Instrument Profile: The Harp

Classic Arts Features   Instrument Profile: The Harp
The harp, an instrument with a beauty of sound all its own, has been a part of music and culture from antiquity to modern day. Pamela Holloway asks Susan Dederich-Pejovich, principal harpist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, to explain the details of her instrument.


Q: The harp can be found in many countries, used by many people throughout history and music. What are the origins of the harp?

A: The plucked string attached to a resonating box appears in many cultures throughout history. Early harps have been found in Egyptian pyramids and can be seen in painted designs on Greek pottery and architecture. The Chinese even developed a type of double-strung harp that makes it easy to repeat notes and bend pitches. By the way, this technique of bending pitches is more difficult on the modern, 20th-century concert grand harp!

Q: What are some of the different types of harps in the harp family?

A: Harps range in size from the lightweight lap harp with a range of two and a half, maybe three octaves, to the modern harp with 47 strings and seven pedals. I once owned an antique Chromatic Pleyel harp, one of only two of this type that exist outside museums today: although last year it joined the permanent instrument collection at the Met Museum in New York City.

Q: Why are harp strings colored, and what do the different colors mean?

A: Harp strings are color coded so that the player can identify what strings to pluck. The C strings are red and the F strings are black, arranged in octaves like a piano.

Q: Is the harp considered a percussion instrument or a string instrument?

A: The harp sound originates in a 'percussed' string; thus it is considered both a string and a percussion instrument.

Q: Do harpists use all ten fingers when playing, and does the instrument rest on the shoulder or the knee?

A: We use eight fingers: no pinky because it's too short and will change the correct playing position of the hand and, not to mention, it's just not strong enough. The instrument rests on my right shoulder.

Q: How is the harp most often used, and most often not, in music?

A: Harp is often used to color the sound of other instruments in the orchestra, or as a keyboard replacement by ten-fingered composers too lazy to learn its true eight-fingered nature. It is not an 'upright naked piano'!

Q: Where do you see the harp in five years? Will the instrument evolve from its present state into something new? Will the way music is written for the harp and its current uses change?

A: I can imagine greater use of the melodic potential of the harp as well as composers daring to use amplified or electric harp in new compositions, in the same spirit as Tchaikovsky when he used the celesta in the 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies' in The Nutcracker. It was the first time a major composer had scored a piece for a major work! And in that same spirit, Ravel used saxophone in his most famous work, Bolero: this was the first large ensemble work to use the saxophone family. And I can't forget Harry Partsch! He was an American composer and instrument maker who was inspired to modify existing instruments to create and build new ones.

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