The pros say every harpist should know these 10 orchestra parts, plus a few more for good measure.

Imagine that you’ve just been hired as principal harpist of an orchestra. Your first order of business should be to learn the most demanding parts that will frequently sit atop your music stand—tattered pages staring you in the eye. If you’re lucky, you’ll find out what these are and get the parts before the season starts. If you’re not so lucky, well, good luck.

Every orchestra has its favorite pieces that it programs time and time again. Some of these have harp parts that require a great deal of work to master, and there is rarely enough time in the schedule to put in the hours necessary, especially given the demands of the rest of your career and family life. Rather than panic and cram a major harp part under time pressure, most harpists try to learn these mainstays of the orchestral literature on their own time, long before they get that last-minute call to play Symphonie Fantastique this weekend.

Harpists also find many of these major parts on orchestra audition lists, which is another reason to learn them early, before you need to perform them. In some cases, the way you would perform these parts on the job is different from how you would play them in auditions. Audition panels are listening for certain things demonstrated in these excerpts, despite the pieces not being a part of the usual repertoire of that orchestra. They need to hear if the harpist has good rhythm, technique, accuracy, musicianship, good muffling, style, tone, harmonics, and solid pedal technique. They want to hear that the harpist knows the entire piece, not just the harp part. Sometimes a fairly simple piece will be on an audition—that is when they are listening for finesse and beauty, and quiet pedals!

Author Elizabeth Volpé Bligh is principal harpist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. She will retire from her position in 2018 after 35 seasons with the orchestra. Scroll down for her editing tips on our “Top Ten” excerpts.

Remember that, in practice, the orchestra may take speeds that are much faster than the marked tempi, and it is your job to sound smooth and seamless even when the notes have become impossible. In an audition, you are expected to play all the notes (unless otherwise marked in the parts sent by the orchestra), but not at breakneck speeds beyond the marked tempo. (See my article, “Mission Impossible” from the May/June 2014 issue of Harp Column.)

We asked orchestral harpists around the world what was on their orchestra’s list of top ten harp parts. There are differences due to the contents of the orchestra’s library, the budget for renting unusual pieces, the conductors’ and audiences’ preferences, the number of musicians in the orchestra, and the management’s ability to take risks in their programming. Despite these differences, every orchestra does have its list of beloved, familiar repertoire; here is an (unscientific) look at the top ten harp parts among them.

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About Author

Elizabeth has been the Principal Harpist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra since 1982, after 6 years as harpist with the National Ballet of Canada. She teaches at UBC, the VSO School of Music, the VSO Institute at Whistler and privately. In 2011, she was the Chair of the Host Committee for the World Harp Congress in Vancouver, and currently is President of the West Coast Harp Society and the BC Chapter of the AHS.

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