My Erat single action, however, had the shutter
system working on small brass hinges, and a vacant slot where the pedal had been
removed, so I decided to try to reinstate the pedal on this instrument.
The results of experimentation, both on my own
harp and those with shutters that I was able to play was, to say the least,
disheartening. A slight ‘bulging’ of the tone was the best that I could manage,
and most of the time, no noticeable effect at all. So, was Bochsa correct when
he called it ‘a pretended effect’?
This gave rise to my second question. What did I
expect it to do? To be honest, I expected a dramatic Forte and Piano, with a
vibrato, created by rapid pumping of the pedal, to rival a vibraphone. Well, I
can tell you it does not do that! Failure to get any noticeable effect bought me
back to my first question, and why the pedal survived in production for over 100
years if it does not work.
Consequently, I set about practical
experimentation to find out what I could make it do, and very quickly discovered
what I have been missing. Partially, this came from a meeting with harpist and
single-action devotée Masumi Nagasawa, in Amsterdam. Amongst many subjects, we
discussed the swell pedal and its application. It was the first time that I had
had the chance to hear the pedal played in an otherwise quiet room, and to have
someone listen to me play and give me ‘feedback’ on the results. Surprise number
one is that the effect is much less audible at the instrument, and much more
apparent in the developed sound.
We also discussed the application of
Krumpholtz’s instructions for using the pedal. The principle of a swell pedal
was very familiar in the 18th C, as it was used on harpsichords, and even some
pianos as a means of creating dynamics in the search of ever more emotional
expression. It was J B Krumpholtz, however, who suggested the application of the
system to the harp. His suggestion was that the back stave of the instrument
should slide, but the harp maker Naderman, in 1785 produced two harps with oval
soundholes in a broader back stave, which can be opened by pressing the pedal.
As if eight pedals were not enough, a ninth was added, which operated a cloth
mute, or Sordune, which touched the strings at the soundboard and made the
instrument play automatic étouffés.
Krumpholtz and Naderman both use the same system
of symbols to indicate the pedal usage, and we are fortunate that in the
Krumpholtz/Plane méthode of about 1800, we are given a key to these symbols.
English translations of the notes at the bottom of the score:
Here are the signs showing how to use the doors. The first means to open
the doors, going from the "natural sound" (closed) to its most intense.
The second means keep the doors open.
The third means close them gradually.
The fourth means open them quickly, then close them quickly.
The fifth means make the sound wave, or undulate, by repeatedly opening and
(The 6th sonata was composed primarily to demonstrate the usage of the doors.)
This system was
‘lifted’ directly by London harp teacher Mademoiselle Merelle for her Complete
instructions for the pedal harp, which also contains a number of compositions in
which these symbols appear. Unfortunately, whilst both Krumpholtz and Merelle
tell us what the action of the symbol is, neither describes HOW to do it, so
practical experimentation is the only way forward, and it is essential to listen
to the results, not to try to force the sound into a preconceived response.
realisation I had, and which I am convinced is responsible for the statement
that the swell does not work, is that, when it was introduced, the
natural state of the harp was a closed back, with small soundholes in the
soundboard. Compare the result of application of the pedal that suddenly
opens the back of the instrument with the reaction of a player used to the sound
of an open-backed instrument hearing the slightly damp squib of closing the
shutters. I say ‘damp squib’, because the result is subtle. It is not a major
drop or rise in volume, although I have to say that this is extremely variable,
and some harps are more responsive than others. The major effect is a change in
tone colour. The best analogy I can give is a singer changing from an
open-mouthed vowel like an Ahhhhh to a more closed mouthed vowel like Ooooo.
Given that the Oooo sound is the ‘natural state of the harp’, suddenly applying
the pedal having struck a chord, or on the raised-stemmed notes of a chant de
pousse, adds a warmth and intensity that the fingers alone cannot impart.
Then there is
the issue of interpreting the symbols. Most are fairly self explanatory, but the
V symbol to open and close the shutters immediately, and the zig-zag line for
the undulation of the sound, are not so simple.
If one opens the
shutters, plays the chord and then closes the shutter, it brings a more rapid
decay, but if one plays the chord and then depresses the pedal and releases it
immediately, very little happens. If, however, one rather more squeezes the
pedal open and closed, the effect is far more noticeable. Of, course, it has to
be done whilst the energy from the chord is driving theboard, but not so quickly
that the tone does not have time to change.
zig-zag line, which Krumpholtz describes as ‘to make the sound undulate’ must be
done slowly enough to allow the sound to develop. It should be pointed out here
that the effect is not an actual vibrato. The pitch does not change at all, but
again, the vowel sound changes subtly, and perhaps Merelle’s description ‘to
make echos’ is more apt.
Bochsa, in his
Nouvelle Méthode, says that the effect is horrible, and that if any other
instrument were to make such a sound, it would be thought unpleasant. Bochsa,
however was writing in 1814, twenty years after the introduction of the swell,
and one has to consider how composition had change in that period, not to
mention the difference in harp tone between a small French harp of the 1780’s
and a harp post-introduction of the Grecian, the first commercial double action
harp. Certainly, Bochsa is still describing a French harp in his Méthode, but he
also says that harps are too lightly strung, and one should use the thickest
strings possible without damaging the harp, and shows a crochet-action harp of
the Empire type in his illustrations.
however, one of the critical factors that affects the efficiency of the pedal.
The effect can only be heard whilst the sound is at its most powerful, and the
more rapid the decay, the less time there is for the sound to be modified. The
stringing must be at a high enough tension to drive the board but not so high
that it prevents the board moving and consequently acts as a damper. As many old
harps were later strung with gauges closer to modern stringing, the boards are
stressed to the point where the volume and tone is reduced, and the decay so
rapid that the swell pedal has no time to make a tonal difference.
research and experimentation have given us realistic tensions to apply to these
harps have we heard a more truthful sound from these instruments, and heard what
the shutters are capable of. It is my belief that the swell was introduced in an
attempt to provide another tool to help the harpist create effects that
expressed emotion, and to provide the harp with a means of affecting the tone
once the note had been struck. It is therefore not surprising that a composer
like Krumpholtz, who was pushing the envelope in terms of tonality and emotional
expression, should espouse the system, whilst a composer like Bochsa, whose
works are rather more ‘bravura’ in style, considered it redundant. Genlis, in
her Méthode of 1802 says that the pedal is of great effect, but that petticoats
somewhat reduce the effectiveness. I am happy to defer to her experience on his
point, but certainly placing a blanket over my knees whilst playing does reduce
the intensity of the effect.
interesting that, with the introduction of the Grecian in 1812, one of the most
obvious structural changes visible is the reduction in width in the soundholes.
My Erat single-action has a maximum hole width of 4 5/8” (11cm) compared with 3
1/2” (9cm) on my Erard Grecian. I propose that harpists had become so accustomed
to the tone of the instrument with the shutters open that, post 1800 or so, that
became the natural state of the harp, and so the soundhole size was reduced so
that the open state was a more appropriate size for the Helmholtz resonance of
the body, in order to balance the boost to the upper frequencies that larger
holes would provide. For instruments built without shutters between about 1790
and 1820, the holes tend to be smaller, even being fitted with ‘baffles’ to
reduce the opening further in relation to the body size.
Challiot harp 1820
The absence of
much dedicated repertoire for the harp with swell is, I think, indicative of
both the complexity of use and changing sensibilities, but for the harpist
prepared to live with the vagaries of another buzz variable, another activity to
co-ordinate whilst playing and the need for much further research, it offers a
depth and tone colour that can only add to the beauty and understanding of the
© Mike Parker