Composer Nimrod Borenstein offers an introduction to writing for this most beguiling of instruments
Sometimes the harp feels a bit like the poor relation as far as many composers are concerned. Certainly compared to quite a few other instruments, you don’t tend to see all that many new solo pieces created for the harp. It’s something I’ve been thinking about rather a lot lately, since by coincidence my fifth work for harp - I look, you look for harp and baritone - was last week premiered at Milton Court in London’s Barbican by Elin Samuel and Samuel Lom, while at the same time my publisher Donemus has just published a collection of three of my earlier harp pieces. All that, plus the fact that I’m about to start work on a concerto for Anne Sophie Bertrand, the wonderful solo harpist of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, and you can understand why my mind keeps, er, harping on (sorry) about this great instrument and why it’s not better served by we composers!
There are two main things that are important when you write for any instrument. The first is that you can imagine the sounds you want. But, second, there is also the practical consideration of the impossible - by which I mean, it’s right to strive for what has not been done before, for what has previously maybe seemed inconceivable, but with that you have to know what is practical. If you’re writing for piano, for instance, the size of the hand can never reach more than 10 or 11 notes, so there’s no point writing a 13th or 14th because nobody can play that (not to say that some composers don’t write that anyway!).
The harp has even more practical restrictions, which is probably a major reason why more composers don’t write for it. It has seven strings, for seven notes. However, each of the strings can play three notes - but you have to set them in the position you want, like the gear stick of a car, except that harpists have pedals to do this. What that means is that writing C and C sharp together, for instance, is impossible. If you want to change the pedal position from C to C sharp, on the other hand, the harpist needs time to do that, at least one second. So you have to think mathematically, and the chromatics are tricky. Because if you don’t give your harpist enough time, you hear the enormous clack of the pedal being moved too quickly!
So I give this a lot of attention, and in this last work I actually wrote in all the pedal changes and where they would take place. But. If you do pay attention to those practical puzzles, if you know how to solve them and write very specifically for the harp, then you open up the immense possibilities of this beautiful instrument.
The harp has things in common with two other pedal instruments, the piano and vibraphone. But while the string sound on the harp continues once you pluck it (unless you dampen it with your hand), unlike holding down the sustain pedal on the piano those notes almost never become blurred. And that creates a kind of ethereal, fairy-like world that I love.
Actually - here is where a limitation becomes a virtue - another reason it is hard to make a blurry sound on the harp is that you need to leave that space between notes for pedal changes, and that rather prevents you from having notes played so fast that it risks being a mess. So, in harps as in life, plusses and minuses often go together! Another example of that same irony; the harp has fewer possibilities than piano, with only seven tones available at any one time as compared to 12, and also as soon as you change the pedal position the previous sound on the string stops dead. So chords, even dissonances, are less complex in a way and that creates a very different and unique sound world. It also, curiously, sounds higher than it actually is.
Because it has this very specific sound, it can work wonderfully well in chamber music, it can contrast with almost every other instrument, and in orchestral works (where it has been a much more popular choice) composers tend to use it as a solo instrument, even if just for a few notes, so it always has a very meaningful role. That’s why it’s so important for an orchestra to have a good harpist. When it appears in Strauss, or Berlioz, you really notice it!
The other problem with the harp is about creating contrast within the instrument itself. It goes very high and very low, again like the piano, but while it has that range, it has nothing like the piano’s variety of sound. It always sounds, well, beautiful! Yes, you can really work to make an ugly noise but it comes across like an effect, or a trick; you can’t sustain that for long. So you have to focus on rhythm, choice of notes, things like that. And because you have only got the seven strings, and the harpist only has two feet with which to change the pedals, you have fewer possibilities for setting different voices or melodies going at the same time - four perhaps, as opposed to easily 12 for an orchestra.
But you know something? Composing. Is. Hard. For any instrument. And you can still get where to you want to get to with the harp, and when you arrive it will be somewhere fantastic and probably fantastical. You’ve just got to plan the journey.
Nimrod Borenstein’s Three Pieces For Harp is published by Donemus: webshop.donemus.nl