Focus On

An Interview with Harpist Mara Galassi

-by Constance Whiteside


Mara Galassi is among the world's foremost performers on Renaissance, Baroque and early pedal harps.  She is sought after for performances all over Europe, and in fact, this interview was carried out while following her trail, through Milan, Sicily, and Frankfurt. I asked her to tell us a little bit about herself and her training.      


"I was born in Milano and started playing the modern harp when I was nine. I was very much attracted by the gilded beauty of the instrument and its melodious sound.  I studied in my native town at the Civica Scuola di Musica.  My first teacher, Mrs. Lucia Chierici, was an extraordinarily talented musician, daughter of the first oboe player at "La Scala" at the time of Toscanini.  Mrs. Chierici never married and adopted all her best students as her children.  I can still remember many summer holidays spent with my school friends in her house at the lakes, playing and practicing all sorts of music that we could find. 


After my concert harp diploma, I studied in London with the great David Watkins and in Zurich with Emmy Huerlimann.  In 1980 I won a competition for principal harp in the Opera House in Palermo; therefore, I stayed in Sicily until 1988. During this time, thanks to some friends studying in the musicology department of the university, I started to get involved in Sicilian Renaissance music.  From that moment my love for early music began.


A few years later I had the great opportunity to know the English musicologist Michael Morrow with whom I spent hours talking about early harps, tablatures, Arab singing and all what could be or could not be related to renaissance music on the harp.  In 1988, I won a Fulbright scholarship to study in New York with Patrick O'Brien and that was for sure the most interesting "early music" training of my life.  The same year I got another scholarship to study in the Rotterdam Conservatorium with the harpsichordist David Collyer.


In 1990 I left Sicily and returned back to Milano where I teach baroque and early pedal harp in the Civica Scuola di Musica. I now join many early music ensembles in Europe.  I had my fundamental musical experiences with Rinaldo Alessaudrini and his "Concerto Italiano" devoted to the repertoire of Italian madrigals; with Rene Jacobs, participating in his productions of early opera; with Pedro Memelsdorff thanks to whom I discovered the extraordinary beauty of late 16th Century music.  But of all the ensembles I enjoy the most is my own group called "La Byciclette Amusante"; a duo for two early pedal harps, where in fact, we "pedal" a lot.  Our repertoire is the lightest, most glittering and amusing music one can imagine.  You should hear it!!!"


CW: When did you begin playing the harp and what led you to choose it?

MG: I started playing the harp when I was nine. My parents often took me to La Scala to listen to concerts or operas and I was fascinated with the evening dresses of the harpist. They were long and beautiful and so I decided to play the harp in order to be able to wear such dresses in the future. Actually I thought that with a little time, they might grow directly out of me.


CW: What led you to decide to specialize in early music?

MG: I had already been working as principal harpist in an opera house for four years.  At that time I was somehow bored with the repertoire and the life in the orchestra, also I could not stand to have someone (the conductor) always deciding for me what and how I had to play. I was really intolerant of authority. Therefore, I decided to start playing the arpa doppia, a totally unknown instrument at that time, which allowed me to feel better and freer.  After years of practice and research, I found that I was known as a specialist.


CW: You are a master on the double and triple row harps. Would you tell us about how you decided to begin playing them and about your early experiences with them?

MG: As I said, I was bored with concert harp playing, its repertoire and the orchestra job.  I had already performed many times the masterpieces written for the modern harp as the "Dances" and "Trio" by Debussy, the "Introduction and Allegro" by Ravel etc.  Although I was very fond of French Impressionism I was feeling the absence of "polyphony and counterpoint" in my life ­ I started joining a group of amateurs interested in performing Renaissance music from Sicily. At that time I was playing on a neo-celtic harp.  After a few months of work with this ensemble, I became so fond and enthusiastic of madrigals, French chanson, renaissance dances, ricercari and toccate, that I felt the necessity of having a more suitable instrument to play on. I asked therefore, a harpsichord maker in Milano, Tony de Reuzis, to make me an arpa doppia.  We went together to the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels to have a first look at the Corter arpa doppia.  After a few months Tony made me my first arpa doppia which I still have and play sometimes.  My first good experience with it was that I could actually carry it on a tram and have fun with people asking me if I was carrying a mattress, bicycle or an electronic double bass.


CW: Even today, the multiple row harp is played by very few. You have been one of the foremost harpists to promote the use of these instruments.

How did you develop your technique?

How is this technique different from that used for single row harps?

MG: Well, at the beginning I thought that I could never develop a suitable technique and then I just practiced for years and eventually arrived at a technique which allowed me to bring out the aesthetics of Italian Baroque music, which is my favorite repertoire.

Compared to the modern harp, playing the arpa doppia is a totally different world. But compared to renaissance single row harps or folk light strung single row harps, the real difficulty consists in finding a way of going in and out of the rows of strings with speed and clarity. Obviously the hand position has to change from single row harp playing.  I found that my hand was working much better by rotating it slightly outside, having the fingers more perpendicular to the strings.  Also the thumb can be held much lower and sometimes it bends under the second finger instead of above it, as in modern technique. The pressure on the strings can be lighter and the articulation of the fingers much shorter using mostly only the last two phalanxes.  It is obviously very important that the first phalanx of the fingers is always very relaxed to be able to "land" from the inner strings to the outer ones with no effort.  The wrist as well has to be totally relaxed to be able to follow the smallest movements of the fingers.


CW: The music you play on your multiple row harps is not mainstream repertoire. How do you find the music you perform and would you describe how you decide what music to bring to life again for us?

MG: I found the most interesting music in the repertoire for organ and harpsichord written at the beginning of the 17th century in Italy.  When I choose a program, I choose pieces that I consider to be of deep musical value, through which I can express my vision of the Italian Baroque style.  It is my hope that the audience can understand my message


CW: Would you describe the process by which you decide how, technically and musically, to perform a piece?

MG: I try to find a copy of the original manuscript or tablature or print; then first of all I transcribe it myself, in modern notation when I cannot read directly from the original.  I do not like to work on music transcribed by musicologists - I think that the sight of the original work can be of the greatest inspiration.  Also too many times modern transcriptions are full of mistakes or misinterpretation.  Then I practice the piece in all its technical details.  By that I mean that I analyze the piece structurally and rhetorically.  After doing this kind of preparation, which can entail weeks of intense work and technical practice, the piece takes on a life almost by itself and the score tells me how it needs to be performed.


CW: You also specialize in performing the early pedal harp repertoire on period appropriate instruments.  How did you get involved with this?

MG: I learned the early pedal harp because I wanted to be able to play later repertoire than is possible on the baroque harps.  Also, I enjoy the 18th and 19th repertoire very much. I always dreamt to perform a recital of music only by Mozart.  Which instrument could be more suitable than a Cousineau or a Holtzmann harp?  Also I love these instruments from a pure aesthetic point of view ­ I cannot resist them.


CW: Do you still play the modern pedal harp and its repertoire?

MG: No.


CW: Do you play historic pedal harp only with period instrument orchestras or have you used them with modern orchestras?

MG: Only with orchestras using historical instruments because of the problem of diapason [standard of musical pitch]; the early single action pedal harps cannot be tuned higher that A415 or A430Hz.


CW: Would you tell us about your research into deciding about how to perform an early pedal harp piece?

MG: Many times I am inspired by some very good players of the forte piano and so I look into the repertoire that they are playing to see if it will work on the harp. Otherwise, I research the repertoire written for the early pedal harp and extrapolate the pieces with the most interesting content.  Unfortunately most of the original harp music from the late 18th Century was written exclusively for light entertainment and it's not musically very interesting.


CW: Do you use a different technique with the early pedal harps as compared to the modern pedal harps?  If so, would you tell us about some of the differences?

MG: The tension of the early pedal harps is much lighter therefore the use of big articulation is less necessary.  Instead, one has to be much more controlled in the small movements of the fingers to achieve a quick dexterity of playing.  The "pedaling" has also to be much lighter and the feet have to accompany the pedals with gentle movements; quick movements can lead the crochet to damage the thinnest strings very quickly and eventually to cut them.

CW: You have a very interesting collection of harps.  Would you describe them for us?

MG: I have a gothic harp by Rainer Thurau with a very brilliant and sweet tone which is perfect for medieval music; two very special harps, a renaissance harp with brays and a copy of the Barbarini harp, both by David Brown; an original single action pedal harp dated 1760 by Holtzmann; a copy of a Cousineau single action pedal harp à crochet by Beat Wolf; a Nadermann harp dated Paris 1820; but there are still many others that I would like to buy.


CW: How have you found your instruments?

MG: Well, for example I saw the Barbarini harp in Rome and the next day I called David Brown in Baltimore and said "I want it."  Then David came to Italy and we visited all the museums where there were baroque or renaissance harps.  He measured the Barbarini harp and in between a plate of spaghetti and glass of wine, and a few unconfessable items, we finally made the design for the Barbarini harp.



CW: What to you, are the most important features you look for in:

1.   A modern re-creation of a single or multiple row historic harp?

2.   An original historical pedal harp?

MG: The characteristics of these instruments are very different from one to the other.  The sound has to be handsome, rich and smart, it has to stay in tune, it has to be durable and it must sound well even when the player is tired, sleep deprived and distracted.


CW: What words of advice do you have for the harp maker who wants to make historical harps?

MG: He should study and measure all the extant harps and have a clear knowledge of the kind of music that was played upon them as well as of all other instruments of the same period.


CW: You play music from different periods and cultures.  Do you have a favorite and why?

MG: My favorite music is, as I said earlier is Italian early 17th century because being from my native country, I feel a lot of affinity for it. For this reason when I feel lacking of energy or inspiration, I take a trip to the South; to Rome, to Naples, to Sicily.  Walking around in the sunny streets, entering the churches where the greatest musicians of the 17th Century played, looking at the pieces of art all around, breathing the thick air filled with perfumes of all sorts, this is pure inspiration for me.


CW: What advice do you have for the harpist who wants to develop skills in early music on the harp?

MG: Have a good harp built preferably a copy of an extant instrument and not an invented harp; choose beautiful music suitable for that specific instrument; and practice a lot.


CW: What do you think the future holds for early music repertoire and early music performers?

MG: I would like to see the standard of teaching early music grow and develop in the same academic and scholarly way that all modern instruments are taught, but still keeping the spirit of discovery and re-creation that has always been one of it's most interesting aspects.