Magazine article American Harp Journal

Worth the Wait: The History of the Ginastera Harp Concerto

Magazine article American Harp Journal

Worth the Wait: The History of the Ginastera Harp Concerto

Article excerpt

IT is not uncommon for people to equate harps and angels. Admittedly, a good handful of the harp repertoire hails from late nineteenth century French style of harpist-composers. Thus, much of music from that period boasts legions of lush harmonies and pleasing melodies. That may sound like heaven to some, but there is beauty in diversity. Efforts in the twentieth century commissions and original works by harpists, competitions, and collaborating artists have augmented the vision of what is possible to expand the capabilities of the harp. These efforts have been invaluable to keep the harp relevant in the world of new music and intriguing to current composers.

One such noteworthy commission was the Harp Concerto, op. 25, by Alberto Ginastera, commissioned in 1956. The Ginastera Harp Concerto brings the harp to life with dance-like rhythmic and percussive intensity in the alternating time signatures of 6/8 and 3/4 and the use of numerous sound effects such as knocking on the soundboard and nail glissandos. Consequently, it stands apart from previous tonal harp concerti. For this reason, it is startling to consider that for nearly a decade, it seemed that this work might not ever be completed. What motivated Ginastera finally to finish the concerto? And why, as recently as 2009, do the program notes of the Spokane Symphony (1) continue the common claim that the concerto was written for famous Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta and not Edna Phillips, to whom the piece is dedicated? Personal letters reveal the true history of the Ginastera Harp Concerto.

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Edna Phillips and her husband, Samuel Rosenbaum, commissioned Alberto Ginastera to write a piece for harp in 1956. Phillips was the harpist for the Philadelphia Orchestra from 19301946, taught at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music for forty years, and was also keenly interested in expanding the harp repertoire. She and her husband commissioned approximately fifteen works by various composers such as Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Harl McDonald, and Alexei Haieff. (2) Phillips and Rosenbaum commissioned Ginastera's concerto for the 1958 Inter-American Festival to be held in Washington, D.C. (3) The purpose of this festival was to celebrate serious contemporary music of Latin American composers. When the year 1958 passed without a completed concerto, the 1961 Inter-American Festival became the new goal. (4) During those years, Phillips became involved in several teaching ventures and slowed her performing career for a few seasons. Consequently, Phillips recommended Sylvia Meyer, her dear friend and colleague, to Ginastera to perform the premiere of the concerto at the 1961 festival in her place. Meyer was the harpist for the Washington National Symphony and "an extremely capable and intelligent artist." (5) She was immediately enthusiastic about the commissioned concerto and frequently corresponded with Phillips and Rosenbaum in regards to the progress of the piece.

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In letter after letter, year after year, Phillips and her husband received no more than sketches of the concerto from Ginastera. Perhaps in jest, possibly in exasperation, Phillips once cabled, "Where is my second movement?" (6) The precise reason for the delay of the harp concerto is not clear, but was possibly due in part to political unrest in Argentina to and other works Ginastera was writing at the time including an opera and a piano concerto. (7)

Nicanor Zabaleta, somehow having heard of the pending but promised concerto, flew to Buenos Aires to meet with the composer in person. Shortly thereafter, Phillips and Rosenbaum received a letter from Ginastera informing them that he had sent a request to Guillermo Espinosa, founder of the Inter-American Festival, that Zabaleta play the premiere with Espinosa conducting at the 1963 festival. At this point, Phillips had retired, so it was clear that she would not be performing the work. …

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