Typical Compositional Issues

  • Many composers write for the harp as if it is a piano. Although there are similarities, there are significant differences that make some piano type structures difficult, if not impossible, to perform on the harp. One technical difference is the extensive use of interchanging the hands on the harp. Whereas on the piano, one hand can facilely execute arpeggiated and scalar figures, on the harp, it often takes two hands to competently perform a similar passage

  • Composers generally are not aware of the time it takes for the secure placing of the fingers on the harp strings before pulling them. It is not possible to accurately pluck all the strings, one at a time, from the air. A competent harpist will map out placements and connections in order to create smooth flowing lines. Placing requires a bit of time and cannot be done easily when the harp part is leaping around without space between the leaps for the necessary placings.

  • Harpists play with only 4 fingers each hand. Chords with more than 4 notes must be played by using both hands. The structure of an ordinary hand contains a natural wide stretch between the thumb and 2nd finger making it possible to comfortably span the interval of a 5th (or wider). If other notes are added to this span in order to form a chordal structure, they need to be in close proximity to where the 2nd finger is located. If the other fingers (3 and 4) are spread too far apart, placement can be very cumbersome. The span of a 10th between the thumb and 4th finger is generally common. If other notes are added inside of this interval, they should be placed at some distance from the thumb. Inside of a 10th, placing the 2nd finger next to the thumb causes a strain on the hand.

  • Using harmonics in a dense and loud texture is not a very good idea if the intention is for them to be heard. Harmonics require some string length, especially for the left hand that uses the palm to dampen the string while plucking the harmonic. It becomes increasingly difficult for the left hand to produce harmonics as the strings decrease in length. The right hand produces harmonics by dampening the strings with the upper part of the 2nd finger. As the strings shorten, harmonics become less and less reliable and more difficult to execute.

  • Bisbigliando is an effective harp technique that requires the use of two hands. Due to placement issues, it is best not to double any of the notes involved since replacing on a vibrating string stops its sound for an instance. To be more clear, if a composer wishes the harpist to play A C and E in one hand, he “should” use a different set of notes in the other, i.e., G B and D. This will produce the maximum sonority. Bisbigliando sounds like a multiple note fast trill. For maximum facility, the notes to be played need to be placed in close proximity.

  • Minimal techniques seem to be popular these days. If a composer is utilizing a set of repeated notes in a harp passage, it is desirable that these notes be easy to place so that the figure can be rendered with facility. If the spacing of the notes is awkward, the performer will be handicapped.

  • For the maximum excellence of performance, it is wise for composers to clearly indicate what hand is doing what. Generally, the upper staff is used for the right hand and the lower, for the left. However, due to the interchanging use of the hands on the harp, it becomes necessary to sometimes use RH for the right hand and LH for the left.