Freeing the Harp

Composer Mark Adamo speaks up for the harp in the latest edition of New Music Box.

The harp is to the orchestra what the bosomy babe is to the spy thriller: sensuous, indispensable, and almost invariably ornamental. Why? Its timbral splash is anything but anonymous. And don't think, in ensemble, it can't be heard! It's no harder to balance with full orchestra than solo violin. You'd think an instrument of such glamour, power, and harmonic resource would have inspired a thousand concerti. You'd be wrong. Somehow—while we have no difficulty hearing the harp—we have a devil of a time paying attention to it. 'The harp is by nature more harmonic than melodic in feeling: solo melodies played on it are generally thin and ineffective,' warns solemn Kent Kennan in his Technique of Orchestration. Few orchestral composers have disagreed. They've conditioned us for centuries to hear the instrument only as accompaniment: the orchestra sings the music, and the harp...decorates it.

A recent commission presented the composer with the challenge of getting past clichés.

But let's say that you have an idea for (and have been asked to write) a harp concerto that's boldly theatrical: your music isn't intrinsically at odds with what the harp does; and you think all the technical and timbral issues are solvable problems. What are the questions you ask yourself?

Well, after accepting a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra for its principal harpist Dotian Levalier, here were mine:

1.) Since the harp is, by design, more impressive spelling out harmony than theme—but I want a theme with a real authority on which to organize the piece—can I come up with a melody that's all harmony and all line at the same time, and yet is still versatile enough to express whatever I need?

2.) Are there unusual technical or timbral resources the harp can muster that are theatrical (read: loud) enough to hold their own in an orchestral texture? Can I design a movement to ask a question to which these timbres would be the answer?

3.) And how do I make this piece not just an orchestra score which happens to have a very large harp part, but a true concerto: one which sounds as if all of its gestures and materials are generated by the soloist? In other words, how do I keep the orchestra, with its limitless melodic potential, from upstaging the harp?

Follow the full detective story to a satisfying conclusion in New Music Box.

Mark's concerto, Four Angels, premieres this week in Washington DC. Dotian Levalier is the soloist as Leonard Slatkin conducts the National Symphony.


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