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Topic: How to write for harp?

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  1. #1

    How to write for harp?

    I'm working on a piece for harp and strings, and will feature harp in other pieces in a long orchestral work. I am a veteran plucker (guitar, mandolin, 5-str banjo, Alpine zither) but never sat down at a big harp. So all I know is what I read in the standard instrumentation/orchestration books (Forsythe and Berlioz tell quite a bit, Kennan somewhat less). My harp part is pretty complex and I am doubtless writing things that are unplayable. I must say that the GPO harpist does a smashing job with this part.

    What are recommendable sources on harp technique that will tell me what I can do and what I can't?

    Also -- is there any source that suggests what kinds of writing will require a second harp? The part is all on one instrument now, but I think that two harps will probably be a good idea for technical and other reasons (volume) so I'm not at all averse to rescoring for a pair of pluckers.

    Which pieces for two harps should I look at to see what good scoring for a pair of harps looks like?

  2. #2

    Re: How to write for harp?

    The orchestration books give you a lot of what you need to know and I'm sure your background with other stringed instruments helps a lot too. If you close your eyes and imagine your hands moving over the strings you can probably catch most of the impossible stuff.

    The big thing (obviously) is pedal settings. If the pedal is set for C#, then you can't write a C-natural unless you use a B# or give the player time to switch back to C-natural. Harp music is very heavy on enharmonics, both for nice glissando effects and solving practical problems.

    I would recommend checking out as many scores as possible, esp. Ravel and Debussy. Even better, go find a harp player and ask questions!

  3. #3

    Re: How to write for harp?

    Hi Doug,

    You might also find this tutorial useful.

    Harp Tutorial

    Good luck,

    Karl

  4. #4

    Re: How to write for harp?

    I recently wrote a major piece for Harp, and for preparation I studied closely the score to Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for Fl Clar harp and St Qtet.
    It is a great piece and offers great insights into what is possible on the harp.
    regards

  5. #5

    Re: How to write for harp?

    Quote Originally Posted by Dargason
    Even better, go find a harp player and ask questions!
    Gary's a harpist.

    GARY!!! WHERE ARE YOU!???


    He could probably answer most of your questions.

    -Chris

  6. #6

    Re: How to write for harp?

    Thanks, guys. Oops, I think I had noticed the existence of Poolman's harp tutorial some time ago but forgot about it. This is a good start. And his reference to another source led me to:

    http://www.harpspectrum.org/harpwork...for_harp.shtml

    Vive le web.

  7. #7
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    Re: How to write for harp?

    Doug,

    When I return from Berklee I can take a look at your harp part. In addition to Terry Dwyer's Harp tutorial Karl referenced, one of the associate professors at Berklee, Felice Pomeranz, wrote a harp tutorial you can view here.

    For harp pedaling, think of the harps strings as the white notes on a piano ketboard. The pedals correspond to each note - A,B,C,D,E,F,G and raises each note a half step up or a haf step down. The MIDI harp packets can emulate these pedalings. There are some pedaling books that are available.

    If you writing is too chromatic you may need a second harp or a chromatic harp (such things exist).

    Gary Garitan


    Quote Originally Posted by Doug Smith
    I'm working on a piece for harp and strings, and will feature harp in other pieces in a long orchestral work. I am a veteran plucker (guitar, mandolin, 5-str banjo, Alpine zither) but never sat down at a big harp. So all I know is what I read in the standard instrumentation/orchestration books (Forsythe and Berlioz tell quite a bit, Kennan somewhat less). My harp part is pretty complex and I am doubtless writing things that are unplayable. I must say that the GPO harpist does a smashing job with this part.

    What are recommendable sources on harp technique that will tell me what I can do and what I can't?

    Also -- is there any source that suggests what kinds of writing will require a second harp? The part is all on one instrument now, but I think that two harps will probably be a good idea for technical and other reasons (volume) so I'm not at all averse to rescoring for a pair of pluckers.

    Which pieces for two harps should I look at to see what good scoring for a pair of harps looks like?

  8. #8

    Re: How to write for harp?

    I've found these books

    "Harp Scoring" by Stanley Chaloupka
    "Modern Study Of The Harp" by Carlos Salzedo
    "Writing For The Pedal Harp" by Ruth Inglefield & Lou Anne Neill

    Haven't read any of them though, but maybe someone else has?

    /Mats

  9. #9
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    Re: How to write for harp?

    Quote Originally Posted by Tangram
    I've found these books

    "Harp Scoring" by Stanley Chaloupka
    "Modern Study Of The Harp" by Carlos Salzedo
    "Writing For The Pedal Harp" by Ruth Inglefield & Lou Anne Neill

    Haven't read any of them though, but maybe someone else has?

    /Mats
    "Harp Scoring" by Stanley Chaloupka is an excellent reference for the harp. I've used it often. It is available from Lyon and Healy. Salzedo is one of the greatest harpists that ever lived and I would also recommend that book.

    Gary Garritan

  10. #10

    Re: How to write for harp?

    My two cents and pet peeves as a harpist:

    1. DON'T WRITE FIVE NOTE CHORDS FOR EACH HAND! (Harpists never use their pinkies. Ever, period.). This is a basic Orchestration 101 kinda rule, but it's AMAZING to me how many scores I come across that violate it. (Example: Morton Gould's "When Johnny came marching home" which I just played with orchestra this past summer -- has five-note chords in both hands. Now, you'd think Gould, no slouch, woulda known better, right?)

    2. Don't feel compelled to write in pedalings for the harpist, even if you're a harpist yourself. It's not a sin to write them in, but inevitably I end up pedaling in a different place than the non-harpist composer thinks I will, and there's no way to erase his pedalings if they're already printed in ink. (If you want to save the harpist time, consider writing cautionary accidentals as needed -- they can help in a sight-reading situation).

    3. Write in a good range for the harp. Parts that I (for one) like to play have me in the mid-range of the instrument, which is usually mellow and resonant. There's nothing wrong with writing for higher or lower ends, but if you do bear in mind the following:
    a. You know how the highest octave of the piano sounds magical and sparkling and echo-ey? Harps don't tend to sound that way up there (much to people's surprise). Instead, they can be dry and brittle and tinkly. Or even "xylophonish." Great for some effects but not the "heavenly mellow" cliche people sometimes think.
    b. The bass octaves are gorgeous but they really tend to get lost in a full (or even moderate) orchestration. Ergo, in full-orchestra passages, don't feel compelled to make the harp cover the basses' notes in octaves. (In other words, don't make the harp part seem like a piano reduction of the orchestral score). In tutti passages leave low notes to the basses and celli, and instead let the harp cover big chords in mid and higher ranges.

    4. Don't keep re-plucking the same notes. Remember that every time the harpist plucks a string, he damps it a split second beforehand. This means it will sound LESS resonant than a piano would playing in the same way. So, good, resonant arpeggios hit a given note once and then let it ring for as long as possible. A good rule of thumb: when writing arpeggios for harp, think more about what would make a guitar sound good, than of a piano with the sustain pedal held down.

    5. Most important rule: Talk with a harpist... we're friendly and we're really interested in people writing great, effective parts for us! I've got several composer friends who, before handing an orchestral work to the conductor, will give me the harp part and let me check it out to make sure it all hangs together.

    There, just my opinions.
    Hope all that helps in some way!
    Steve Main
    Steve Main
    stmain@aol.com
    www.stephenmain.com

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