image from harpspectrum.org

A bunch of years ago, I wrote a lovely little serenade for flute and harp – don’t recall the name.  It was a very chromatic piece, and I spent a lot of time working out the harp pedalings to make it all playable.

The piece was about ten minutes long, ending with a delicate solo for the harp.

I sat cheerfully at the premiere, hearing a piece that was very much as I had imagined.

Until.

The final passage came… and it was excruciating.  After ten minutes of pedal changes, the harp was horribly out of tune.  Those final, delicate, ambiguous harmonies jangled like the instrument had been sitting untouched in someone’s attic for a generation.

Lesson learned: too many pedal changes spoil the tuning.  I’ve been very conservative with harp pedalings ever since.

I’m working now on a piece for large ensemble that includes harp.  Because of the nature of the piece, I’m being a bit more ambitious with the pedaling, trying to push to the limits of what the instrument can take without spoiling the pitch.  And I’ve been a bit worried.  Am I setting myself up for another disaster?

Yesterday I bumped into an old harpist friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.  After we exchanged pleasantries and caught up with one another’s lives, I mentioned to her my new piece and the concern I was having.  She told me something I never saw in the orchestration books.

“If you stick with flats and naturals, you should be okay,” she said.  She explained that harpists tune all the strings in the flat position (didn’t know that!), so the more you use the sharp position the more detuned the strings will become.

Because of the harp’s unique string-and-pedal configuration, avoiding sharps completely in a chromatic piece is pretty tough.  But it’s good to know that reducing the number of sharps can help keep the instrument in tune.

It’s a tip I’ll take advantage of, both in my own work and for the benefit of my students.

2 Responses to “Harp Tip Number 101b”
  1. A harpist says:

    Oh purlease.. what nonsense.. unless a harp was not properly in tune in the first place or was the most ancient of instruments, there is no WAY a gazillion pedal changes would make a harp go out of tune in ten minutes to the extent that it would be ‘excruciating’ .. try listening to Donatoni Marches or Boulez’s Sequenza for an example of how harps can stay in tune.
    What an infuriating article for a harpist to read. Please don’t continue the myth that the harp is a difficult instrument to compose for or that all we are good for is ‘delicate harp solos’

  2. Lawrence Dillon says:

    Thanks for your input, loulou, and I can see why what I wrote would be frustrating for a harpist to read. In the case I described, the harp was in tune at the beginning of the piece, and didn’t seem to be particularly ancient – so there must be some other reason for what I heard. What do you suppose happened?

    Don’t know the Donatoni, but the Berio was one of the reasons I was very confident originally.

    In any case, ‘delicate harp solos’ are hardly all the harp can do – I’m working on a passage write now in which the harp is delivering a vicious bass line for a motley group of saxophones.

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