I have a friend working on a paper about unplayable parts, harp and other instruments.
Katie- Your list is a good explanation of the major problems that harpists face with many harp parts. But I don’t think referring to that list is going to get composers to write better for the harp. I think that the common denominator to many badly or ineffective harp parts is that the composer was composing at the piano and heard harp sounds in his head but in fact was writing for the piano. There’s an issue of awkwardness that occurs when someone writes for an instrument that he doesn’t play. I think that this is less of an issue with instruments that play only one note at a time(trumpet, violin, etc.) but becomes a major problem with piano, organ, harp, etc.
There are two major things that can go wrong when a composer writes for the harp. One, that the notes that he writes are, for any of the reasons you mentioned above, simply unplayable. Two, that the composer wrote something in a range of the instrument that can’t be done. Composers simply can’t grasp the fact that each octave of the harp has its own characteristics. Things it can, and can’t do. You can’t play staccato in the 6th and 7th octaves. You can’t play leggato in the first octave or really in the second for that matter. Since we don’t have a sustain/damper pedal, you can’t write constantly repeated notes. In addition to all of that, you can’t have the harp playing when the whole orchestra is playing and expect it to be heard. The best thing a composer can do is consult with a harpist during the composing process so that he ends up writing a part that does what he intended it to do, and which is playable.
I would add a point which doesn’t directly concern unplayability, but which makes a work for harp sound great or disasterous…. I’m referring to the overtones… One of the main reasons I dislike playing Classical works… especially the type of continous patterned base accompaniament (not necessarily Alberti base) but with no place to damp anystrings, and the melody flowing above… by the end of a phrase you get all Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant and Supermediant, just to give a clean example sounding in each other…which makes it sound quite ugly in my mind as colourwise.
Unrealistic dynamics; especially, but not confined to harmonics.
Awkward internal spacing to chords.
Hands too widely spaced.
It would be interesting to also address the problem of music which is theoretically playable, but the random scattering of notes without regard for finger patterns combined with a harpist’s need to place ahead increases the difficulty dramatically.
A subject very close to my heart! Here is an extract from some workshop notes I have put together for composers:It is a
common misconception that the harp is similar to the piano. However the
two instruments are almost entirely different, with fundamentally different movements required to play them. The
piano has the mechanical advantage of keys which in turn move hammers, and the
harp is a plucked instrument. The basic movement required of the finger on the
harp is a pulling motion ��� unlike on a keyboard instrument, where it is a
pushing motion. With every ���pull,��� the finger must travel a greater
distance to complete the movement than is needed on a keyboard; it is more a
complex movement than a push, and can not be repeated as quickly.
Remember there is no mechanical advantage between the finger and the string.Harpists use only 4 fingers of each
hand ��� this can be thought of as 20% less dexterity available to a harpist than
to a pianist.
Harpists��� arms are constantly in
varying degrees of extremity, higher and more forward than almost any other
instrument, and working always against gravity, which places a lot of loading
on back, shoulders, and arms. For this reason, and very importantly, rests or breaks are needed
for both arms in long passages ��� particularly where the arms are
extended either very low or very high in the harp.Carolyn Mills
Actually, Salzedo totally takes into account the overtones in his compositions, and composers who emulated him have also done so. It may be more common in American music. You might enjoy Panufnik’s music for harp in that regard. This is a very valuable and significant thread.
Another issue is chord spacing. Part of teaching a composer is giving him a list of chord spacings that are playable and those that aren’t. This thread makes me think of that old Magic Fire Music. It’s Salzedo’s solo version that is barely playable, more than the original with its multiple parts. Funny that they use it for Metropolitan Opera auditions when they have the harps to play the original. I nailed it at full speed when I auditioned for them, to their evident surprise, but I played a wrong note in another excerpt for misreading a chord in a badly handwritten part from Andrea Chenier, so I got booted over that tiny gaffe. Jerks.
Parts of Nutcracker are impossible, for example, just after the opening of the second act. I do that part the same way as the cadenza, one hand, then the other, double speed. I suspect that Tchaikowsky expected the two harpists to sort it out between them, but nowadays, it’s usually done by one beleagered harpist. La Forza del Destino has a figure where you need five fingers to play it, but most of us leave out a bass note so that we can use the left thumb to get the bottom note of that figure. (See Bea Rose’s book.) Respighi’s got a series of impossible harmonics passages in The Pines of Rome. The Walton Violin Concerto has another very fast harmonics passage that just barely works. Britten’s War Requiem has unplayable sections…actually, this list couold go on for pages.
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