On Babes and Angels

On Babes and Angels

The harp is to the orchestra what the bosomy babe is to the spy thriller: sensuous, indispensable, and almost invariably ornamental. But if the babe is a real actor, shouldn’t she have a real role?

Written By

Mark Adamo


The harp is to the orchestra what the bosomy babe is to the spy thriller: sensuous, indispensable, and almost invariably ornamental. Why? Its timbral splash is anything but anonymous. And don’t think, in ensemble, it can’t be heard! It’s no harder to balance with full orchestra than solo violin. You’d think an instrument of such glamour, power, and harmonic resource would have inspired a thousand concerti. You’d be wrong. Somehow—while we have no difficulty hearing the harp—we have a devil of a time paying attention to it. “The harp is by nature more harmonic than melodic in feeling: solo melodies played on it are generally thin and ineffective,” warns solemn Kent Kennan in his Technique of Orchestration. Few orchestral composers have disagreed. They’ve conditioned us for centuries to hear the instrument only as accompaniment: the orchestra sings the music, and the harp…decorates it. And, to talk to most—and mostly disgruntled—harpists, composers have been none too respectful about of the harp’s needs and features as they write these largely tangential parts. Talk to a player on the subject of Wagner’s five-note chords (harpists can’t use the little finger, so they can only play four notes per hand at a time), his St.-Vitus’s-dance pedal changes, etc., and by the end of the first drink you’ll understand all too well why, in English, “to criticize—unsparingly, obsessively” is “to harp on.”

You’d think by now that some new orchestral composers would have undertaken a “Free the Harp!'” (From Cliché!) Project: but, in America at least, much new work divides more-or-less into two sorts of music to which the harp itself—let alone the harp concerto— is tragically ill-suited. Allow me to generalize: For convenience, let’s use “minimalism” to describe the newer of those musics; one largely based on the transformation of the ostinato. (Of course much more than this distinguishes Reich from Andriessen from Riley from Wolfe, but you can’t really talk about any of them without talking about pulse.) Obviously the harp can handle this sort of thing harmonically: lots of Glass uses a tonal palette that would have been familiar to Telemann. Nor do the later, Sibelius-under-a-strobe-light stylings of John Adams pose the harp any problem. But, technically, the harp doesn’t do pulse. “Rapid repeated notes on the same string are not very practical,” drones Kennan: “a sudden return to the string only damps out the vibrations of the previous note before they have had a chance to get well started.” Boring, but true. Have you ever heard a performance of In C with a harp beating the underlying pulse?

There’s response to Kennan’s observations. As we all remember from Orchestration I, the harp is built diatonically: that is, it has seven strings to the octave, rather than the expected twelve (one per semitone.) This structure opens up any number of enharmonic tunings that can give the illusion of repeated notes—C-flat and B-natural, F-sharp and G-flat, etc. On the other hand, what do you do with D-natural, G-natural, A-natural? And how comprehensive a solution is this? Generally the pulses we’re talking about are fast, fast, fast. Divvy up the eighth-notes whilst the metronome is jittering away at 168 and you’re still left with quarters at 84—they’ll ring, but unimpressively—and we’re talking about the orchestral harp, now, which means the player is competing with the effortless repeated pitches of virtually every other instrument on the stage. And “early” minimalism’s other device, the arpeggio, is, as a squint at the Italian word will confirm, the very definition of the harp cliché. How surprising can it be to include the harp in the very gestures to which it gave its name hundreds of years ago?

What about the other stream of the new-music river, which we’ll just call chromaticism: by which I’ll look back to include Wagner-as-source; both the French (whole-tone, Impressionist) and German (half-tone, modernist) tributaries which sprang from it; and all the contemporary spawn? God knows there are reams of harp-writing in Ravel and in Strauss, with all their nimble leaping between one lush key-center after another: which, of course, prompts many a manic jig on the harp pedals. (Remember that whenever the music changes keys, the harpist must physically re-pitch the instrument, string by string, into the new key while she’s playing the music.) On the other hand, it’s worth noting that both of those composers frequently bought their way out of the problems their music posed by simply adding a second harpist to the orchestra, which position, despite how composition has progressed, has never become standard in the modern symphony. And where are the major single-harp parts in Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, as well as in their pan-Atlantic heirs? Carter? Boulez? Babbitt and Wuorinen, those sultans of crunch?

This division of new music into chromatic (or post-tonal) and minimalist (hypertonal) is artificial but not useless. Obviously the best new music is fearless of the triad, the pulse, or the row. (The best new music is fearless, period.) But the fact that the style wars are over doesn’t mean they didn’t happen: and that there weren’t real implications for the harp literature. On the other hand, the style wars can’t entirely explain the harp’s continuing marginalization, particularly as a soloist with orchestra. Britten, the very model of the composer who shrugged at dogma, gave us some of the most substantial and moving pages written for harp in the last hundred years: but where’s the Britten harp concerto? (He wrote one for piano.) The Russians, too, almost wholly escaped the temple-clutching, to-key-or-not-to-key question: where’s the Prokofiev, where’s the Schnittke harp concerto? (As opposed to their piano concerti.) Bartók? Ligeti? Corigliano? If, as these have, you can write a contemporary concerto for the piano—an equally percussive, harmonically resourceful (albeit chromatic) instrument—why not do so for the harp?

Because, I suggest, even after you solve the harmony problem you’re still stuck with the problem of attack. Compared to the piano, you have much fewer options! The piano’s sustain pedal gives you minute control over the relative brilliance and duration of the sound. And its resonating soundboard gives it, not only a titanic forte, but also a timbral opacity of which the harp can only dream. In comparison, the harp sound is transparent as glass. Any instrument playing in unison with the harp will overshadow, not shadow, the harp timbre. Write a theme like this:

Example 1

…and, despite the octaves and the note values, what you’ll perceive is a sharp clarinet with a rich golden echo, not a harp solo with clarinet punctuation. This is the issue that endures after you’ve squared away your harmony. It’s not that the harp can’t play a melody. It’s that virtually every other (non-percussion) instrument can play it better.

But soft! Cries the great Carlos Salzedo—harpist, composer, educator, tireless advocate—who literally wrote the book on the harp’s timbral options. The harp has a thousand colors: harmonics, close-to-the soundboard playing, the inventive wielding of the guitar pick, on and on and on. To which I’d reply, yes, they’re all great sounds: but soft! With the exception of the pedal crash (about which more anon,) all of these techniques change the harp’s color but invariably mute the dynamic. This is great in chamber music, or orchestral music that aspires to comparable quietude. But overuse ends up stereotyping the harp as Eustace Tilly, hushing the busy world to inhale deeply on his trembling chrysanthemum. Bring on that alto flute! Cue that muted viola! The harp is back in town, and from now on things are going to be pretty God-damn exquisite around here.

But let’s say that you have an idea for (and have been asked to write) a harp concerto that’s boldly theatrical: your music isn’t intrinsically at odds with what the harp does; and you think all the technical and timbral issues are solvable problems. What are the questions you ask yourself?

Well, after accepting a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra for its principal harpist Dotian Levalier, here were mine:

    • 1.) Since the harp is, by design, more impressive spelling out harmony than theme—but I want a theme with a real authority on which to organize the piece—can I come up with a melody that’s all harmony and all line

at the same time

    • , and yet is still versatile enough to express whatever I need?


    • 2.) Are there unusual technical or timbral resources the harp can muster that are theatrical (read:


    • ) enough to hold their own in an orchestral texture? Can I design a movement to ask a question to which these timbres would be the answer?


    • 3.) And how do I make this piece


    • just an orchestra score which happens to have a

very large

    • harp part, but a true concerto: one which sounds as if all of its gestures and materials are generated by the soloist? In other words, how do I keep the orchestra, with its limitless melodic potential, from upstaging the harp?


And here were my answers:

    • 1.)


    : it couldn‘t be simpler conceptually. The original version of the theme changes harmony on virtually every note: (See Example 2.)
Example 2

Example 2

The idea was that the rapidly changing harmonies would “color” the melody tones in the way registration and attack do in more versatile instruments. This theme isn’t always harmonized in so quicksilver a way: in the third movement, much of a variation on this theme spins out over pedal points in the strings.

Example 3

But by that point the material’s been introduced in its most “harpistic” way, so the variations will sound.

2.) Timbral resources: I chose two; the pedal crash and the tuning-key glissando. If, on certain lower pitches, the pedal controlling the pitch is held midway between two notches while the string is struck, what you’ll here is a sound not unlike electric-guitar feedback; a vibrant, un-pitched metallic growl that can twang in and out of exact pitch as the performer decides.

Example 4
    • When harpist Dotian Levalier first demonstrated this for me, I all but clapped my hands: it was so rich and aggressive and unexpected a sound—so


    • classical-music brunch—that I immediately imagined a kind of percussive scherzo in which the harpist could lead a conversation in and out of pitch with instruments in the orchestra making comparable gestures. I’d already written, in my opera

Little Women

    , sections in which strings begin bowing in tune and then, with a forced stroke of the bow, leave pitch for “crunch;” and I knew from other harp literature that if the harp strings were stroked with a tuning key or other metal bar after the string is struck, the resulting sound could exactly resemble certain upward pitch-bending Chinese opera gongs.
Example 5

So the second movement became a timbral etude for both the soloist and the orchestra: a mini-percussion concerto without a percussion soloist.

3.) The orchestra: I simply had it reverse roles with the soloist. If, I reasoned, the problem with conventional harp writing is that all that figuration leads the ear elsewhere—towards whatever is strong or sustained—could I write for the harp as orchestra, and the orchestra as harp? Might, for example, the first movement summon the harp into being with a series of ever the more spiraling arpeggi, culminating at last in a rainstorm of string pizzicato—the closest, in timbre, the orchestra can come to the harp—before the harp itself breaks in, showing the orchestra exactly how arpeggi are done?

Example 6
    • For how much of the movement can I keep the orchestra off the downbeats: so that if you’re listening rhythmically at all, you


    to place the harp foreground in your ear because nothing else is playing on the strong beats of the bar? And when the harp spells out that chordal theme from Example 2, can the orchestra surround it with the sort of figuration that the harp might ordinarily play if this were an orchestral theme?
Example 7

This was the sort of thinking that got me started. Then, of course, your intuition takes over. I knew I wanted the theme to be as convincing when it was elaborate as when it was simple. I didn’t know it was going to have such an imperial character when multicolored, and such a benedictory one when plain; but those emotional colors led to the short, almost overture-like first movement, and the extended, prayerful third. The fourth movement was a happy coincidence: I needed another kind of orchestral attack that was engaging but would still cede melodic authority to the soloist: I also hadn’t written an ostinato movement of any kind at all in ten years, and I wanted that kind of insistent joy to close the piece. File under “Two Birds, One Stone.”

And somewhere in the middle of thinking about all of this, it occurred to me that the shape of the piece—symphonic variations, essentially—had a rough analogy to the fairy-tale idea that angels were all of the same substance, albeit of different form: and I thought that the only thing more stereotyped than so much harp writing was those insipid Christmas-card angels with which the harp, aurally, was so often associated. A plunge into the literature revealed that many angelic personae from scriptural myth were as deliciously surprising to me literarily as the pedal crash had been aurally. Thus the title, Four Angels, and the movement plan: colorful enough to be evocative, and roughly analogous to the piece’s path, but not so literary or detailed that the music itself would seem to illustrate, rather than define, the experience.

I’d have composed this piece for cab fare if they’d asked me: I love the harp, and had I died that afternoon in 1995 on which I was turning pages for the harpist playing the Holst Hymns from the Rig Veda—choral contralti in my left ear, harp in my right—I’d have expired in bliss. But I’d be lying if I denied hoping that, if Four Angels is at all what I mean it to be, it might in some tiny way expand our sense of what’s possible to say, and do, through this instrument on the symphonic stage. Who doesn’t love a bosomy babe? But if the babe is a real actor: shouldn’t she have a real role?


Mark Adamo
Mark Adamo

Composer/librettist Mark Adamo is principally known for his operas Little Women and Lysistrata. He has also written about music extensively for a variety of publications including The Washington Post, the Star Ledger, Opera News, and The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. An extensive conversation with him was published in NewMusicBox in February 2006. His harp concerto Four Angels will receive its premiere at the Kennedy Center on June 7 – 9, 2007 performed by Dotian Levalier and the National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, conductor.