Magazine article American Harp Journal

The Harp in the Orchestra: 1607-1801

Magazine article American Harp Journal

The Harp in the Orchestra: 1607-1801

Article excerpt

During the Classical era, the harp was undergoing a transition both in its role in the orchestra and in its physical structure. While the instrument's harmonic capabilities were enhanced by the development of a pedal system that provided mechanized access to all keys, use of the harp in orchestra was limited because major composers of the Classical era, like those of the Baroque, included the harp only under special circumstances.

The Harp in the Baroque Orchestra

Baroque composers usually included the harp as a member of the continuo. Yet two major composers, Monteverdi (1567-1643) and Handel (1685-1759), wrote music to be played by the harp other than in the continuo. Each composer used the type of harp most prominent at the time in his area. The arpa doppia was available to Monteverdi in Italy, and the triple-strung harp was used in England at the time of Handel's compositions. Both composers chose to use the harp to represent the ancient lyre of Greek mythology or of biblical lore.

Commissioned by the Gonzaga family, rulers of Mantua, Monteverdi's Orfeo, an opera composed in 1607, was presented for wealthy noblemen at one of the ducal palaces. It was such a great success that the score was published in 1609, an uncommon occurrence because during this time full scores usually were not printed. Listed in the instrumentation was the arpa doppia, a harp with two sets of strings used in Italy during the 16th century.

In L'Orfeo, favola in musica, Monteverdi turned to the story of Orpheus, the greatest musician in Greek mythology. In the story, Orpheus is overwhelmed by grief at the death of his wife, Euridice. Conquering his fear, Orpheus descends to the underworld where the music of his beautiful lyre so charms the gods that they agree to release Euridice from death on one condition. Orpheus must not look at her on the journey back to the world of the living. Overcome by passion, Orpheus disobeys and turns back to Euridice, who is once again claimed by death. In his orchestration of L'Orfeo, Monteverdi uses the arpa doppia to represent the lyre of Orpheus.

Monteverdi styled the opera in the manner advocated by the Florentine Camerata, a group of aristocrats intent upon recreating musical forms such as they thought had been used in classical Greek tragedy. Writing in 1601, Giulio Caccini, in the preface to his Le nuove musiche, set forth the group's doctrine that the text of vocal music should be clear and unobscured by the music. The new music they advocated was monody, a single voice supported by a simple accompaniment, not the embellished polyphonic madrigal of that period.

In Orfeo, the vocal accompaniment is provided by the continuo, with the occasional use of organ. The solo harp part, appearing in the third act, is used sparingly as it alternates with sung sections, demonstrating to great effect Orpheus's bewitching music. (See Examples 1 and 2.) The only other place Monteverdi designates for harp is in the final ritornello of Act Four where it serves as a member of the instrumental group.

Besides Monteverdi, only one other major Baroque composer, Handel, wrote for the harp. Like Monteverdi, Handel used the harp when his text suggested its use. Yet his use of the instrument appears in a variety of styles, none of which indicated that Handel was writing specifically for the harp. In Esther (1718), the harp provided an arpeggiated accompaniment, but, in a later edition, Handel replaced the harp with organ. The harp was given a solo notated with a melody and figured bass in Saul (1738), its only use in the oratorio. Since David played his harp for Saul, we would expect the harp to accompany David's singing in the oratorio.

Handel's main contribution for harp, the Concerto in Bb, was composed, in 1736, for the premiere of Alexander's Feast, a choral ode, and played by a harpist known by Handel. The concerto was intended to represent the lyre playing of an ancient Greek bard, Timotheus. …

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