The ensemble: the harp

An interview with Viktor Hartobanu

image courtesy Andreas Labes
I would like to work my way through the entire orchestra, getting interviews with an actual performer of each instrument and talk about its history, role in the ensemble and as a solo instrument, etc. This may only be a monthly (or bimonthly or quarterly) feature, but I am excited about starting this up, and firstly, we’re going to have a look at an instrument that I know almost nothing about aside from one of my favorite modern musicians who is part folk, part Appalachian, part indie, but 100% genius, Joanna Newsom (this song [and even more so the entire album] once you ‘get it’ is life-changingly, overwhelmingly beautiful). Saw her live, have her albums, love her music. But that’s not really classical. 
The only real thing I learned about the harp from a masterclass at the LSO was how many stinking pedals the instrument has to make it able to play it different keys. Somehow even explaining that seems wrong, but I remember that with a modern instrument, they lock into place, so key changes for the instrument can be rather complicated. Contrary to popular (or just my) belief, the harp isn’t just a giant triangle with taut strings coming out of it. It’s quite complicated. 
Anyway, here we have Mr. Hartobanu to help us (me mostly, as this feature, as is this whole blog, is primarily for my personal edification) with the ins and out of this instrument and its place in classical music. You can also check him out on his new YouTube channel, Opera et Laboura. I enjoyed his sneak peak (like the trailer of the trailer) for the channel, because it’s kind of how I feel about classical music and finding people who enjoy it. It’s not a way of life for me or anything, since it’s not my profession, but it’s something I enjoy and want to understand more. 
Okay, so Viktor (can I call you Viktor?), let’s ask a few questions (and excuse my general ignorance) :
1. How did you start playing the harp? (How did your mother start playing the harp)? 
My mother bought her first harp when I was one year old. From that moment on I used to play with the harp in a natural way, as the sound leaves the instrument without making any effort at first so plucking or sliding over the strings already concludes in a rewarding result. When I was about five years old my mother saw a celtic harp for the first time in her life. We went together to a shop with harps what, at that time, meant to travel across the entire country because only a few private sellers and even less manufacturers were selling harps. Usually at the most excluded places in the world, which are often stunningly beautiful, but also as hard to reach as Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings. However, there she found this cute little instrument which can be played by children and adults equally so there she bought it, rather to herself than for me. But soon after that I learned a few pieces which I got to play in my very first concert only half a year later on Christmas Eve 1995 which was even reviewed by the press. And that is the story of how I started. While for my mother the circumstances where different. At that time, precisely the 60s, Romania was full of boarding schools which were specialized in several directions. Schools with a musical profile were considered among the best so my mother had to choose whether she wants to start ballet or playing an instrument. After hearing that she would need to undress for the ballet examination (in 4th grade!) she immediately decided to play harp, the only alternative. Luckily she was tall enough to play on the school’s only instrument, a concert grand harp, what, in fact, sounds better than it was. Because of a complete lack of manufacturers or maintaining staff all harps used to be in horrible conditions. So it was not only an instrument too big for a child, but also one which made playing it a challenge. Not having any musicians in the family I still find that decision quite remarkable. And this is how she started to play harp.
2. Where did the piano figure into your musical education? It seems still to be the primary instrument for dedicated musical children to learn music on. Were you first a pianist and then a harpist? 
I started having piano lessons at age of seven, practically two years after starting with the harp. Yet I consider my first regular harp lessons to be those I got at age of eight with my harp teacher I kept until getting my diploma 12 years later. That would mean that I started taking music seriously with the piano. This was actually the standard until my generation because of the lack of suitable instruments for children. The piano comes with

scores similar to the harp, we need both hands to play either one. Even in history we can find many close bonds between harp and piano as they were developed to their actual state quite at the same time, this including the work by composers who inspired each other, such as Liszt, Thalberg, Parish-Alvars, Godefroid, Krumpholtz, Mozart, Haydn, Czerny and Mendelssohn as well as the work of manufacturers such as Erard, Pleyel, Cousineau, Erat, Naderman and others. Today we have a completely different situation. In the past ten years not only have all the manufacturers started to build harps of different sizes, but they also support music schools with special offers, competitions, master classes and many more so today there’s nothing special in being a 5 year old and starting with the harp.

3. Since the harp has a far smaller presence in the standard repertoire (as far as I can see), relative to violin, piano, etc., where does a young harpist start? Do you primarily learn alone or are even small beginner orchestras incorporating the harp? 
That in fact is handled very different in different countries. Germany has a very well-developed music school system. All students go there after normal school and have their lessons. Many music schools have bought harps so they can offer harp lessons. Still, there are many harpists, freelance or working in for example theatres who offer private lessons. In the UK there is a system called ABRSM which allows private teachers to teach many students by simply following a syllabus of 8 levels which allows them at the end to apply to the conservatories in the country. In France there is a similar system to the one in Germany, only that there aren’t music schools but “conservatoires” of different levels which offer exams which are mandatory to proceed to the next conservatory, meaning the next level. At the very end of this procedure there is the possibility to apply to one of two “conservatoires superieurs” in Lyon or Paris to finally study music. In Germany we might only have music schools of one level, but there are about 18 conservatories to study in, all with their very own harp class. In the beginning many teachers offer group lessons because it allows to learn not only from the teacher, but also from the class mates and this can lead to close bonds to the surrounding and the instrument. I still prefer to concentrate my attention in one-on-one lessons, not denying the importance of having a partner to play with regularly.
4. Are there different size harps? Kids all learn on the same size piano, but there are many different sized violins and cellos, for instance. Do you work your way up to something ‘full-sized’? 
As already mentioned, today the harp comes in many sizes. There ae celtic or irish or south american harps with between 22 and 38 strings. Then there are pedal harps with 40, 42, 44 and 46 harps, usually considered “for students”. Only the concert grand harps, or at least those who can be used in such way as well, have 47 strings. Heights range from about 45cm to ap. 190cm, weighing from several kilos up to about 40kg.
5. Does the harp have a place in natural evolution of the piano? I see the harpsichord (aside from the names) as a harp on its side with a plucking mechanism built into it, and the harpsichord is a precursor to the modern-day piano. Is there a relation? 
The harp is the oldest instrument of the world. About 1.5 million years ago, when the first humans discovered the bow, they also discovered the early harp. There are painting in he Cavernes du Volp in France, dating back about 30,000 years, displaying a shaman playing that bow by holding one part in the mouth (as an amplifier) and plucking or beating the string. This type of playing can be still found in central Africa among many pigmy tribes. There’s also no place on earth where no type of harp is played, thus being another evidence about its age. This being said, there’s hardly any stringed instrument which didn’t evolve from the harp, early or late. Yet I doubt that there’s a direct connection from the harp to the harpsichord. I guess the latter got his name from the harp, this being the only relation. But when it comes to writing, there is a strong connection between key-instruments and harps. Harps and organs were the only instruments accepted in the church in the Middle Ages. Later the Arpa Doppia and Arpa Tripla prepared the terrain for the first harpsichords, being in use as a basso continuo instrument among all of Renaissance and Baroque era. Monteverdi wrote for a minimum of two harps, the early opera would be unthinkable without the “Monteverdi D” of the Renaissance harps. Handel wrote a concerto for the Welsh triple harp, which he later published among five other concerti as 6 concerti for the organ. Mozart went to Paris in hope to get in contact with Marie Antoinette who was a famous harpist herself and finally wrote a concerto for flute, harp and orchestra KV 499 which is considered to be among his finest works. At that period again the harp was considered superior in sound and expression towards the early piano-forte and thousands of works, mostly forgotten but eminent to the musical development of both, harp and piano, were written to fit the need of the French and English aristocracy. Even in early 19th century there was a strong bond between harpists/composers and piano/composers. Liszt wrote possibly the most elaborate harp scores of all orchestral composers. Thalberg admitted to have Parish-Alvars as one of his strongest influences. And last but not least all manufacturers who built pianos also built harps and most of them even started with harps. The path split only towards the end of the 19th century where new piano companies and new wealth and interest in music helped the piano to a never seen before boost, presumingly caused by the fact that the piano not only has the easy access the harp has, but finally the piano is much easier to control than the harp. 
6. What’s it like finding a teacher (if you?re not related to one already?) Is there a shortage of harp teachers?
It has never been easier to find a teacher than in our days. While I had to drive 80 km one way to get harp lessons today there are three harp classes within 20km range. I came up with a calculation that there’s no city with more than 50,000 inhabitants that hasn’t at least one harpist. At least in Germany.
7. What does a ‘decent’ harp cost? Nothing high-end, but nothing cheap. If a serious musician were to buy one, what would they look for? Are there any famous brands? Tell me about your current harp(s).  
A decent harp has never been determined by its price. I’ve seen cheap harps which were magnificent, but I’ve also seen the opposite. While buying a used harp can save money and nerves it has to be done carefully because harps deteriorate over time. I have an extraordinary instrument from the 50’s which cost me 10,000€ which in fact is cheaper than a cheap new instrument. My mother owns a harp which she got new at about 26,000€ which I used for all my competitions and concerts in the past. Even though there are harps you can buy for about 170,000€, for everything over 50,000€ you only pay for the gilding or elaborate decorations, but not for the final quality.
8. Tell me about the harp’s place in the symphony (or symphonic repertoire). It seems, again, in my very uninformed opinion, that it shows up for dramatic effect and texture. Does the harp have a greater presence in a certain era of classical music? Are there symphonies where it plays a prominent role?
The harp has changed its role in orchestral works throughout the time. While I already said that it was mandatory in the Renaissance era, the downfall started during the Baroque era. Especially when it comes to the northern Baroque no virtuosos could be found to play the Arpa doppia or tripla (these were chromatic instruments). Italy or southern France wasn’t affected by that problem, same as Spain. But there’s a reason why Bach’s only pieces for harp (even this seems to be a revelation to most of the people) are simple accompainments for opera interludes (anoter revelation!). While Beethoven used the harp only in his single ballet “Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus” and not in any of his symphonies, it can be found, if ever, mostly in compositions by French masters. The harp, while being mostly suspended from the symphonic repertoire during the classical and early romantic period, found use in many sacral works. The use of the harp in Berlioz’ works, notably the Symphonie Fantastique, which he elaborated with the support of Elias Parish-Alvars, was almost inflationary. He even used 8 or 12 harps in some of his works. Brahms’ masterpiece Ein Deutsches Requiem uses the harp in a very touching way. I already named Liszt, who used the harp in many works as well. And what would be Smetana’s Ma Vlast without the overwhelming beginning of the harps alone. Yet, there’s a problem with the symphonic writing. The harp hardly comes through the orchestra. It possibly did in the beginning of the 19th century, when all instruments but the harp where much softer in sound and dynamic range than our-days instruments. But now usually one single harp has to fight its way through the entire string section, what is an unfair challenge. Many composers then decided to use the harp’s quality to melt sounds in such way you don’t hear it solely, but without the harp the orchestral sound would be sharper. As the harp hast the largest range of overtones of all instruments it can easily disappear only to rounden the sound of unfitting instrument constellations. If it wasn’t used in this way, than the only other use of the harp is in soli. Either presenting the main themes like in Ma Vlast, or having characteristic passages like in “Symphonie Fantastique” it is often used to accompany a single, or maybe a small group of instruments. Latter can be hard in many pieces, such as Bartok’s concerto for orchestra, several works by Ravel, Debussy or Stravinsky, the Romanian Rhapsodies by Enescu and many other works, not to forget the symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner.
9. I asked you recently about repertoire for the harp: famous concerti, sonatas, etc. Of the most common (or popular) pieces for harp, are the composers harpists? I remember you mentioned composers, none of whom I recall being harpists. Are there any composers that were primarily harpists? And if not, are those common pieces any more difficult because of the composer’s lack of familiarity with the instrument? Are there issues with people writing for the harp in an awkward or unnatural way? 
We have a vast catalogue of pieces by harpist/composers, especially from the 18th and 19th century. They’ve given us more than a lifetime of pieces to play, yet the harpists always assemble around about mainly 30 or 40 solo harp works, what I think is a shame. The composer’s names, today forgotten, were often highly appreciated during their lifetime. Let me mention Elias Parish-Alvars again. His concerti are not only the most difficult among our repertoire, but also their quality equals to concerti by Chopin or Thalberg. The fourth concerto by him has been even orchestrated with the help of Mendelssohn and both considered each other as close friends, personally and in working terms. Krumpholtz was Haydn’s harpist at the Eszterhazy court and he also got support by him in orchestrating his 6th concerto. Naderman, teacher of Marie Antoinette, left us numerous works, among which we find also the first methodical works for harp. While the early 19th century truly meant and apogee in the harp’s musical and technical development many musicologists consider the late 19th century to be poor in quality considering the solo repertoire. The truth is, that the harpist/composers of that time like Posse, Poenitz, Holy and Zabel on one side worked on instruments by Erard who stopped developing further on, and on the other hand their taste lasted around the virtuoso and rhapsodic style which came to fame in the salons in the first half of the 19th century. I personally still love those pieces and they’re often among the most difficult pieces of our repertory, but I see their weaknesses compared to the piano as well. So when young composers like Ravel, Debussy, Fauré, Tailleferre, Caplet, Hindemith, Casella, Houdy, Ginastera and Jongen rose, they did it in a way like they rediscovered an old instrument which they wanted to bring to life. Many of them took harp lessons or looked for close relations to harpists to be able to write in a way modern and new, but respecting the possibilities and disabilities of the instrument. The vast repertoire they gave us, solo pieces, chamber music and concerti, are masterpieces in all directions. Great music, rewarding to play, and some eventually ridiculously difficult, but more importantly: playable. Unfortunately I can’t say that about the repertoire after 1950. There are exceptions, but I often found pieces being written without any chance to be played as intended. In the last 20 years it took a turn for the better, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
10. The most common solo instruments for concerti are the piano, violin, and cello, as far as I can tell. Does the harp have any trouble standing up to the sound and force of an entire orchestra? Can it be heard over everyone else playing, or is there an adjustment in orchestration or technique to make it more feasible? 
Definitely orchestration technique. The concerto by Ginastera, one of the most played in the repertoire, has one big problem: The percussion section is simply too big. Ginastera couldn’t attend the premiere and even though he announced a revision he died before doing it. The result is a tour de force for who plays it without amplification, meaning everyone outside the US. As I heard there the people are a little more open when it comes to amplification, what in my opinion should become the standard, at least for this piece. The lack of opportunities to hear the harp as a solo instrument accompanied by orchestra is yet less a matter of strength than the fact that only few conductors acknowledge the right of the harp to stand on stage caused by their ignorance about our repertoire. There were many breakthroughs in the history, like Renié, Zabaleta or Moretti, de Maistre, Bouskova or Ceysson in our days but still it seem like we have to put twice as much effort in our work to get less than one percent of the opportunities to show wrong everyone judged us.
11. What are the specific challenges about the instrument that make it difficult? What does a harpist deal with? 
Where to start? Pedals. Pedal harps have seven pedals each one of it with three possible positions to placed in. As the harp is a diatonic instrument, which means that according to the strings we only have the notes c d e f g a b, we need to place pedals for each sharp and flat. And natural, which actually is right in the middle. That’s why we tune our instruments in c flat major, because that is the only key in which all the pedals are in there lose position. These pedals must be placed silently, perfectly in time and secure without looking at them. Composers cursed this inevitable solution for chromaticism as often as us harpists. The other solution is a chromatic harp, but there’s a reason Pleyel couldn’t settle an instrument of nearly 2m height, with 89 strings to be tuned which are strung crossing in the middle, sharps/flats coming down from one side of the instrument and naturals from the other. It’s simply too unhandy. 
Tuning. Our instrument is almost completely wooden, a material which reacts sensitively to changes of temperature and humidity. Same do your strings which are made of sheep gut or maybe nylon, while the lowest strings which are made of steel keep the tuning for a little longer than the next breeze. There’s a joke among the harpists: The harpist uses half of his lifetime to tune the harp and the other to play out of tune. But the main difficulty is the way we create our sound: Fingers. Every finger is different so every harpist has a different sound. There’s no instrument where the player has such a close connection to the sound than the harp. Between the key of a piano and the string there are dozens of pieces, no such thing on the harp. We probably have the widest range of possible sounds we can get out of our instrument, which doesn’t make the situation easier. To be able to control the outcome of our strings we always need a fraction of a second before we pluck the string to tense it, give it the necessary amount of power to have the exact dynamic, sound, expression we want. We are basically anticipating everything we are going to play. This implies that we have no option of correcting during or afterwards. A violinist can fix his pitch, a pianist will get the right key the next time. If we have accidentally a wrong pedal, an out of tune-string or if we prepared a chord wrong there is no way we can fix it in time. That’s probably why the amount of perfect concerts even among the greatest of us ranges very low There’s always something that happens. Already by the amount of notes we usually play during a recital there’s almost no way we get everything right. Something that makes us seem less professional by comparison, but that’s also why I think we play the hardest instrument there is.
12. If you had to pick another instrument to major in, what would it be? Is there anything else you really love or would like to play? 
The only instrument I really wanted to play was the flute and I never got that opportunity. Now I’m happy with the harp and I wouldn’t want to miss it. But if there still would be a feasible major for me it would be no instrument, but singing.
13. Tell me about your channel about opera/classical music and its relation to your career as a harpist. Are these two related, or is opera just another of your loves?What can we expect to see on your channel? Are you also involved in opera?  
I grew up in a small city with an enormous theatre. As my father plays there the trombone it used to be my playground when I was little. I never missed a premiere and I enjoyed every opera I’ve seen there because we also had great directors. So I have this deep love for opera which I want to share as well on my Youtube channel. I don’t want to tell too much about it because it’s something I still have to care of while it grows and it’s not the time to release it now, but it will be something great, I can promise. I’m also very glad I got that opportunity to work with the Staatskapelle Berlin for the next two years. There aren’t too many orchestras which cover the symphonic repertoire as well as the operatic one the way they do it. I already got to play Wagner, Janacek, Strauss, Verdi, Birtwistle, Debussy, Ravel and Feldman and I’m here for just six months right now! I enjoy the variety and the quality and I think it is quite unique to get all of this in one place. As a harpist I have a role, especially in the operatic repertoire, which shouldn’t be underestimated. I often get solistic moments to accompany soloists, singers like other members of the orchestra, so I not only have to make myself heard, but to listen myself very carefully to find always the right place to play. It’s challenging, but I enjoy it a lot!
14. If you had to be in another field, choose another career, or pursue something else, what would it be? I would be probably an actor or an archaeologist. And I have to keep it short, or I start thinking about life choices again…
15. I know it’s kind of pointless to talk about favorites, but aside from harp repertoire, just as a musician or classical music enthusiast, what are a few of your favorite pieces? Symphony, opera, concerti, sonatas, anything. What do you love to listen to? 
My favourite opera is Tosca, there’s none as compact, driven, dramatic and beautiful in one piece like that one. Then I enjoy every work by Bellini; he’s a genius. My favourite harp piece is the Fantasie by Spohr, which I already recorded for my channel. I also deeply love the Grande Sonate by Dizi which will be online in some weeks and the Ground by William Croft. There are still many more, but I have to keep it short, I think. Among the piano works, I totally fell for John Field’s first nocturne. I could hear it all the time. Then there is this stunning beginning of Gia Piansi ne Dolore by Gesualdo or the magnificent O dolorosa gioia. Then the iconic Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina. Not to forget Giulio Cesare by Handel. Who could not love Handel after listening to that? I really have to stop now…

Actually Viktor, no you don’t need to stop. I was thrilled to read this! Very informative. I very much enjoy hearing people talk about things they are passionate about and want to share, and this was a real pleasure. I look forward to seeing more from you on your channel. Thank you very much!

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