The Harp and Pop Music

Text by Asni the Harper, © 2003

A much abbreviated version of this text appeared as sleeve notes in the 700 Years of Pop CD booklet

Jump to section: Harping Angels? *** Troubadours and Trouvères *** Irish Bards *** Handel and Italian Music *** Harp and Popular Music in Germany *** The Harp in Spain *** One World Music

700 Years of Pop CD cover

700 Years of Pop CD cover

A harpist playing Beatles? — that might cause some raised eyebrows especially with authenticity-minded classical music audiences. But the truth is, the harp has always been much more of a "pop" instrument than it was an "art" instrument — at least in the classical European tradition.

In classical European music, the instrument is usually restricted to contributing a few specks of color and sparkle within the large late-romantic symphony orchestra. The soloistic repertoire for the modern pedal harp consists mostly of lightweight "impressionistic" pieces that keep repeating the same hackneyed topics: brooks gently murmuring, leaves rustling, dancing will-o’the wisps or will-o’the-wispy fairies… only rarely has one of the "great" European composers condescended to writing for the harp — and since they usually did not have any "hands-on" knowledge of the possibilities of the instrument, those pieces are often not exactly the most distinguished of their creations.

At closer sight however, passing by the "great men" and "sublime works of art", there is an astonishing richness and a variety of styles of music that few other instruments have to offer. After all, the harp is one of mankind’s oldest instruments. Archeological excavations in Mesopotamia have produced the traces of harps which are more than 5,000 years old. Depictions of harp players decorate not only ancient Egyptian tombs, but also Indian temples. Instruments that are subsumed under the name of "harp" can be found almost anywhere from Western Africa to Burma. Of course their forms and playing techniques can be very different, but they all share some main characteristics that make them "harps".

The Spaniards introduced the harp in Latin America in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it still plays an important part in Latin American popular music. And the Celtic tradition of the harp playing bards is surrounded by legends and stereotyped images that are inspiring many people even in our days: the many harpists that form part of the Celtic and "Medieval" folk revival are an eloquent witness to that.

Harping angels?

Anyway, stereotypes: Around the harp they seem to sprout in overwhelming numbers. Be it the sweet little angels with sweet little wings or the weatherworn bard with ruffled beard and tangled locks, be it dainty fairy beings or pale highly strung young ladies, or be it even the products of voluptuous male fantasy — there is little realism in the mental image many people have of the harp and those who play it. Even to the extend that many people seem surprised when they actually meet a harpist of flesh and blood and need to realize that they are, actually, fairly normal people!

So strong is the association of the harp with unearthly fairy beings and mythical ancient times, that one often encounters the harp in fantastic literature and fairy tales, in movies and on pictures that represent an idealized image of the Middle Ages, or some realm of fantasy. In the books by J.R.R. Tolkien for instance, the grand master of fantasy literature, the harp must easily be the instrument that is most often mentioned. Elves and Dwarves use to play it, and the heroic Men of ancient times stir their silver strings. Magical harps there are that don’t go out of tune even after decennia hanging in a drafty dragon hole — an idea that any real life harpist can only comment with a wry smile!

Perhaps it is symptomatic that the only inhabitants of Middle Earth who do not have any harp playing skills are the rustic, earthbound hobbits — human-like beings but of much shorter stature, living close to nature and fond of the simple pleasures of life: Eating, drinking, smoking pipe weed, singing songs, and merry company. In my experience, actually, most harpists who take their instrument seriously and don’t just regard it as an attribute of their vanity, have more in common with the comfortable hobbits than with ethereal elves or valiant warriors!

I have included a medley of motives and melodies from Howard Shore’s soundtrack to the excellent recent movie version of Tolkien’s "Lord of the Rings" — it is dedicated to the hobbits, and it also represents a very personal contribution: In certain ways the book, and the film are the reason and the impulse why this cd came into being in the first place, and they gave me the idea to record the cd in its present form. And arrangements of popular melodies and tunes — from operas, or later from musicals, the movies or the radio — have always been stock part of the harpist’s repertory.

Late medieval lute and harp duo

A late medieval nobleman and noblewoman entertaining themselves with music - harp and lute was a poplular combination

Troubadours and Trouvères

But back to stereotypes: Not only fairy beings are often imagined playing the harp, but so are the medieval troubadours and trouveres — courtly poets, often noblemen, who sang their songs in praise of an idealized and unattainable noble lady. Historically, endowing them with a harp is probably not correct: as noblemen they would presumably not have dealt with anything as vulgar as playing a musical instrument professionally. Similar to modern song writers and pop poets, they used music to get their texts "across" — probably, instrumental accompaniment was not even a standard part of the performance of most of their songs.

Blondel’s song "Amour dont sui espris" must be one of the first "top hits" of European musical history. Not only has the melody come down to us in a unusually high number of manuscripts, there are also several re-workings and contrafacta: There are versions with different text, or even polyphonic versions — such as "Procurans odium" from the famous German collection known as "Carmina Burana"

Irish Bards

Next to the trouvères of the High Middle Ages, it is the Irish bards who wander the paths of our imagination, romantic figures, harp on back. In this case, that image is closer to the historical facts: The Celtic people traditionally held the harp players in high esteem, they were often employed at the royal court or in the household of some nobleman, and their task was not only to provide their employers with songs in their praise, but also to pass on historical events in the form of epic song. In this, they incidentally fulfilled much the same functions as the kora players in Western Africa — the kora is a bow harp, not unsimilar to the instruments that are found on wall paintings in ancient Egypt. To this day, the complex polyphonic music that is being played on those instruments serves to accompany praise songs and recitations.

One of the latest exponents of the Irish harp tradition was the blind bard Turlough O’Carolan, who lived in the early 18th century. Not a purist at all, he was not only writing melodies in the traditional style, but many of his compositions are influenced by the Italian baroque style which was popular all over Europe in his time.

Portrait of George Frederic Handel

Portrait of George Frederic Handel

Handel and Italian Music

Another enthusiastic proponent of the Italian operatic style was George Frederic Handel. A novelty in the late 17th century, this style of music quickly became popular all over Europe in the early 18th — it was the pop- and rock music of those times, including star worship and dream fees for the most coveted singers. Handel was a musical cosmopolitan like perhaps no one before, and very few after him. As a young man, he spent two years in Italy, where he got to know the new operatic style first hand. A large portion of his life was spent trying to establish his Italian opera company in his chosen hometown London. The attempt repeatedly drove him into bankruptcy and eventually cost him his good health — but we do owe Handel some of the most beautiful operas ever written.

However, Handel was not only conversant in the Italian musical style — on the contrary, he seems to have deliberately attempted to master as many different styles of music as possible. Much of his instrumental music is inspired by French music. There even is a cantata in the Spanish baroque style — something that must have seemed very exotic indeed anywhere outside Spain at the time, since it is distinctly different from the musical styles current elsewhere. In London, Handel also came into contact with Welsh harp players — a Celtic people like the Irish, the Welsh were as famous for their harpists as the latter. To the presence of skilled Welsh harp players in London we owe the famous harp concerto in B flat major, as well as the harp parts in some of Handel’s operas and oratorios.

Harp and Popular Music in Germany

Handel has probably known the harp long before he ever came to London, though — in his native Saxony, there was a lively tradition of harp playing in the 17th and early 18th century. A number of composers used the harp in their compositions — one of them is Handel’s first teacher, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, who wrote a church cantata including an obbligato harp part.

An extensive, anonymous manuscript collection of harp music was compiled in Leipzig in 1719 — around the same time that Johan Sebastian Bach started to serve as Thomaskantor in that city. The collection includes the "pop music" of Bach’s day, minuets and other dance pieces, as well as some arrangements of popular airs such as the French aria "Aimable Vainqueur". Stylistically, those pieces very much resemble those found in Anna Magdalena Bach's famous music book. Like that collection, the "Musicalische Rüstkammer auff der Harffe" is a compilation of easy popular pieces for private delectation in the home — much in the same way as we can nowadays buy easy piano or guitar arrangements of film songs or famous pop hits. What is the essential difference between a piece such as "Aimable Vainqueur" and the arrangement of Alan Menken’s title song for Walt Disney’s "Beauty and the Beast"? Even the tonality is the same, an undemanding F major.

Spanish harp tablature: facsimile

A page from Diego Fernandez de Huete's "Compendio numeroso" - early 18th century Spanish harp tablature, with African influenced dances "Zarambeque" and "Guineo"

The Harp in Spain

It is probably a little known fact that the harp was also widely used in Spain, especially during the late Renaissance and the Baroque periods. Next to the guitar, the harp was a common member of the dance bands and theatrical troupes that were so popular in Spain at the time — but the harp was also very widely used in church music, where it often served as a cheaper and more easily portable substitute for the organ — the latter explains its prominent use in the many sacred processions that characterize Spanish catholic worship. The renaissance composer Antonio de Cabezon was organist and personal friend to king Philip II — better known as the brooding villain from Schiller’s play "Don Carlos" than for his actual historical achievements. The collection of Cabezon’s music which was published by his son after his death bears the title "Musical works for keyboard, harp and vihuela". Many of those compositions are arrangements and variations on well-known polyphonic vocal compositions, or one of the ostinato bass motives that permeate Spanish music — "La Dama le demanda" is a theme that bears similarity to Thoinot Arbeau’s famous pavan "Belle qui tiens ma vie"

Diego Fernandez de Huete, born some 150 years later than Cabezon, was harpist at the cathedral of Toledo for many years of his life. He published an extensive "school" for harp which includes secular as well as sacred pieces for the harp. The "passacalles" form part of the second volume of his work, which is devoted to church music.

Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz was not a professional musician, but a cleric and an aficionado. He also published a treatise for harp and guitar, under the title "Luz y Norte Musical" — it contains a wide collection of popular dance tunes, and is mostly intended for musical amateurs, as opposed to Huete’s more sophisticated collection. From the lively dance rhythms of the pieces in Ruiz de Ribayaz’s collection, it is not such a big step to the rhythmical intricacies of Latin American popular music. In Latin America, one can still find bandas consisting of a harp, a big drum, and several guitars of different sizes.

From Spain, the tradition of harp playing spread not only to the Americas, but also to Southern Italy, which had long been under Spanish rule. In Naples around 1600, there were several virtuoso harp players — the "toccata seconda" by Giovanni Maria Trabaci is an impressive example of the almost jazz-like style and chromaticism of Italian instrumental music in this period of change from the closely regulated counterpoint of the Renaissance to the harmonic excesses of the early Baroque period.

baroque masque dancers

Baroque masque dancers

One World Music

And the Beatles? — Well, in certain ways 20th century pop music combines all these influences, Celtic melodies with Latin American ones, European harmony with African rhythm. The influence of African music in Europe does not only begin in the early 20th century, with jazz and blues — the Spanish collection of dance music by Ruiz de Ribayaz, which was published in 1677, contains not only Italian Renaissance dance tunes and Iberian "standards" like the folias and las vacas, but also pieces with titles like zarambeques, zarabandas, canarios, chaconas or marionas, pieces that resemble very much the music of the West African kora, and which were probably brought to Spain by the African slaves, who were not only shipped off to America by the Spaniards, but also came to Spain itself in large numbers. And even then their music, with its "hot" rhythms and the "lascivious" dances that accompanied it, provoked the same shocked comments and moral consternation which a few centuries later greeted jazz and rock’n roll.

The blues, and certain jazz standards, can be found at every stage of the history of rock- and pop music, and have even been picked up by "classical composers once in a while. In the same way, dances like the chaconne and saraband eventually found their way into "art music" — into the sophisticated compositions of a Johan Sebastian Bach or George Frederick Handel, even into those of Johannes Brahms —but it was in a shape that left nothing that could have made anyone guess their origin as exuberant dance music of the poorest of the poor.

© Asni the Harper (Astrid Nielsch), 2003

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