Gifts to the Harp

*NOTE: My endnotes have been lost in formatting translation, but my works cited can be found at the end of the post.

While Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel exhibited quite different French compositional styles, one quality they shared was an interest and deftness in composing for the harp. They often utilized the harp in unique and beautiful ways, but a handful of pieces truly showcase their attention to its color and potential, and have made their way into the most prestigious of harp repertoire. The most evident pieces are Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane, and his Sonata for flute, viola, and harp, as well as Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro pour harpe. An exploration of these works reveals what is truly touching and extraordinary about their treatment of the instrument.

The origins of the Danses and the Introduction et Allegro are rooted in harp manufacturing history. At the turn of the century, the Pleyel company had pioneered a new instrument called the “chromatic harp,” which purported the ability to play all chromatic sonorities at once, (in contrast with the double-action pedal harp, which required the movement of the pedals to achieve different tonalities). The chromatic harp consisted of two columns with two full rows of intersecting strings, representing all possible tones. In 1903, Pleyel commissioned Debussy to write a piece for this chromatic creation, also initially intended as a competition piece for the Brussels Conservatoire. The Danses premiered the next year in Paris to unfortunately less-than-stellar reviews. Pierre Lalo of Le Temps declared that there was “no life in the music,” while Gabriel Fauré called it “disagreeable.” Part of the problem was certainly the harp itself, which could only carry a tinny sound, and got lost amongst the orchestra. Despite his chromatic commission, Debussy seemed to not be married to the idea that the Danses had to be played on the chromatic harp, as he notated at the top of the score that it could also be accomplished by the typical double-action harp. (In fact, the British premiere of the Danses featured a pedal harp.) The double-action harp, however, became Ravel’s fare.

In 1905, inspired by the promotion of Pleyel’s chromatic harp, Albert Blondel, director of the competing Érard company, commissioned Ravel to write a comparable show piece for his company’s double-action harp. The product was the Introduction et Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet, and a string quartet. Composed in eight days and three sleepless nights, this “musical equivalent of [a] Matisse painting” demonstrates “effortless spontaneity.” Unlike Debussy’s composition, Ravel’s could only be played on the double-action harp, and not the chromatic harp, thus more adequately accomplishing the task of his commission, and rendering the chromatic harp redundant. Instead, Ravel displayed the pedal harp’s capabilities to their full extent, including features like a cadenza which utilizes all seven pedals in all of their possible positions. While the harp is notoriously difficult to compose for, Roslyn Rensch refers to Ravel’s piece as a “master lesson in harp composition.” This piece gained more favorable reviews, for although it is “shamelessly melodious, seductive in harmony,” and “alluringly coloured,” it also exhibits classical virtues.

Shaped like a concerto, the Introduction et Allegro showcases the harp like a solo instrument. Both the introduction and the allegro are written in sonata form, but convey two varying auras. The first is one of modern chromaticism, showing off the contemporary possibilities of the harp. This is in contrast to the first of the Debussy Danses, the “sacrée” (sacred) dance, which is written in various solemn modes. Debussy summons antiquity and ancient religiosity with his sacred dance, utilizing aeolian and dorian modes, as well as pentatonic sonorities. The first dance is chant-like and medieval. (The way he conveys sacredness from drawing on these ancient sounds is also reminiscent of his La cathédrale engloutie.) Both pieces are impressions of a past long faded away. Ravel chooses to evoke this feeling in the allegro. Here he draws on the modes of antiquity to paint a primeval and idyllic scene. As Michael Puri points out, “the harp that begins the Allegro is the lyre of Orpheus.” Overall, Ravel’s piece indicated that along with the typical attention paid to harmony, melody, and rhythm, the composer was equally concerned with the importance of tone color.

Meanwhile, in Debussy’s second dance, the dance “profane,” he grounds the listener in the sensuality of the earthly realm. The “profane” dance settles into a lilting triple meter, and is only profane in the sense that it is of the mortal world rather than Debussy’s modal world of the past. When composer Manuel de Falla first heard the Danses, he remarked that he “detected a Spanish element,” in this second dance, which helped evoke the earthy sensuality. Especially with the profane dance being a clear waltz, some early performances (1908 and 1939), chose to set actual choreography to the Danses. The dances function as two parts of a larger whole. They are two portions of a single movement, which is close to a harp concerto in form. Both Debussy and Ravel of course each had their own compositional styles and colors, but there are clear parallels between these two pieces in how the harp is used. Both composers were romanced by the atmosphere and tales of antiquity, and they use the angelic harp to evoke the solemn and mystical airs of the religious as well as mythical past. Each one also uses the harp to display contemporary chromatic and harmonic exploration. The harp lends itself well to this task, given its wide range and malleability. Additionally, each composer, throughout their respective careers, showed interest in using traditional forms as the basis for their compositions, but expanding upon them in new and unusual ways. Both the Danses and the Introduction et Allegro interpret tried-and-true forms such as that of the sonata in their own way, and present an expected format—the concerto—with new impressionistic goals.

Never has the goal for new interpretations of old conventions been so evident as in Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola, and harp. Towards the end of his life, Debussy set out to compose six sonatas with atypical instrumentation. While he did not live to complete all six, those that were finished are shining examples of what he referred to as his “latest experiments in musical chemistry.” The combination of the flute, viola, and harp in the second sonata can be described not only as experimental, but as “bewitching” and “hedonist[ic],” as well as “peculiarly French” in its color. The three instruments serve as complements to each other, representing two ends of a timbral spectrum, tied together in the center. The long tones of the flute, and the plucked tones of the harp are united by the viola, capable of accomplishing both effects. Another quality produced by the peculiar instrumentation is that of delicacy. The flute, viola, and harp are all instruments that thrive in sensitive, subtle music, sparkling through thicker orchestral textures. Together, they create an ethereal, other-worldly blend.

Composed in 1915 for his wife Emma, the sonata for flute, viola, and harp is made up of three movements: the pastorale, an interlude, and a finale. The pastorale evokes the countryside in wispy phrases that pass by like memories. The motives float by in that way, passing between the instruments, weaving an intangible, airy blend. What is unique about the musical ideas in this first movement is how they contribute to Debussy’s use of overall form. The sonata is obviously in sonata form, but Debussy chose to use a form more closely related to the sonata of the Baroque era, in which each movement is based on a single motif, and “worked through in decorative fashion.” However, not only did Debussy use more than one musical idea in each movement, but they are composed as fragmented ideas which make for unusual elaboration in the development. The second movement also comments on traditional form as it is a reinvented minuet in a triple meter. Technically speaking, the harp’s ability to perform sweeping arpeggios is utilized as a dramatic effect. The third movement changes the emotional effect of the harp, as the movement is led by a more aggressive figures from the instrument, that are more threatening, but still pastoral in nature. Perhaps the third movement is referencing the capacity for violence which nature possesses. The pastoral landscape can quickly turn sublime, and the harp can accomplish both moods of nature through its versatility.

Debussy explored polytonality in this piece, but crafted it in a soothing way, rather than in an unsettling one. With ambiguous tonality, and fragmented musical ideas, he really set out to create an “abstract sound piece” rather than one of traditional structure through the convention of the sonata. He compared this composition to his own early works, particularly his Nocturnes, citing that he felt he was “revisiting” an “earlier time in his compositional life.” The sonata is experimental in instrumental execution, and carries the signature dreamy aura of an impressionist work. Just like his Danses, the sonata blends the affects of melancholy and spirituality, creating a sensitive and emotional masterpiece. Much of that effect can be attributed to the harp, due to its reputation for being celestial and ancient, able to recall timbres of the past.

While pieces such as Debussy’s Danses and Sonata for flute, viola, and harp, and Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro are staples in the repertoire of harpists, there is shockingly little written about their contributions to the larger catalog and legacy of the composers. The harp is an often misunderstood instrument, and the color and character it provides to a work is somewhat under-appreciated. While Debussy and Ravel wrote for modern renditions of the instrument, the harp is a musical staple from long before, its tone drawing on eons of tradition and meaning. It was the perfect choice for these two composers to explore and convey antiquity, spirituality, sentimentalism, and nostalgia. The way Debussy and Ravel composed for the heavenly instrument was pure magic, and a gift to players for ages to come.

Works Cited

Holmes, Paul. The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers: Debussy. London: Omnibus Press, 1989.

Keller, James. Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Larner, Gerald. Maurice Ravel. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996. 186-187.

Lederer, Victor. Debussy: The Quiet Revolutionary. New York: Amadeus Press, 2007.

Marson, John. The Book of the Harp. Suffolk: Kevin Mayhew LTD, 2005. 157 157.

Puri, Michael. Ravel the Decadent. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Radice, Mark A. Chamber Music: An Essential History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.

Rensch, Roslyn. The Harp. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969.

One thought on “Gifts to the Harp

  1. Nice article. I’ve been listening to the Ravel for the last two days (not continuously). It’s one of my all time favorites. I’ve never read anything on its background though, so thanks. I am going to give the Debussy a spin now.

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