Introduction (En)

Luciano Berio said of the harp :

“Traditionally, the harp is a feminine instrument : one always imagines a beautiful girl with Melisande-like hair, half naked and concealed behind trees in the mist, stroking the strings… Aeolian harps, Sapho… but Salzedo’s[1] playing technique has made me relinquish that poetic imagery : with him, the harp becomes a richer and more powerful instrument. Is it a feminine instrument ? – that may well be, but wielded by a strong, earthly woman, one made free.”[2]

It is true that the harp is inevitably associated with that romantic image of silky glissandi, rippling chords and a drawing-room repertoire. Yet that is only one of its many facets. It is present in every type of repertoire – in the theatre, in jazz, and in improvisation ; the noise made by the pedals, the impacts, finger-nails, crackling and grinding sounds become expressive elements of the musical discourse. Harpists pinch, scratch, rub, hit, tear, stroke, speak, sing, whistle, whisper, use screwdrivers, rubbers, papers, sticks, bows, bottle-tops and pegs ; they sit or stand at the side of, behind or in front of their instrument, explore not only the strings, but also the sound box, the sounding-board, the tuning pins and the pedals… The harp may be scheming, then violent, frivolous, seductive, serious, meditative, somber, gay, playful, mischievous or rebellious…

“What we play is life” states Louis Armstrong.

“Harpists search out new territories, sometimes completely immersing themselves in them, thus opening the way to a whole new repertoire and, even more valuably, to a real creation culture”, according to Ivane Béatrice Bellocq[3].

Indeed, the influence of imaginative harpists and their collaboration with composers have led to new perspectives, broadening the instrument’s techniques and developing the expressive possibilities of the harp. Many works, some of which are for the solo harp, are the fruit of an encounter : Francis Pierre with Luciano Berio, Betsy Jolas, Antoine Tisné, Édith Lejet, Ichiro Nodaïra, Tôn-Thât Tiêt ; Sylvie Beltrando with Yoshihisa Taïra and Gilles Carré ; Brigitte Sylvestre with Carlos Roqué Alsina, Georges Aperghis, Marie-Hélène Fournier and Vinko Globokar ; Ursula and Heinz Holliger ; Hélène Breschand with Sylvain Kassap, Georgia Spiropoulos and François Rossé ; Isabelle Moretti with Michèle Reverdy, and so on. We must not neglect the role of harpists within established ensembles, for example the distinguished Marie-Claire Jamet and Frédérique Cambreling with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. We must also underline the work of harp-makers and the technological progress culminating in the electric harp and the MIDI harp (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). All the preceding elements refer to musical worlds which, although diverse, are able to mingle and exchange experiences. It is such interaction that allows the instrument, and our attitude towards it, to evolve.

New virtuosities have appeared : numerous playing modes, a highly refined palette of sound shades, all the tessitura employed, the search for different and not necessarily “pleasing-to-the-ear” sound elements, an investigation of each component of the instrument, an involvement with gestures, theatrical or otherwise.

Such mutual influences between composers and performers must also affect notation ; each composer creates his own type of graphics, possibly suggested by the harpist he or she has been working with.

The path followed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is part of the evolution of the history of the harp and its continuation. Before Carlos Salzedo, other stages have been decisive for the harp :

-1810, the mechanism of double action invented by Sébastien Érard.

-1811, harpists’ inventiveness in exploring different playing techniques from the end of the eighteenth century on, mainly the incredible manual for harp by Madame de Genlis[4], in 1811. It includes the search for several harmonics on the same string, pedal glissandi, using the fifth finger, the use of the bow….

-The playing and works of the virtuoso Elias Parish-Alvars.

-1832, the appearance of the harp in Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

-1908, the astonishingly modern score Le Masque de la Mort Rouge (The Masque of the Red Death) by André Caplet (first version)

-1915, Claude Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp.

Each step taken is more interesting when considered in its capacity to enrich music rather than as a breaking-away from the past. Jorge Louis Borgès thinks that “Every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future !”[5]

Thanks to our broader knowledge of the harp and its present-day compositions, we may look at former works with a fresh eye, and continue our voyage of discovery. We might also follow Alban Berg’s advice : “to play contemporary works as if they were classical ones, and the latter like the former”…

With this book we aim to make an inventory of the different timbres, effects and playing modes written for the harp, together with the appropriate notations and graphics, so as better to open up the field of today’s and tomorrow’s music.

It goes without saying that this panorama is not exhaustive. Choices have had to be made. Indeed certain effects have given rise to multiple graphic translations from one composer to another, and it seemed inadvisable to retain all of them ; the most efficient ones have been selected. Most attention has been paid to what were deemed to be the most seminal reference books concerning contemporary composition.

Jean-Yves Bosseur stresses the fact that “most non-conventional effects have given rise to multiple graphic variants for reasons which cannot always be separated from a specific artistic purpose[6]”.

Thus, there will always be several ways to notate the same sound, according to the context, and the universe and style of the composer.


[1] Salzedo, Carlos (1883–1961), French-American harpist.

[2] Stoïanova, Ivanka, “Luciano Berio – Chemins en musique”, (Luciano Berio – Musical paths), in la Revue Musicale, n° 375-377, 1985 ; quotation dating from 26.10.1979 in Paris.

[3] Conversation with the authors, 31st May 2010.

[4] Genlis, Stéphanie-Félicité, Comtesse de, Nouvelle méthode pour apprendre à jouer de la harpe (New method for learning to play the harp), 1811, Geneva, Minkoff reprint, 1974.

[5] Borgès, Jorge Luis, Enquêtes (Inquiries) Paris, Gallimard, 1986.

[6] Bosseur, Jean-Yves, Du son au signe : histoire de la notation musicale (From sound to sign : history of musical notation), Paris, Alternatives, 2005.