20th-century masterpieces for solo harp

20.04.2008. Tenaille von Fersen, Suomenlinna. Seitsemän concert series.


"There is nothing difficult. There are only NEW things, unaccustomed things."
Carlos Salzedo



Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983)      Sonata (1952) 
Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934)                  Crowd (2005)
Franco Donatoni (1927–2000)             Marches (1979) 
Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)               Sonata (1939)  
Elliot Carter (b. 1908)                             Bariolage (1992)
Luciano Berio (1925–2003)                  Sequenza II (1963)


Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir     harp


Program notes

All of the works on this program were written by composers who were not harpists themselves. I found it interesting to see how these important composers dealt with the harp, each in their own way. The pieces were written at different times in the 20th century, but what they have in common is a breaking away from traditional harp writing and an invention of new ways to show off the harp's versatile qualities.

Germaine Tailleferre Sonata for Harp

"I write music because it amuses me. It's not great music, I know, but it's gay, light-hearted music, which is sometimes compared with that of the ‘petits maîtres' of the 18th century. And that makes me very proud." Germaine Tailleferre

Germaine Tailleferre is perhaps best known for being the only female member of the famous group Les Six. What is less widely known is that she composed over 400 works, ranging from small pieces for piano to solo concertos, film scores and four full-scale operas.

Germaine Tailleferre had a long and remarkable life. Born in France, she studied at the Paris Conservatory where she met Louis Durey, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric and Arthur Honegger. Together they formed "Les Six." She also became friends with the Conservatory's assistant harp professor, Caroline Tardieu. Some of Tailleferre's earliest pieces were written for the harp. In 1910 she wrote Morceau de lecture for harp and in 1913–1917 Le petit livre de harpe de Mme Tardieu. Tailleferre was also a close friend and student of Maurice Ravel, but their friendship ended abruptly in 1930 for reasons Tailleferre never revealed.

In Paris in the 1920s and 1930s Tailleferre moved in the artistic circles of Montmartre and Montparnasse and was friends with some of the most colorful characters of the time such as Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Tailleferre, however, was not only acquainted with the European cultural intelligentsia, she also lived in New York from 1925–1927 when she was married to Ralph Barton, an American caricaturist. During that time she was a friend of Charlie Chaplin, who tried to convince her to come and work in Hollywood. It was during this period that she composed her Concertino for Harp, which is dedicated to her husband.

Tailleferre returned to France in 1927 and divorced her husband shortly thereafter. When World War II broke out, Tailleferre returned to America and lived in Pennsylvania until 1946 when she again returned to France. Much of Tailleferre's music was written between the end of the war and her death in 1983. Many of these compositions were unpublished until recently and had also gone unrecorded. It has thus been difficult to obtain a clear overview of her musical oeuvre.

The Sonata for Harp was composed in 1952 at the request of the famous harp virtuoso Nicanor Zabaleta. The piece is quite popular among harpists, although it is often criticized for being written in a very "pianistic style."  In my opinion, however, the piece is quite idiomatically written for the instrument, offering technical challenges that serve the composer's light and cheerful musical language.

Harrison Birtwistle Crowd

"... but that's like writing for a virtuoso – I never ask them what they can do: virtuosity comes out of musical ideas and not the other way round."
Harrison Birtwistle in an interview with Dan Warburton, July 8, 1995, for Paris Transatlantic Magazine.

Born in England in 1934, Sir Harrison Birtwistle is one of Europe's leading composers. His works are commissioned and performed by leading contemporary ensembles and conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim. Birtwistle studied clarinet and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music. In 1965 he sold his clarinets and devoted himself to composition. Birtwistle's works combine modernist aesthetics with mythic power and emotional impact, and he is known to draw his inspiration from contemporary art and the rituals of classical mythology and pre-history.

Crowd was composed in 2005 and dedicated to the German harpist Ursula Holliger. With this piece the composer won first prize in the solo instrumental category at the British Composer Awards in 2007. In the score Birtwistle writes the following about his composition:

"This piece is an exploration of resonance. My choice of the title reflects my interest in the essential nature of the earliest harps, which is their quality of resonance. Crowd (etymologically related to the Celtic crwth, cruit and crot) was the English term used for instruments of the lyre class, and ultimately for a frame harp, from pre-Christian to medieval periods."

Critic Andrew Clements wrote about the UK premiere of Crowd in The Guardian on the 8th of July 2006:

"A new piece for solo harp may not seem the most enticing of prospects, but one of the marks of a great composer is the ability to transcend any medium and create something totally new and unexpected. Harrison Birtwistle describes his harp piece Crowd as a study on resonance, and has taken the title from the old English word for a plucked stringed instrument, emphasizing the way in which he has gone back to the very basics of the harp and reinvented its character."

Birtwistle's composition is indeed an important addition to the harp's repertoire. Combining intricate rhythms and various challenging techniques, the piece catches the very essence of the harp: the resonance of vibrating strings.

Franco Donatoni Marches – due pezzi per arpa

"When time comes for lucid depression, one must fight to continue to write. This is like the necessary prayer even when one is dry. Music is an insecurity; it leads to depression when you lack concentration. This is a daily fight."
Franco Donatoni in an interview in La Revue Musicale, 1975.

It is rare to find such strong resemblance between personality and composition as in the case of Donatoni's oeuvre. In an interview with the French journal La Revue musicale in 1975, Donatoni said that he had experienced strong parallels between his life and work, unfortunately, "more in the sense of fatality than of providence." Donatoni suffered from chronic depression and self-criticism that led him to abandon composing in 1975 and take a job at a music editing company. 

Donatoni was not a musical prodigy. He studied the violin as a child but made little progress and failed his first solfeggio examination. However, he was determined to study music. Delayed by the situation in his country during World War II, Donatoni finally found an inspiring composition teacher at the Bologna Conservatory in 1948. During his studies Donatoni was inspired by the works of Béla Bartók and Goffredo Petrassi, which he heard on radio broadcasts.

Donatoni later studied with Petrassi in Rome and with his encouragement attended competitions and festivals, including the Darmstadt summer course in Germany. Inspired as well as intimidated by the period's contemporary music stars such as Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio and Maderna, Donatoni struggled to find his own musical language. He developed a series of codes and strict formulas with which he constructed his works, but depression and doubt led him to the above-mentioned decision.

His wife, however, cunningly convinced him to finish a pending commission. Instead of being his final work, Ash (1976), for eight instruments, turned out to be the beginning of an extremely productive and creative time in Donatoni's life. One can say that he rose from the ashes and realized that productivity was the only answer for him.

As Donatoni's compositional style developed, he found a way to refine his codes and formulas by focusing on the craft of composing. He found joy in composing for instrumental virtuosos and in the years 1975–2000 he wrote 26 works for solo instruments.

Composed in 1979, Marches is one of the first works in Donatoni's series of solo works. It displays all the characteristic Donatoni features, such as the juxtaposition of different "plates" that contradict rather than complement each other. The idea of expression and development is rejected for a row of different pictures that have nothing apparent in common. Together these pictures form a portrait of the instrument, with its faults, possibilities and beauty.

Paul Hindemith Sonata for Harp

Paul Hindemith wrote sonatas for almost every instrument, including some quite unusual ones at the time, such as the tuba, the bassoon and the harp. Sonata for Harp was written in 1939 at a time when the composer was at a crossroads in his life. His music had just been banned in Nazi Germany; the composer had left his country for Switzerland and was on his way to America. In America, where he lived from 1940–1953, he would later enjoy great success as a teacher and composer.

The Sonata for Harp is probably the only composition on this program that has indisputably become a standard work in the harp's repertoire. The piece is almost obligatory for advanced harp students and is often included in harp recitals as the "contemporary" piece. Indeed, the work provides a great contrast and variation to a program of standard romantic harp repertoire. Its serious character and thick harmonic structure are unusual for the harp, but at the same time the work is exceptionally idiomatic for the instrument. Hindemith's ideas about harmony, based on acoustic perspectives, lend themselves excellently to the harp, displaying the instrument's seldom-explored capacity to carry complex harmonic progressions.

The third movement of the Sonata is written to the following poem by L.H. Chr. Hölty:

Ihr Freunde, hänget, wann ich gestorben bin,
die kleine Harfe hinter dem Altar auf,
wo an der Wand die Totenkränze
manches verstorbenen Mädchens schimmern.

Der Küster zeigt dann freundlich dem Reisenden
die kleine Harfe, rauscht mit dem roten Band,
das, an der Harfe festgeschlungen
unter den goldenen Saiten flattert.

„Oft", sagt er staunend, „tönen im Abendrot
von selbst die Saiten leise wie Bienenton:
die Kinder, hergelockt vom Kirchhof,
hörtens, und sahn, wie die Kränze bebten."

Oh my friends, when I am dead, take the little lyre
And hang it behind the altar, at the place
Where on the wall the funeral garlands
Shimmer for many a death-fetched maiden.

Then the kindly sexton will show the little lyre
To the traveler then, and ruffle its band of red
Which, woven snug around the frame, will
Flutter beneath the golden harpstrings.

Amazed, he'll tell them, "Often, at eventide
Untouched, the strings resound, soft as humming bees;
The children, playing in the churchyard,
Heard it and saw how the garlands trembled."

Translation: George C. Schoolfield

Elliot Carter Bariolage

"...the harp piece, is very virtuosic, as it uses all the various techniques that Carlos Salzedo developed – he was a friend of mine in America."
Elliot Carter in an interview with Joël Bons, 1994

Elliot Carter was 84 years old when he wrote Bariolage. This solo harp piece is part of a trilogy Carter composed for oboe and harp. The title of the harp solo, Bariolage, refers to a technique commonly used in the Baroque era for bowed musical instruments. The technique involves a quick alteration between a static note and changing notes that form a melody either above or below the static note. Bariolage can also mean a repeated alternation between the same note played on different strings.

In the score of Bariolage, Carter writes:

"My trilogy for oboe and harp has as its motto the last two stanzas of Reiner Maria Rilke's Sonette an Orpheus, II, 10. [Printed here in boldface type are the three phrases used as mottos for the three parts of the Trilogy]:

Aber noch ist uns das Dasein verzaubert; an hundert
Stellen ist er noch Ursprung. Ein spielen von reinen
Kräften, die keiner berührt, der nicht kniet und bewundert.

Worte gehen noch zart am Unsäglichen aus …
Und die Musik, immer neu, aus den bebendsten Steinen,
baut im unbrauchbaren Raum ihr vergöttliches Haus.

But existence is still enchanting for us; in hundreds of places it is still
pristine, A play of pure forces, which no one can touch without kneeling
and adoring.

Words still peter out into what cannot be expressed …
And music, ever new, builds out of the most tremendous stones her divinely
consecrated house in unexploitable space.
(English translation from the Penguin Book of German Verse, edited by Leonard Foster)

Each of the three sections of Trilogy was written for a special occasion. Bariolage (which has the motto: Ein Spielen von reinen Kräften) is a harp solo written for a festival of my music given in Geneva in March 1992, for Ursula Holliger, to whom it is dedicated to play. I was interested in writing for the harp as I had been a friend and admirer of Carlos Salzedo who wrote for the harp in such an inventive way."

Carlos Salzedo was a harp virtuoso and composer, who in 1921 wrote the influential Modern Study of the Harp. There he explained new as well as existing techniques and effects for the harp and how to notate them. Many of the new effects were Salzedo's inventions, and it can be said that he managed to reinvent the instrument and show how it could be used in a modern way. Salzedo was also a prominent figure in American modern music life and together with Edgard Varèse founded the International Composers Guild in New York in 1921. His work promoting the harp, therefore, had tremendous influence, one that still lingers on today.

This year Elliot Carter will celebrate his 100th birthday. Programs and information about the centenary celebrations can be found on

Luciano Berio Sequenza II

"…musical instruments cannot really be changed, nor can they be destroyed, nor indeed invented. A musical instrument is in itself a piece of the musical language."
Luciano Berio in a text accompanying the first complete recording of the Sequenzas by Deutsche Grammophon in 1998.

In his Modern Study of the Harp, Carlos Salzedo talks at length about the harp's resonance. He explains that unlike many other instrumentalists, the harpist must actively stop the strings in order to obtain silence. For this reason a notated rest is in fact an action for the harp and not the cessation of action as is the case for most instruments. Salzedo discusses the problem that this phenomenon presents for composers who write for the harp. Should the harp's resonance be stopped every time a composer writes a rest? And if so, should the resonance of the whole harp be stopped or only the resonance of the strings involved?  In his book Salzedo predicts, "Moreover, one can foresee the complete suppression of rests in the notation of the harp of the future."

Some 42 years after Salzedo's prediction, Luciano Berio wrote Sequenza II for harp. The work indeed has no notated rests. It is notated in proportional notation, and every dampening of the strings, individual or total, is notated precisely. The exact notation of dynamics also shows Berio's profound understanding of the resonance and overtone structure of the harp. Many of the effects in Sequenza II come from Salzedo's book, but many others are Berio's own inventions. Berio also invented his own way of notating the effects he wanted, and many composers since have based their harp notation on Berio's example. In fact, Sequenza's importance to the harp repertoire can be compared to that of Salzedo's Modern Study of the Harp. Berio's profound understanding of the harp has created a masterpiece that has served as an example for composers for over 40 years.

Luciano Berio wrote fourteen Sequenzas for various solo instruments in the period between 1958 and 2003. In the booklet accompanying Ensemble Intercontemporain's recording of his Sequenzas, Berio writes about his work:

"I've tried in my Sequenzas to provide a commentary on the relation between the virtuoso and his instrument, and I have often explored certain specific technical aspects to the point of challenging, as in Sequenza II for harp, the conventional notion of the instrument.
French "impressionism" has left us with a rather limited vision of the harp, as if its most obvious characteristic were that of lending itself to the attentions of loosely robed girls with long blond tresses, capable of drawing from it nothing more than seductive glissandi. But the harp also has another harder, stronger, more aggressive face.
Sequenza II seeks to illuminate certain of these faces, even making them appear simultaneously: sometimes it must sound like a forest with the wind blowing through it."

Sequenza II was written in1963 for Francis Pierre.