Poster Black harp in shadows
The harp has been a part of almost every culture for millennia.
Petros Agoston/Unsplash

Why does the harp conjure such strong stereotypes?

For many people, the harp is an instrument with some strong associations. The harp is synonymous with angels, girls with long, flowing blonde hair, or Harpo Marx.

Like many others, I grew up living with these stereotypes as well as playing into them. I am a woman with blonde hair, I love Debussy, and yes — I do play the harp. Unlike the stereotypes, however, I am far more multifaceted than just my instrument.

How did these stereotypes come into being? There are a lot of different ways in which the gender norms and conceptions of harp have evolved throughout history, leading us to what we see today.

The harp is an ancient instrument, having its origins in areas around the world from Egypt, Greece and Ireland. One of my favorite figures is O'Carolan, a blind, Irish harpist who would write songs to tell stories.

The harp initially started as an accompaniment to the human voice, because ancient harps didn't have the durability or amplification of modern harps to be soloistic. Soon, lever and pedal harps were developed that supported a fuller sound. Early composers for harp include Elias Parish Alvars and Sophia Dussek. Dussek, like most female composers of her time, unfortunately was not given due credit for her work and many of her pieces are speculated to be published under the name of her husband, Jan Ladislav Dussek.

After the Classical period, we reached the Romantic era, and the harp became a salon instrument.

Salon music soon became a pillar of French society in the 18th and 19th centuries. These gatherings of elite people were a place to share ideas and, in the spirit of Romanticism, convey different emotions.

Soon, however, it became customary for the youngest female in the household to perform works on piano or harp to show her skills for marriage eligibility to guests. This is one of the areas in which harp becomes gendered toward what we conceive of it today: the "angel" who is playing background music for everyone's enjoyment.

Even so, I am a big fan of Romantic music. Mikhail Glinka's Nocturne is a great example of a piece that would have been played in a salon. Written in 1828, the composer was 24 when he composed it. It is believed that Glinka was dating a harpist at the time, and that's why it works so well for the instrument.

LISTEN — Mikhail Glinka: Nocturne

Mikhail Glinka - Nocturne in E-Flat Major

Moving into the 20th century, salon music and even earlier classical harp pieces had become a standard of the repertoire. But how was it viewed during that time? Lotus Magazine featured in its 1913 edition an article on the "Modern Harp." The write-up mentioned that now in the repertoire, along with soloistic and orchestral works, there were great chamber pieces for a variety of harp duets — harp and organ, cello, violin, piano and flute.

One other interesting thing it stated was that harp was particularly suited for women — especially in regards to amateur playing. One reason was that the harp is beautiful and women are beautiful, so they look nice together. Another was because compared to the pianoforte, "it is a fact that an agreeable proficiency on the harp can be attained in a comparatively short time."

Even into the 20th century, there was sexism surrounding harp and what defines a harpist. It wasn't until 1997 that the Vienna Philharmonic admitted its first female musician — a harpist.

Fortunately, there were composers who sought to change the narrative surrounding the harp.

Dominick Argento's For the Angel Israfel was based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, "Israfel." The work speaks metaphorically of Israfel's heartstrings as a "lute … By which he sits and sings / The trembling living wires / Of those unusual strings." This passage was actually taken from the Qaran, as Israfel is said to be the angel that awakens the dead for their final judgment at the end of the world. This work, commissioned by a mother/daughter harp duo, shows how an instrument deemed of such beauty can herald events macabre and devastating.

One aspect of the harp that I have yet to touch on is its virtuosity. Harp technique is something that is not easily mastered, and there are different schools of thought regarding what is most acceptable. Most predominantly, there is the Grandjany technique and the Salzedo technique, which prescribe different ways of plucking the string, gesturing and holding the fingers. Basically, the harp combines a lot of moving parts, along with the need to be cognizant of pedals and buzzing.

Virtuosity is something that has been touted throughout history by male performers — Alphonse Hasselmans, Nicholas Charles Bochsa, Carlos Salzedo, Marcel Grandjany, Marcel Tournier — all famous names in the harp world.

The most famous female virtuoso of the 18th century was Dorette Scheidler Spohr, now more commonly known as the wife of composer Louis Spohr. She would go on tour with him to perform many of his works, but her name seldom survives as well in history as his — mainly because she was encouraged to stop playing the "nerve-destroying instrument" of the double-action pedal harp.

One of the most predominant harp virtuosos of the 20th century was Henriette Renie. She was the teacher of Marcel Grandjany and was turned down to be the professor of harp at the Paris Conservatory due to her age and gender.

Speaking of the Paris Conservatory, it was one of the major centers for the teaching of harp in the 18th and 19th century, and of course into today. Gabriel Pierne's Impromptu-caprice was actually composed to showcase the virtuosity and flexibility of the instrument for a yearly exam held at the school.

Although harp has been viewed as a virtuoso instrument, and one of the more difficult ones to play, it still has the perception of a delicate, ethereal sound.

There have been multiple studies that confirm people view the harp as a hyper-feminine instrument in Western society. It's interesting, because one study looked into the comparisons between music majors and nonmajors, and harp consistently was given the highest femininity indicator, regardless of musical education.

But when looking through a different cultural lens, the harp is viewed as masculine. In Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the curvature of the instrument is deemed male.

The thing is, though, that like any instrument the harp is multifaceted. There are a range of extended techniques that contribute to a different sound on the harp and composers who aim to challenge conventions around harp being a feminine instrument.

One of my favorite quotes is from Luciano Berio, who wrote his Sequenza for harp in 1963.

"In my Sequenzas, I have tried to develop a musical commentary between the virtuoso and his instrument, and I have often explored specific technical aspects in depth, challenging the conventional notion of the instrument. French 'impressionism' has left us with a rather limited vision of the harp, as if its most characteristic feature were that it could only be played by half-naked girls with long, blonde hair, who confine themselves to drawing seductive glissandi from it. But the harp has another harder, louder and aggressive side to it."

One composer who employed unconventional harp techniques was Paul Hindemith. In his Sonata for Harp, he used his own writing on music style, his "New Objectivity." This framing of music was a reaction against expression, and emphasized baroque and traditional forms with modern dissonance and jazzlike rhythms. This, along with its idiomatic writing, make it a standard in the harp repertoire and a great work to show those unfamiliar with the instrument different ways of experiencing the harp tonally and breaking preconceived notions.

LISTEN — Paul Hindemith: Sonata for Harp I. Massig Schnell

Paul Hindemith - Harp Sonata: I. Massig Schnell

LISTEN — Paul Hindemith: Sonata for Harp II. Lebhaft

Paul Hindemith - Harp Sonata: II. Lebhaft

LISTEN — Paul Hindemith: Sonata for Harp III. Lied; Sehr Langsam

Paul Hindemith - Harp Sonata: III. Lied; Sehr Langsam

But there is nothing wrong with enjoying things that are considered stereotypes and norms for different fields or genders. I am a cisgender white female who loves Romantic music and Impressionism, and there is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is boxing everyone in to these stereotypes unwillingly.

So what else is there to explore when it comes to unconventional harp music? So much. Listen to this Spotify playlist featuring works you might not expect for harp.

Brooke Knoll is an assistant digital producer for Classical MPR and American Public Media. She completed her bachelor's degree in harp performance at the University of Minnesota.

Love the music?

Donate by phone

Show your support by making a gift to YourClassical.

Each day, we’re here for you with thoughtful streams that set the tone for your day – not to mention the stories and programs that inspire you to new discovery and help you explore the music you love.

YourClassical is available for free, because we are listener-supported public media. Take a moment to make your gift today.

More Ways to Give

Your Donation