Erin Freund, harp
with Ben Melsky, harp (Pictures at an Exhibition)
There are common threads holding all of the compositions on this album together. Most obviously, they were all composed during the Romantic period over a roughly 30-year span in the latter half of the 19th century. Tristan und Isolde was written between 1857 and 1859, Romeo and Juliet from 1870 to 1880, Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874, and Sleeping Beauty between 1888 and 1889. Each of these compositions has been arranged repeatedly for a variety of instruments and ensembles. Leopold Stokowski created orchestral transcriptions of Wagner’s themes during his time as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Variations of Romeo and Juliet’s love theme have been heard in countless television shows and movies, including The Jazz Singer (1927), Columbo (1977), Wayne’s World (1992), and South Park (1997). Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty melodies were famously adapted for Disney’s 1958 animated film. Pictures at an Exhibition was originally for piano, but has been reworked for many different types of ensembles, including orchestra, organ, brass ensemble, jazz trio, euphonium & tuba quartet, and accordion duo, among many others.
Each of these compositions has story-telling and emotion at its core. They contain powerful imagery and were composed from similar Romantic worldviews. Each composition asks its audience to go beyond casual listening and imagine something, or experience something larger than just the music at the surface. They each have a similar musical profile with yearning harmonies that ache and melodies that flow, always seeking resolution.
I have sat in orchestras performing arrangements of each of these works, thoroughly enjoying my role playing the prescribed harp parts, but also imagining the potential of the harp taking on the entire work.
Transcriptions are crucial to the harp’s repertoire. They can make something old, new again. They can surprise a listener. The right arrangements can take a huge orchestral composition and turn it into an equally powerful yet intimate and personal encounter. Romantic transcriptions require some ingenuity, not only to accommodate polyphonic lines and intense chromaticism, but also to retain and convey the essence of the original composition. The ultimate challenge is to honor the integrity of the compositions, but also make them sound as though they had been intended for the harp.
The transcriptions on this album owe a debt to the rich history of piano transcriptions of orchestral works. Throughout the nineteenth century, the piano was a fixture in the homes of the new middle class in Europe and North America. Not only was the piano a symbol of wealth, but it was also a favorite form of musical recreation in the home. Arrangements of orchestral pieces were an important way to spread knowledge of new orchestral music in the days before recordings. Complex arrangements were sometimes for four-hand piano, for two players sitting side by side at a single piano, a practice often a part of courtship.
The harp indeed bears many similarities to the piano, yet it lacks the rich history of orchestral transcriptions. This is due in part to the harp’s structural inconsistencies in the nineteenth century, as it underwent massive redesign, shifting from a single-action to a double-action mechanism. While harps also enjoyed a place in domestic music-making, they lacked the mainstream popularity of the piano. These transcriptions are a gesture to begin filling a void in the repertoire of what could have been, had the harp¹s technical revolution come at a slightly earlier time.