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Flat Chords: Yes or No?

  • Saul
    Saul Davis Zlatkovski

    I hear quite a few harpists playing chords flat (unbroken). To my ear, it produces a clunky line without elegance, because you have these sudden peaks of sound that fade off, rather than curving line. Even though Salzedo and Lawrence were such modernists, for the most part, they broke chords at least slightly (cracked) and very rhythmically. It was harp tradition since before Bochsa, but not for stylistic reasons, Lawrence held, but for acoustic reasons. On the harp you can hear a chord better when it is broken because it is clearer what the notes in it are, and I add, it gives you a smoother line. Sometimes I want a flat chord for effect, but then it is a real challenge to bring out the inner notes clearly. I don't mark all the chords in my compositions, but definitely mark if they should be played flat. I feel as though playing flat chords is imitating pianists who, I might say, lack the good taste to break their chords. I am curious, those among you who have listened to many recordings from before 1920, how much more often you heard the piano chords broken. I think it was done much more, though unmarked, because I have sometimes heard it, but also because of the tradition of chords marked harpege in the baroque period. I never read of a proclamation being issued to ban the breaking of chords, so I suspect it never completely stopped until the 1920s or so. What do you think?

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    replies to "Flat Chords: Yes or No?"
    • Unknown
      Unknown User

      I'm not so sure what I think about the statement that pianists lack the taste to break their chords - it's such a different instrument. But yes, they do break their chords less often. And I do find that in some orchestral parts, by British composers in particular, they do tend to write chordal passages for harp that a very pianistic in their voicing. A basic accompaniment, chugging away on the beat, and  underscoring the melody in the strings. And with that sort of "pianistic" harp part, it sometimes does seem to work best not to break all the chords. As you know,  they may very well want a "clunky line" that has "sudden peaks of sound"!

      I can't say that that style of writing is my fav - or is showing the instrument to its best - but that may be very well what they want.

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    • Han
      Han Hsieh

      My opinion is the same as #2, playing with what the music score says; unless the piece is open for adding ornaments.

      Esmeralda has a nice statement from other thread that can also be used on this one.......

      in general music... we seem to focus too much on presenting our personal interpretation of the work, rather than producing it the way the composer heard it in his mind and bringing out his personal individuality rather than ours.

      A harpist over doing broken cords is like a singer over rolling his/her tongue on every "R" sound when singing Italian songs. There are great musicians who refrain from injecting their personal essence into their performance, and rather remained true to the composer's original expression.. Arghur Rubinstein's Chopin collection is one of the best example.

      Finally, I do heard some harpists play flat cords clunky. Could it be  method/technic problem since there are people who can handle it very well? Or, should we just blame it to the harps that they are using?

      Happy new year, everyone!








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    • Kreig
      Kreig Kitts

      This reminds me of an article I read some time ago (which I managed to find) about the effect of classical music recordings on performance styles.  According to the article, musicians used to have their own national styles of playing different instruments, and techniques were different from what they are now.  One example given is that pianists used to roll their chords quite liberally (at least my today's standards).  However, as recording technology produced cleaner recordings and listening to recordings of pieces became more widespread, the cleaner methods became the standard, including the playing of block chords by pianists except when specifically indicated by the composer.

      The article is at http://www.newyorker.com/critics/atlarge/articles/050606crat_atlarge and is worth a read.

       

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    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      I was kind of making the point that breaking chords isn't a personal style. I've never heard it over done, but flat chords, yes. We can't just go by composers's markings unless it is clearly specified, or it is clear by their writing that they know the harp well enough to communicate how it will sound. That is not often the case, and we have to help realize their intentions. Perhaps that is where this is arising from. I don't think that is interfering by the harpist, or arrogant or anything like that. Their training in writing for harp is minimal at best. Have you ever read the harp sections in orchestration books? That is about all they have to go by, I suspect. I have found and observed that when the composer works with a good harpist who helps them find the best expression in idiomatic language the best results are obtained. This being said, when a harpist starts telling me, a harpist, how I might better rewrite something, I am a bit insulted. But that only happened once. The composer does have to want input. Some don't. And so we have odd parts by Stravinsky, for one example.

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    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      Thank you, Krieg, for that link. I may have read that a while ago. It confirms my suspicion about pianist's chords. A shame more don't hear the early recordings, to know the real style left behind. I heard them on the Ysaye recording of Faure's Berceuse. After all, it was Beethoven who said that the piano must develop its own voice, one apart from the harp; implying that they were one and the same until his midlife. While interpretive gestures may have seemed distasteful for a century or so, I hear music that is just wrong without a real shmear in the violin. The fanaticism for cleanliness and cold perfection is deadly, dulling, and personality killing. I just wish I had full-time access to recording like Gould did.

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    • Catherine
      Catherine Rogers

      I was taught to slightly crack most chords (on harp) unless the notation indicated otherwise. I discovered this must be an American habit when our orchestra had a guest conductor from Europe several years ago who asked me to stop arpeggiating the chords. I didn't know what he meant until I realized he didn't want the chords cracked or rolled at all, just played flat. I don't remember what the music was. I did what he wanted, but I didn't like the sound of it.

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    • Unknown
      Unknown User

      I don't think it really has anything to do with Americans or European.  Its just a personal view of the topic.  I believe that the fact that we tend to roll up every arpeggio is for two reasons.  1 because most of the public (and also a good number of composers) think that together with the glissando, its the trademark of the harp, and secondly, let's face it... rolling up is hell much more easier than flat.  Easier to prepare the next arpeggio in progression, and more over  for playing a flat chord, one must have perfect equality in all 8 fingers, something which might be easily disguised when playing broken.

      I tend to use flat chords a lot in certain works.  I believe that open seem to portray even more the harp as a femminine delicate thing.  Blocks sound more powerful and energetic to me.  but then we have to reach equilibrium.  I'll mention some stuff which everyone here knows of.  Impromptu Faure... in the opening bars, i used to arpeggiate all, until my profs asked if i can do the left arpeggiated, followed instantly by a block chord in the right... and I think it sounds great, the whole work sounds just like a duet between this masculinity then followed by feminility and again.  In Grandjany's works, i'll say the fantasie, i arpeggiate the melody chords, with the secondary chords being flat and this creates a contrast between a small space of music. I believe composers liked this idea of flat as a powerful projection.  Example is Britten's Variation for the harp.  he uses flat, and I don't imagine anyone opening them up.  I feel that composers in general are moving more towards  a flat idea, mainly projecting the harp as quite harsher instrument rather than this delicate thing we've known for the past centuries.

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    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      I agree with much of what you said, only I don't think of rolling chords as more delicate. For example, the Faure Impromptu, as you mention, with the chords all rolled can be as rich and powerful as the ocean, depending on your crescendo. I was taught to play the opening chords of the Debussy Danses with the left hand broken and the right hand unbroken. I wouldn't do it in the Faure. Now in the Interlude from the Ceremony of Carols it is not necessarily clear what Britten wants unless you listen to Osian Ellis. It is also a question of how much liberty you want to take in a situation where you more-or-less know the intent of the composer.

      I have found that since I began working on arpeggiating all chords with a conscious rhythmic value to each note, that it has really changed the shape and flow of pieces, and brought a lot more clarity. I didn't realize how vague I was playing even though I always finished on the beat. When you consciously choose to break some chords slower or faster than others you have so much more phrasing in your control. So, even if you always break chords, you have so much subtlety available to you. I think that it is just the voice of the harp, and the contrast is important. I think the rolled chord is more sensual, sexual and passionate because it is shaped, delayed, completed, and is more visually detailed.

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    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth Volpé Bligh

      I have found that you can really alter the sound of a flat chord by playing either with curved fingers or flat fingers. It also sounds different if you close your hand or you don't. That's what I love about the harp. There are so many choices open to us for variations of colour and expression. And, yes, rolling the chords at different speeds, or only rolling one hand, all give us different effects. Since we don't have the dynamic range of a piano, this is how we can make up for it.

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      Elizabeth- You bring out a really good point, and that is that it is important to use the full range of nuance available to us on the harp. One of my big BIG beefs about so many harpists is that they don't use multiple dynamic levels simultaneously.


      The opening chords of both the Danses and the Faure Impromptu require bringing out either the lowest note(in the Danses) or the highest(in the Impromptu) slightly in order to focus the listener on the melody. Without that, these passages are flat and boring. In the fiendishly difficult middle section of La Rosignole of Liszt/Renie, the right hand plays both the trill and the melody simultaneously, AND has to play them at two different dynamic levels. In the Impromptu Caprice of Pierne where the opening melody starts(after the introduction) Pierne says"Really bring out the melody"(Le chante BIEN en dehors). Almost every time I hear that piece, the player is blasting his/her way through the gorgeous melody, with both melody and accompaniment at the same(loud) level. And in the second movement of Tournier's first Sonatine, I think most players don't even realize that there is a melody in there.


      When I teach this technique of playing multiple dynamic levels simultaneously, I tell the student that the first step is to play the passage playing the melody as loud as possible and everything else as soft as possible. Once the student can do that, then the next step is to adjust volumes, shape the melody and the accompanying material, and make music. It is not unusual in music for the melody and the harmony to have dynamic shifts that are not the same. So each hand has to be able to play at least two dynamic levels at the same time, AND be able to shape the melody and harmony in different ways.

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    • Unknown
      Unknown User

      Carl - i fully agree with your position.   Just one thing to add please.  Regarding the Impromptu.  I'm playing it again next monday as part of a recital.  I feel that at the beginning, apart from the top not which surely has to come out, there is also the lowest notes which create a body of their own.  Few harpists notice the form of the German 7th which i feel it is very important to bring out.  Further in the work, the sections of the block chords (then followed with melody in octave with arpeggiated base)  most harpists are focused on bringing out the melody line as well, however do not notice the cross rythim that the left hand is creating.  Personally i phrase right and left hands in seperate manners as i feel that they are actually two different bodies intercrossing each other.

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      +Personally i phrase right and left hands in seperate manners as i feel that they are actually two different bodies intercrossing each other.+


      Esmeralda- That is exactly what I am talking about when I say that both hands have to be able to play multiple dynamic levels at the same time.


      On the first page of the Danses, half way down, the right hand plays the melody and every other melody note is a chord, so that you play chord, octave, chord, octave, chord, octave, etc. To make the melody consistant and smooth, the chords have to be played so that the outer notes(octaves) match the octaves that follow, while the inner notes of the chord have to be somewhat lower dynamically. Otherwise you get this lumpy presentation of the melody. Unfortunately, most teachers don't teach these techniques to their students I think because they can't do it themselves, and so that is not a part of their interpretative vocabulary.

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    • Unknown
      Unknown User

      Carl - now you have really touched on an issue.... when someone calls himself a teacher, when in reality, he needs to learn himself. i believe there was another thread on this subject.  But I'm afraid that's how all music is made Professionals and Amateurs.  One thing I can assure.  A student who really wants the best for his carreer, will make sure himself that he has the right teacher who can show him the fine touches to a masterpiece.  Those who call themselves harpists simply because they were able to buy a harp, will be dropped out anyway, and are not the ones to get the major venues.

       

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      Unfortunately Esmeralda, that has not been my experience in the USA. If a student starts with a bad teacher and stays with him/her, then the student really has no basis for comparison and doesn't know any better.


      If the teacher is a bad teacher, it usually means also that that teacher is not interested in hearing better harpists, or having his/her students hear better harpists. So many teachers operate in their own enclosed little world and neither they, nor their students, know what is going on in the larger harp world. At the University level it's just as bad. I could name many teachers at that level who do nothing more than assign one piece after another to the student, and when the student has learned the notes, the piece is considered finished and the teacher moves on. Such teachers are unmusical themselves. Also, it is rare to find a teacher who can explain technical issues, and teach them to a developing student. So the landscape is pretty bleak.

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    • Alexander
      Alexander Rider

      I quote Francis Poulenc: 'More butter in the sauce'. I agree that the spreading chords encourrages a rich and round touch. I particularly found this when,listening to Ion Roncea's recording of the Dussek (corri?) sonata in C-minor, that he rolld the chords rythimically, like an ornament (not as Judly Loman rolls them). I do that now- its very effective.I recall my frustration at being forbidden to roll the big eight note chords at the opening of the Mozart/Le Dentu theme and variations. after a year or two of playing it, I did it anyway. Those chords were to juicy to resisit! 

       

      HOWEVER ...As a lowly student, I find the idea that one should 'always' crack a chord  rather old fashioned. I think one must go with musical instincts. Different approaches, different chords. In the grandjany preludes, I feel that the harmonic shifts come out more succinctly if the chords are played straight or 'secco' .

       

      Though I always find projection is easier in the orchestra if I spread the chord...

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    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      I wonder how you make the chord progression more clear if you are playing the chords unbroken, because that makes it harder to hear the inner notes. I agree, Carl, that after the melody line, one must also hear the bass, but what often gets neglected are those inner notes, and developing them brings the richest tone. But you can still voice it so top and bottom are most audible. I practice such chord passages in several ways to bring out the inner voicings that are so important. Isolating each finger, singing each line as you go through the passage are just two ways. I am currently working on Recessional by Salzedo, which is about six pages of chords of massive proportions and there are many inner voicings that must be detailed. Any pianist worth his salt learns how to bring out the inner voices as a basic tool of interpretation. One thing harpists must do is not only hang around other harpists, but hear what pianists do, and other musicians, especially singers.

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    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      Here's something that explains the behavior of a lot of pianists: in Feruccio Busoni's too-too popular edition of Bach's Two-Part Inventions, he writes the following execrable advice: "The incomprehensible Arpeggiando sign, which one finds before this chord (the final chord) in many editions, is contrary to the manly style of this piece, and may be classed in Bach's phraseology as "styleless." Against such effeminacies in this and in analogous cases, the student is especially warned."

      Well, that surely scared a lot of piano-players straight. But a far better man than Busoni, Wanda Landowska, dismissed him outright as someone completely ignorant about Bach's ornaments. So there.

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    • Briggsie B.
      Briggsie B. Peawiggle, Esq.

      Go Wanda. :)  I studied harpsichord and organ at the university level in the mid to late 80's. By that time a LOT of research had been done on Bach's ornamentation, and I was fortunate to have studied with someone who had done a lot of research on it. I was taught (and have since heard over and over again) to slowly break a chord on the haprsichord at the end of a piece from the bottom up and to the leading tone, hesitate for a hot second and then begin the trill. I can't imagine that being wrong on the keyboard. Busoni is so "yesterday's news."

       

      June

       

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    • Saul
      Saul Davis Zlatkovski

      One more thought about broken chords:

      We are the only orchestral instrument to use them, mostly, which provides a unique texture. Other than guitar, we are also pretty much the only solo instrument to regularly use them, so it is all the more unique for us to use them, and it would be a terrible thing for the art, if broken chords were to disappear altogether.

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    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      One important thing to remember too is that there are many ways to roll a chord and the variety adds interest to the piece. The opening chords of the Danses for example are almost(but not quite) flat. Chords in Pierne and Faure are much fuller and longer. Sometimes the top note(as in Renie's Contemplation)has to be brought out slightly stronger, or the bottom note(as in the Danses). Sometimes a crescendo over the chord is needed (the final chord of Parish-Alvars Serenade comes to mind). There should never be just one way of rolling a chord.

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