Invention for Harp

Guillermo Manning

A harp recital was about to begin. Two men with time to kill entered the Juilliard School and asked if they could listen to some music. They were led into Paul Hall, where a harp stood at the center of the stage. The men shouted bravo when Tjasha Gafner walked in wearing a gray dress and her long blonde hair loosely tied. Someone walking outside might have thought the concert was beginning at the end––awake to hear the sweet harp plays––as if the music was implied in Tjasha’s gestures, illuminated by the light falling from above, casting a delicate shadow over the faces of the few people (mostly students) in the audience. Tjasha introduced the program while the men took pictures with their phones. She sat next to the harp and, closing her eyes, she imposed the stillness needed for the music to exist.

It was Thursday, April 14th, 2022. For a moment everything was in order. However, as soon as she started playing Gabriel Fauré’s Impromptu, the two men started whispering amongst themselves. Tjasha’s mother, seated next to them, asked them to be quiet when they delivered a standing ovation at the end of the Impromptu. They continued to whisper through Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Solo in G Major. At the end of the second piece––The pale gates of sunrise?––one told the other they had to leave. Tjasha stood up and walked off the stage to find a tuning-key while the men reached the exit. She’s perfect, one of them said, and closed the door behind him.

I was the only one who heard the review. While Tjasha tuned the harp, I noticed that the students in the audience had brought her flowers; her mother surely had brought her something as well, perhaps a gift from Switzerland. Unlike them, I had only brought the scattered thoughts I had been scribbling since the first time I saw her. I skimmed the pages of my notebook––At that hour when all things have repose––and went back to October 15th, 2021, the night when the Juilliard Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky, played Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

That night, I was seated in the first row, on the left side of the Alice Tully Hall. From there I could see two harps at the back of the stage; Renée Murphy, the second principal harpist, had played Rapsodie Espagnole during the first part of the concert. Tjasha had discreetly walked in––Soft sweet music in the air above––during the intermission. I saw her alone, dressed in black, surrounded by empty chairs, facing the audience, playing by herself. Had you seen her the way I did, you would have thought she had forgotten about the world, and when the orchestra started playing the world vanished, as if we had crossed a threshold to a different, higher region, where notes are no mere sounds, errors are not allowed, expressions are ineffable, and the question 'why' lingers in a precise tempo. It seems clear how to get there, to that higher region, and yet the moment one approaches the threshold, what seemed obvious becomes mysterious. Dietrich Von Hildebrand called it a mirandum, the natural mystery of how the audible and the visible 'are entrusted with the possibility of permitting to appear… a beauty that far transcends the ontological rank of these entities and their qualitative values.' There is, as he noted, a discrepancy between the bearer of beauty 'and that which it bears.' For Hildebrand, this discrepancy was somehow analogous to the sacraments: how can the modest means present in the sacraments be the way to 'the things above'?

I used to be a member of my school’s choir. The choir sang during First Friday Devotions and feast days, like Corpus Christi, when the mothers of the kids in the school cut rose petals to adorn the path that would lead the procession from altar to altar. The music was subordinated to the movements of the liturgy; while singing, it was difficult to appreciate the music the way the people listening to it could. However, at the end of mass––O lonely watcher of the skies––it was common for teachers and parents to approach the choir and comment on how moved they had been by the music, especially during communion, when we sang Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. Years later, when I first went into Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral after years of not attending mass, I heard a choir interpreting Thomas Tallis’ Motet Salvatore Mundi, salva nos and only then I experienced what those people tried to convey when all I could do was follow the conductor. There are differences between music at church and music at the concert hall, but the disposition needed to appreciate both is the same: one must be composed, 'inwardly still,' as Romano Guardini put it, open to mysteries.

Tjasha had finished tuning the harp. After the concert on October 15th, when I had made up my mind to write about her, I tried to get acquainted with the instrument, thinking that by learning about its history I could get closer to the music and the musician. My notebook had the traces of a path made of stories and thoughts––soft lights come and go––and sketches of harpists and harps.

It began with the harpist who played for King Ashurbanipal: I had imagined her like a pigeon, the way Leonora Carrington depicted the king’s servants in her painting Assurbanipal Abluting Harpies, then like one of the women in Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, but when I saw the relief at the British Museum where she first appeared, I imagined a palace, a garden, and a banquet, and I saw Ashurbanipal and the queen surrounded by their servants and at the back, next to the drummers, the harpist playing the music that pleased the king. The day was clear, the wind caressed the palms in the garden, the sun created perfect shadows on the ground. The harpist played undistracted until she noticed drops of blood falling from above. She looked up and saw a severed head dangling from a palm like a fruit about to fall. The dead eyes of king Teumman looked down at her. The harpist kept playing, feeling anger running through her fingers. Ashurbanipal smiled: he imagined the flow of the river Ulai turning red with the blood of the Elamites, who laid dead on the margins; he listened to the music, unaware that the harpist was also thinking about the river, but in her mind, there were concrete faces and names, like the face of Teumman. Ashurbanipal thought she played for him, but her music was a gift to death.

One day I looked at Rembrandt’s depiction of Saul lost in thought, wiping tears from his eyes with a curtain––To Love before him on his way––menacingly holding a spear with his right arm while a young David, with his curly hair and his innocent face, plays the harp. David looks vulnerable next to Saul, whose face displays the tribulations of a broken man who hides his wounds in gorgeous golden garments; his harp is a toy next to the spear; the dark background emanates an aura of tragedy; yet David’s playful countenance disturbs the mood. He looks down as if he was about to begin the harp solo in Handel’s O Lord, whose mercies numberless. 'Why I am weeping?' Saul might have asked himself.

Tjasha had started to play Bedrich Smetana’s Moldau, arranged for the harp by Hans Trnecek, but I kept thinking that David never played the harp. Translators are to blame for giving us this motif, visible around Europe since the early Middle Ages. The Biblical instrument associated with David was called 'Kinnor.' The Greek translator of the Septuagint called the instrument 'kithara,' or 'kinyra.' This word, in the Latin of Saint Jerome, became 'cithara.' David’s instrument was closer to a lyre, probably made of the wood of a cypress, with a round form (reminiscent of the Jewish candelabrums) and with strings made of sheep gut. In Israel there was another instrument called the 'Nevel,' probably with twelve strings. This word, later translated into Greek as 'nabla,' or 'psalterion,' ('psalterium' in Latin) designates a vertical, angular harp. Saint Jerome described it as having 'a body above the horizontal stick.' In the Greek Bible, the word 'zāmîr,' (to sing) was translated as 'psallein,' which referred to playing a stringed instrument. The word was thus transformed: now it meant singing praises to God, the way king David did, with a stringed instrument. In the twelfth century, a manuscript in Ireland distinguished two instruments: the 'cythara anglica' and the 'cythara teutonica.' The illustrations made it clear that the former was a harp. The Law of Wales (first compiled around 1175, in Welsh and Latin) commanded every man to have 'a virtuous wife' and 'a well-tuned harp.' Drawings of harps had appeared as early as the ninth century, in the Ultrecht Psalter, composed by monks at the monastery of Hautviellers, based on other lost copies.

In the sixteenth century, the composer Sebastian Virdung (an honest man) wrote, 'What one man names harp (Harpffen), another calls a lyre (Leier).' The lyre, symbol of the Apollonian, came to Greece through Syria. In the Iliad, Homer refers to it as 'phorminx' and 'kítharis.' Indeed, this 'lyre' was a kithara; a bigger and heavier instrument with a sound box and a mechanism of rolls that allowed the player to tune it. During those days, the kithara accompanied bards in the recitation of epic poetry. Plato, afraid of things degenerating, condemned the use of the instrument without 'vocal accompaniment.' He seems to have disliked the harp (psaltêrion) as the Greeks knew it, he considered it a foreign instrument, angular, vertical, with too many strings, too easy to play; and he thought it could lend itself to hedonic pleasures, for women could play it.

Plato was wrong in thinking the harp was easy to play, but he was correct about women being capable of playing it. In 1759, Magdeleine-Felicité duCrest de Saint-Aubin met a German harpist named Adam Gaiffer, who some people called 'King David.' He taught her how to play the pedal harp. This woman, known as Madame de Genlis, was the author of the Nouvelle Méthode pour Apprendre à Jouer de la Harpe and another hundred literary works; she was also a renowned public intellectual to whom Napoleon granted a pension so she could write 'whatever passed through her head.' In 1791, Antoine Théodore Giroust depicted her in his paiting Harp Lesson. A young Madame de Genlis appears wearing a full skirt dress with blue and yellow stripes, and a big hat adorned with a blue ribbon; there is a dark shawl resting on the red chair where she is seated playing a tall harp; her pupil, Eugene Adelaide Louise, princess of Orleans, is playing a smaller golden harp next to her: the princess is wearing a white dress with golden threads at the end of the hemline, a sash around her waist, and a ribbon with a white feather holding her hair––Of Harps playing unto Love to unclose. The room is adorned in Neoclassical style; in the foreground, a stool over which a big blue folder with music scores is resting; and in the background, witnessing the scene, there is a statue of Minerva holding a pike, symbolizing the Duc d’Orleans’s support for French Revolution.

I must be careful here. Charles Bingley, in Pride and Prejudice, demonstrates how not to think about this: according to him, 'a woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word [accomplished].' The right response is what Elizabeth Bennet says after hearing such requirements: 'I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity and taste and application, and elegance, as you describe, united.' Clichés are a real danger; all men have a Charles Bingley inside. So let’s proceed carefully: everything in Harp Lesson could be a symbol or a fiction except the instruments and the musicians; here we have an illustration of Aristotle’s intuition that we become builders by building, and we become harpists by playing the harp. This is what Harp Lesson is about: a girl, any girl––Play on, invisible harps, unto Love–– becoming a harpist, by playing.

I used this portrait to imagine a moment I did not witness: when Tjasha first placed her fingers on the strings, when she played a timid scale, when she learned what ‘glissando’ means. A few years later, she had mastered the technique and was ready to participate in competitions and become a professional musician. From that moment on, her lessons became a conversation about music, the vicissitudes in the life of the musician, literature, other art forms, philosophy, and everything that was relevant in Tjasha’s life. This is what the harpist Letizia Belmondo, Tjasha’s friend and teacher in Lausanne, told me when I asked her about these conversations. 'To teach music is not only to talk about notes, dynamics, tonalities, technique… If music is an expression of ourselves and our values, then our sensibilities, our personalities are at the center of our ‘musical self’ (essere musicisti).'

Is the musical-self like Hildebrand’s mirandum: its presence only possible within the means of the audible and visual? Had we been listening to Tjasha’s musical-self as she interpreted Smetana’s Moldau? Was she about to lay it bare again as she prepared to play Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Harp?

There are examples of men and women unexpectedly encountering the musical self of another person. My favorite is the story of Louis Spohr, who when he was a young composer and had been appointed Concert Master at Gotha, met Dorothea Scheidler, a young harpist, the daughter of a Court Singer. He asked her to play something for him and she performed a Fantasia composed by her teacher, Johann Georg Backofen. Dorette, as Spohr called her, was a musical prodigy; she could play the harp, the piano, and the violin, and she was an educated woman, fluent in German, French, and Italian. The young composer knew how difficult it was to play the harp; when he was younger, he had studied it under Johann Friedrich Hasenbalg. In his memoir he recounts how he held back tears when he heard Dorette play the Fantasia 'with the greatest confidence, with the finest shades of expression.' Soon after the recital—To Love before him on his way—he composed a concert sonata in C minor for harp and violin, and carefully rehearsed it with her. They started playing together; he became close to her family, especially to her mother, to whom he dedicated a grand 'Vocal Scena.' One day he summoned the courage to ask her, 'Shall we thus play together for life?'

Tjasha had started the second movement of Hindemith’s Sonata when I withdrew to another imaginary memory: a stagecoach was riding out of Gotha on a rainy day, the fresh scent of moistened leaves renewed the spirit of the driver, the cool breeze cracked the lips of a farmer who waved at the horses, the path of mud was constantly modified by the wheels of the special stagecoach that the young composer had to have designed, and paid for with his wife’s money, so it could carry a Nadermann harp and his violin. There they went, violin and harp, the young composer and the brilliant harpist, on the road for the first time. The composer was looking at the pages where he had written his Variation for Harp in F major: 'Je suis encore dans mon printemps' while he thought about their daughter, who would stay with his in-laws while they were away. And the harpist was humming the Variation with the rain as her accompaniment, praying for the weather to get better.

When Tjasha came to New York to study under Nancy Allen, she had become an accomplished harpist, who had won several prizes like the Felix Godefroid Prize in 2012, or the Géneration Jeunes Interprètes in 2018. During the days I spent reading whatever I could find about the harp, I kept listening to the album she had recorded with the flutist Helena Macherel. I can report that morning doves praised their interpretation of Ravel’s Pièce en Forme de Habanera; the coffee machine danced to the rhythm of Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances; the clacking of the postman’s keys introduced Jacque Ibert’s Entr’acte; the whiskey cried delicious tears when I repeated Faure’s Pavane (Op. 50); and the echoes of a party spilling from the rooftop were washed aways by Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils. Every time I reached the end, there came the certainty that somewhere in the city, in a quiet corner where she wouldn’t be disturbed, Tjasha kept on playing. However, I knew that at the end of the year she was leaving for a tour in France. I asked her to meet me and she agreed to go for a coffee next to Lincoln Center.

We met on the second of December. When I walked into the cafe, Tjasha was seated at the back. Any other day she would have been practicing or getting ready for class. She was wearing a blue coat and a gray scarf. I noticed we both had similar black Dr. Marten’s, but hers didn’t have laces. I don’t know when the interview started, or if it was an interview at all. The conversation unfolded without order, punctuated by my nervousness. We ordered coffee. I told her I had gotten lost on my way out of Central Park. She laughed and said she spent most of the little free time she had walking and reading over there, she was trying to read To Kill A Mockingbird in English. The waitress brought the coffee. Tjasha told me she admires Simone de Beauvoir, Bach and Shostakovich sometimes make her cry, back home she often goes hiking, her brother is involved in leftist Swedish politics and runs a music festival in Lausanne, her father is a photographer, Juilliard had allowed her to leave before the semester ended to play with a theater company in Paris. I asked her if she ever composed original music and she said no. Sometimes she transcribed music––Soft sweet music in the earth below––written for other instruments and played it with the harp, following the manual Belmondo had written for transcribing Bach’s pieces. And she told she was then practicing a piece by Henriette Renié that she would play at her graduation recital.

Now she was introducing Legende, the piece Renié wrote after Leconte de Lisle’s poem Les Elves. I wondered: What did the five-year-old Henriette—the woman who, according to the actress Yvette Gilbert, would make 'David and Saul, and all the ancient and modern harpists jealous'—feel when she heard Alphonse Hasselmans playing the harp? Was it his musical-self––heaven is aglow––that convinced her that she also wanted to play the harp? And was it her musical-self that years later convinced and formed Marcel Grandjany and Lily Laskin among many other students? I posed these questions as elves from an old forest danced on the stage.

In her  Method, Renié wrote that a new pupil should start by believing in the 'beauty and sonorous power' of the harp. 'To this end,' she continued, 'it is well to "display" before him the alluring magic and special effects in which this instrument is so rich.' Renié, a Catholic, compared the necessity for technique in art to having a strong religious doctrine when living a spiritual life. She once wrote to an old student that she hated to do things halfway, including loving people, and 'finished things,' for her art and her faith had developed a need for the eternal. I think Renié had a similar intuition to Hildebrand: for both music was a gifts and, as she wrote, 'we must love the hand that gives, rather than love what is in the hand.' At the end of recital I also felt like a student, a beginner, fulfilling the requirement to love the harp and believe in its beauty. And yet I knew that for me the love for the instrument would be mediated by ideas; an abstract love without technique or a teacher with whom I could dialogue. Yes, a devoted, ethereal love, one without concrete objects, for I had not touched a harp, and I would never play it. And I found myself, following Renié, giving thanks to the giving hand.

Do you have more questions, Tjasha asked me. After two hours of talking, after months thinking about her, I felt comfortable to share an indiscretion: I told her that since the beginning—since I had first started to think about harps and harpist—I had been repeating to myself a poem. I turned the pages of my notebook and found the stanzas of James Joyce’s third poem in Chamber Music.

At the hour when all things have repose,
O lonely watcher of the skies,
Do you hear the night wind and the sighs
Of harps playing unto Love to unclose
The pale gates of sunrise?

When all things repose do you alone
Awake to hear the sweet harps play
To Love before him on his way,
And the night wind answering in antiphon
Till night is overgone?

Play on, invisible harps, unto Love,
Whose way in heaven is aglow
At that hour when soft lights come and go,
Soft sweet music in the air above
And in the earth below.  

She looked at me quizzically. She was not impressed or moved; glints of laughter were coming through. She told me she didn’t like the idea of the harp as a heavenly instrument. And she hated when men told her she looked like an angel when she played. When she mentioned angels, I imagined two invisible men, like Bruno Gans and Otto Sander in Wings of Desire; two guardian angels walking into the cafe, seating at the table next to ours, observing our gestures and listening to our conversation with tenderness.

But this is not what Tjasha had in mind: the Charles Bingleys of the world who had turned an ancient motif into a cliche will never be forgiven.

Still, I wish I had been prepared to defend the poem. If I could go back, I would ask her to consider the lonely watcher of the skies, a human facing the vastness of the cosmos, who, when everything is in repose, has the disposition to perceive the beauty created and moved by invisible harps. In my view, the poem is an ode to inner stillness, and to the openness needed to contemplate beauty. Perhaps we will never see the invisible harps, or listen to heavenly music, but we can celebrate mysteries, like the lonely watcher does, and that is enough. That’s what I would have said. And yet I could not have denied that talking about music, or anything else, in these terms is anachronistic.

The recital had ended. We walked out of the cafe. Brava, Tjasha! We walked towards Juilliard. Bravissima Tjasha! We were all standing and applauding. A student approached the stage and handed her the flowers. We crossed Columbus Avenue. A security guard came in and asked us to leave the auditorium. When she waved goodbye, her mouth was covered by her gray scarf, yet I perceived a discreet smile when I said 'bonne chance à Paris!' The students and Tjasha’s mother gathered at the vestibule, waiting for her, still applauding.

Lila Barth

Lila Barth is a 27 year old photographer currently living in New York City. A graduate in photography from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Lila has pursued stories that have been seen in publications such as The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, Los Angeles Times, & The Washington Post and in exhibitions from Austria to the Midwest and Brooklyn.

Guillermo Manning

Guillermo Manning is a writer and translator from Mexico City based in New York City.

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