—by Elizabeth Volpé Bligh
Composers aren’t always kind to harpists (we’re talkin’ to you Wagner, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky). Find out how to conquer the unplayable part once and for all.
The unplayable harp part. We’ve all faced it—a flurry of notes, some of which may not even exist on the instrument. Rarely do we have the luxury of simply refusing the part. We have to make it work. We have to find a way. So we’ve put together a primer to help you gather the tools you need to make the unplayable playable.
So much harp music has been written poorly for the instrument, causing us to spend too much of our time in the search for solutions. A passage may be physically possible, but sound dreadful if played as written. Take everyone’s Christmas favorite, Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers cadenza, for example. When Albert Zabel, the Bolshoi harpist, saw the part, he told Tchaikovsky that it did not work well, and showed him the cascading arpeggios and glissando that have since become common practice. Tchaikovsky agreed whole-heartedly and gave Zabel’s edition his enthusiastic blessing, but unfortunately the part was never re-issued like that.
You will save yourself a lot of gray hairs (though too late for me!) if you learn to solve these issues quickly, recognizing familiar patterns and using our prior experience to cut down on wasted time. This does not mean you should not try to play the notes as written, but have a plan B ready in case the passage remains stubbornly out of reach or the conductor has too much caffeine before the concert. An overly rambunctious tempo can propel a merely awkward passage into the realm of fantasy. Think of this article as the Orchestral Harpist’s Plan B Guide.