Chromatic Academy | History

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SCGut36aRecords first mention the construction of a harp consisting of two sets of variously crossing strings which allowed the player to perform accidentals and modulated chords as occurring In Spain in the mid-sixteenth century, in the workshops of a luthier named Juan de Rojas de Carrion. The playing of chromatics on the harp had only recently been introduced to Spain by the Italian Arpa doppio player Ludovico playing at the court of Ferdinand the fifth during the golden age of the Spanish high Renaissance.

He had developed a technique for playing the accidentals whereby he placed the thumb of his right hand; or sometimes the left hand, under the string he was playing, this having ten effect of a lever, producing a tone a semitone higher that the original string pitch. A lengthy description of his method is included by Juan Bermudo, (the man who gave us the red and blue strings), in his 1555 treatise on musical instruments.

The original Spanish arpa de dos ordenes, unlike the majority of present-day instruments, was all strung from the one side, with the F sharp string, for example, strung from right to left across the F natural string, but to the back of it. The instruments often were not fully chromatic, some providing the additional strings on the F sharp, B flat, C sharp and E flat, which covered most of the keys in which the Spanish early repertoire seems to be written. In this form the chromatic harp had a sudden and immense rise to popularity, not only in Court music, but particularly in liturgical usage, in the flourishing theatres of Spain and in the dance music of the streets. In the 1560’s the Spanish queen Isabel de Valois, who was the person Phillip the Second married after he had been married to Mary I. of England and then sent the Armada against them, established a centre for chromatic harp by employing for her court the virtuoso player and builder Andres Martinez de Porres as well as the equally celebrated player and composer Juan di Cortejos.


However, at some point before 1590, the instrument had undergone something of a Darwinian evolution. It had come to resemble the instrument we play today with the row of pentatonic strings strung from one side and the row of diatonic strings strung from the opposite side, with them intersecting up the middle of the instrument. In that year the writer Luis Zapata describes the strings as “entretegidas”- in between one another. By the 1600’s craftsmen wishing to become members of the Luthiers Guild were required to build both a guitar and a cross strung harp. Spain at this time in history, had an enormous empire, including the South American colonies of Mexico and Argentina, whose music, hastily appropriated by the Spanish, brought great richness and innovation to the development of European music. The Chaconne and the pasacalia are both Mexican dance forms, for example.

The repertoire of the Spanish cross-strung reflects this richness with music from Latin America North Africa, Turkey, Italy and the Gypsies as well as Flamenco all transmuted into passionate Spanish court music. While in its liturgical setting the harp took a solo role, in secular forms it was played as part of an ensemble with a section of guitars, a viola di gamba, maybe a theorbo and most thrillingly, a percussion section armed with everything from Turkish and African style drums, Latin-American maracas and Spanish castanets to kettle drums and snares. The playing style of the Spanish harpists, like the playing style of most early music for the harp, uses only three fingers- the thumb, ( pulgar} the index finger, {indice} and the middle finger {largo}. Because of the alternating rhythmic line of early music, this fingering is able to maintain the strong/weak strong/weak pulse of the music. The right hand took a position close to the neck of the instrument giving a glassy, tenor ring to it, while in contrast, the left hand played in the middle of the strings, providing a richer more lingering tone. There are three major works containing both instruction and repertoire from the Spanish tradition.

The oldest, and by far the best known today, due to the virtuosic recordings of English harpist, scholar and translator, Andrew Lawrence-King is that published in 1677 by Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz e Foncea del Santa Maria de Ribaradonda. Now, if you think he has a long name, his book was titled “ Musical Light and Guiding Star Through the Tablatures of the Spanish Guitar and Harp With Playing and Singing In Time In Polyphonic Music As Well As A Short Dissertation on the Easy and Straightforward Principals of the Art, Explained With Clear Rules for Theory and Practice.“ It is commonly called simply Luz e Norte. In 1702 Diego Fernandez de Huete published the first volume of his massive work Compendio Numeroso para Harpa. covering both secular and religious use of the harp, as well as theory. As with Ribayez, de Huete notates in tablature, a method originally designed for the guitar. The third work is that of Pablo Nassarre,published in 1724, and titled Escuala Mussica. Many years in the compilation, this work covers most of what had happened with the harp over the previous half century. Despite the enormous and widespread popularity of the cross strung harp, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had fallen into virtual disuse, and within the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the instrument itself had virtually vanished from the landscape. 


This is due to three factors. Firstly, the harp had, during most of its history, shared the tablature and repertoire of the guitar, playing mainly transcriptions of music from other sources. This music became increasingly more appropriate to the guitar as Spanish music developed .The liturgical use of the instrument similarly declined with the increased interest in the pipe organ, which was capable of producing the volume of sound the Spanish so yearned for. As well as this there is the devastating impact of movie-land’s favourite castrati Farinelli, who became the darling of the rather dissolute and sybaritic Phillip V, just at this time. He had no taste for things Spanish, and influenced the king towards things Italian instead. The consequences of this was the replacement of Spanish opera with Italian, and the arrival in Madrid, via Lisbon, of the redoubtable Domenico Scarlatti, who brought with him the harpsichord- the one instrument capable of making the cross-strung harp obsolete. Finally, and most sinister of all is the destruction of the cross-strung harps by the French soldiers during the brutal Napoleonic Iberian Peninsula campaign.

This conflict, vividly captured by Goya in his series of etchings, the Follies of War, and where the term guerilla, meaning “little warriors”, was originally coined, was waged by the invading soldiers against the civilian population, and amounted to deliberate cultural genocide, in just the same way Oliver Cromwell, the most wicked man in English history, had attempted when he destroyed all of the harps of Ireland. As a result, the Spanish cross-strung fell into almost total oblivion. Ironically, the only known surviving double harp in Spain was housed in the National Museum in Madrid until 1936, in which year it disappeared, another victim of the Spanish Civil War. Since then, a very small number of these harps has been discovered, most well preserved being one with the luthier’s name Wandella and the other with the luthier’s name Francesco de Leon. Neither bears any indication of its date.

The modern revival of the Spanish instrument and its repertoire, is largely the work of English virtuoso Andrew Lawrence-King and the German harpist and scholar Astrid Nielsch. But the story does not end there. Next to enter the narrative is Hector Berlioz. In the first half of the nineteenth century, with Romanticism sweeping Europe, Berlioz introduced a new and startling music- chromaticism, designed to deepen the emotional expression and extend the complexity of harmonic and melodic form. He was fast followed by Listz and Chopin, all three composers together giving the Parisian aesthetic a distinct taste for chromatic music. It found special favour amongst theatre composers (opera and ballet), especially after the music of Wagner hit the scene. In response to this demand for chromatic instruments more flexible than the existing single-action pedal harps, which like the lever harp was capable only of changing the pitch a single semi-tone, the harp-builders of Paris came up with two solutions. The first and most enduring was the invention by M. Errard of the double-action pedal harp.The second was the development of the cross-strung chromatic harp by M. Pleyel of the piano building firm Pleyel and Wolff. M. Pleyel had built his earliest chromatic harp in the 1840’s, being by trade a piano builder, lke Alphonse Pape, another Parisian luthier experimenting with the chromatic harp. These instruments attracted some attention and many harpists, particularly those in the theatres, gave the instrument a go. 


At this point both new styles of harp were being perfected, and volumes of music was being churned out by myriads of obscure Parisian composers for both instruments. It was not until 1894 that things began to change. The company of Peyel and Wolff had now become the company of Wolff and Lyon, with the new arrival, Gustav Lyon, the man who reinvented the chromatic harp, swinging the factory’s technology over to the production of cross-strung concert harps. This he did at the request of a number of prominent harpists, including Felix Gottfroid, and with the blessings of M. Wolff who so despised the pedal harp that he burned every single one left in the factory at the death of his partner M. Pleyel. Over the next three or four years, the chromatic harp underwent a process of evolution, with over half a dozen models being produced by M. Lyon. He had the interesting habit of taking his massive instruments to the seaside to test the durability of the strings. Eventually he produced his proto-type, an instrument constructed on a reinforced metal triangle, one side of which goes up the post, one which constitutes the neck, and the last to which the mahogany sound box is attached.

The distinctive thing in the appearance of the instrument was the width of the neck, allowing the strings to cross at a more acute angle. The strings were not attached to the soundboard, because of the enormous tension involved, but rather passed through the soundboard and were attached, by way of 2cm. Springs, to a metal rod. At the neck, which was too thick for the conventional tuning pegs, M.Lyon had developed little ratchet tuning mechanisms which he called cheville D’Alibert, as well as a series of tuned metal bars which would provide the player with the pitch of all twelve individual strings upon the pressing of a little button. Not only did he have sound holes at the back of the instrument, he also had shutters in the sides of the harp’s sound-box, which could be opened and closed with a pedal, thus affecting the dynamics of the sound. He also provided a pedal for dampening the bass strings.

The strings were gut, although he had experimented with metal. Some of these harps weighed up to 60 kg. Between 1894 and 1930, when the last of the chromatic harps was made in their factory, Lyon and Wolff produced 930 instruments, as well as the very popular and smaller lute-harp with three and a half to five octaves. They also produced some abberations, such as the Integrated harp, which as well as having the chromatic cross-over, had a full set of pedals fixed to the diatonic row, which was tuned down a semi-tone lower, in C flat, like the concert harp. Initially the pedal harp and the chromatic harp were being played in equal proportion by harpists in France and Belgium, with nobody really able to make up their mind as to which was better.

The pedal harp, however, began gaining ground, particularly with composers of opera and ballet, of whom there were many, the majority of whom are now forgotten along with their turgid works, simply because it was capable of playing tuned glissandi. A course for chromatic harp was introduced at the Conservatorium in Brussells in 1900, under the direction of Jean Risler, while the Paris Conservatorium introduced a course in 1904, under the direction of Madam Tassu-Spenser. While this course closed down in 1930, that at the Brussell’s Conservatorium continues to this day, with Odile Tackoen and Francette Bartholomee having been the two major forces over the post-war years, and with the cause being well promoted at the end of the twentieth century by Hannelore Devaere, whose doctoral thesis on the chromatic harp is probably the most complete reference book we have. 


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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