynamic levels at the same time, AND be able to shape the melody and harmony in different ways.

    unknown-user on #88147

    Carl – i fully agree with your position.

    carl-swanson on #88148

    +Personally i phrase right and left hands in seperate manners as i feel that they are actually two different bodies intercrossing each other.+

    Esmeralda- That is exactly what I am talking about when I say that both hands have to be able to play multiple dynamic levels at the same time.

    On the first page of the Danses, half way down, the right hand plays the melody and every other melody note is a chord, so that you play chord, octave, chord, octave, chord, octave, etc. To make the melody consistant and smooth, the chords have to be played so that the outer notes(octaves) match the octaves that follow, while the inner notes of the chord have to be somewhat lower dynamically. Otherwise you get this lumpy presentation of the melody. Unfortunately, most teachers don’t teach these techniques to their students I think because they can’t do it themselves, and so that is not a part of their interpretative vocabulary.

    unknown-user on #88149

    Carl – now you have really touched on an issue…. when someone calls himself a teacher, when in reality, he needs to learn himself. i believe there was another

    carl-swanson on #88150

    Unfortunately Esmeralda, that has not been my experience in the USA. If a student starts with a bad teacher and stays with him/her, then the student really has no basis for comparison and doesn’t know any better.

    If the teacher is a bad teacher, it usually means also that that teacher is not interested in hearing better harpists, or having his/her students hear better harpists. So many teachers operate in their own enclosed little world and neither they, nor their students, know what is going on in the larger harp world. At the University level it’s just as bad. I could name many teachers at that level who do nothing more than assign one piece after another to the student, and when the student has learned the notes, the piece is considered finished and the teacher moves on. Such teachers are unmusical themselves. Also, it is rare to find a teacher who can explain technical issues, and teach them to a developing student. So the landscape is pretty bleak.

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 22 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.