Chromatic Academy | History

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Sections of it have been translated to English by Philippe Clemente. Also in Belgium and making an enormous contribution is harpist Vanessa Gerkens, who founded Harpa Nova for the promotion and teaching of the chromatic harp. Again we find ourselves asking the question- why did interest in this instrument diminish? In the case of Paris, there were two reasons- one was Gabriel Faure. As director of the Conservatorium, he judged the instrument to have “too many strings”.

He declared a public competition, for which two pieces ware commissioned from the two most illustrious graduates of the conservatorium- Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, the former to compose for the chromatic harp, and the latter for the pedal harp. Despite composing the Dances Sacred and Dances Profane, a piece now central to the repertoire of the pedal harp, Debussy and the chromatic harp lost out in the popular choice to Ravel and the pedal harp. Faure cancelled the course at the Conservatorium, but it was reinstated by the next director, although in a reduced role.

Combined with this was the sudden shift in musical aesthetics in Paris after the arrival of Stravinski- the harp had been closely associated with romanticism, and the French were developing a taste for wind instruments, particularly the clarinet. The Belgians certainly maintained their commitment to the instrument, as did, oddly enough, the opera houses of Latin America. But, predictably , it was a Welsh harp builder- John Thomas, not to be confused with the composer of virtuosic confectionary music for the harp- John Thomas, who was the next important link in the chromatic harp’s history. Thomas made 42 harps, ranging from three and a half octaves to six and a half octaves, all sturdily constructed of hard-woods, with gut strings. It is unclear the exact degree of exposure these instruments had in England and Wales, what is important is that in the 1980’s, one of these harps ended up in America, where it proved to be the prototype for a revival of the chromatic harp. Builders in Canada particularly, such as Emile Geering and Phillippe Clemente, began making instruments while artists such as Liz Cifani, Ben Brown, jazz harpist Lurlene Schermer, and in the area of folk music, the indefatigable Harper Tashe, began popularizing the chromatic harp.

Largely due to their efforts, and the number on fine luthiers actually constructing the instrument there is now an expanding culture of the chromatic harp throughout the United States, with an emphasis on a repertoire of contemporary popular forms- jazz, folk and blues, rather than classical. As with any instrumental culture, you cannot have the music without the builders. As in America, Australia had to wait until a harp-builder got up the courage to face the engineering of the chromatic harp.

This occurred in the 1990’s when luthier Doug Eaton produced the first small chromatic harp, followed by larger three and a half octave instruments. Luthier Brandden Laselles at around the same time, began making five octave instruments with a marked American influence. The prolific maker/performer/teacher Andy Rigby, produced a single model. Lasselles has gone on to make a variety of chromatic harps of high quality and varying sizes, with his designs moving towards the French model. The present author introduced the instrument to Australia in a series of five concerts at the 1997 Woodford Music Festival, and has subsequently performed at major national festivals throughout the country, as well as locally with fellow chromatic harpist Nicole Denington. He formed the Australian School of Chromatic Harp, the Chromatic Academy, in 2006.


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