CD A0213: The Glory of the Harp by David Watkins

The Glory of the Harp
David Watkins plays an Eighteenth Century Harp

CD Cover: The Glory of the Harp by David WatkinsDowland • Croft • Handel • Parry • Dussek • Cardon • Mozart • Spohr & c.

The Single Action Harp David Watkins plays in this recording was made in 1820 by Erard Frères, Paris, and possibly belonged to Mme: Recamier. It is similar in design to one made by Erard in 1794.

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Track Listing & Audio Samples

1 CABEZON Pavane and Variations 3:06
2 RIBAYAZ Hachas 1:29
3 PEERSON The Fall of the Leafe 2:23
4 DOWLAND My Lady Hunsdon's Puffe 2:02
5 CROFT Sarabande and Ground 4:58
6 HANDEL Aria con Variazioni 3:32
  PARRY Sonata in D major  
7   Allegro 2:31
8   Andante 3:04
9   Gavotte 2:03
10 ANGLÉS Aria in D minor 2:41
11 CASANOVAS Sonata in F major 2:47
  DUSSEK Sonata in C minor  
12   Allegro 3:21
13   Andantino 1:43
14   Rondo :Allegro 2:28
  CARDON Sonata in F minor  
15   Allegro non troppo 4:39
16   Allegretto 2:13
  MOZART Sonata in C major K545  
17   Allegro 3:24
18   Andante 4:20
19   Rondo :Allegretto 1:54
20 MAYER Variations on a theme of Mozart 6:02
21 SPOHR Fantasia 8:08
22 MEYER Variations on a theme of Spohr 3:45


CD Notes & Credits

The Harp

The Single Action Harp played in this recording was made in 1820 by Erard Frères, Paris, and possibly belonged to Mme: Recamier. It is similar in design to one made by Erard in 1794.

For several centuries before, harp makers had tried to solve the problems of making a fully chromatic harp. Earlier examples had extra strings, running parallel to the diatonic strings or even crossing each other in the middle.

The triple strung harp was the apotheosis of the chromatic harp, a true Baroque Harp perfected in Italy, and surviving today as the Welsh Triple Strung Harp.

There are three rows of strings two outer rows tuned diatonically and the middle row tuned to sharps and flats.

With so many strings to tune and with complicated fingerings, harp makers strove to find a simpler solution.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century a system of seven pedals was invented (one for each note of the diatonic scale) and which could raise the tuning of the strings by one semitone, little hooks pulling the strings onto a bridge.

Harps of this type were tuned in Eb major and could modulate to E major. Until about 1794 the hook system was used exclusively and harp makers became rich with the great number of gorgeously decorated instruments made under the patronage of Queen Marie Antionette.

Sebastian Erard, famous for his extraordinary improvements in piano construction, revolutionised the design of the harp mechanism.

Instead of hooks, forked discs turned and gripped the strings. In 1810, he perfected the double action harp whose pedals could produce flat, sharp, or natural out of every string. Tuned in Cb major the harp was now chromatically complete. His system has remained similar to that used in harp construction today.


Joseph Haydn, in a conversation with Sebastian Erard, said, that of all musical instruments the harp was the only one that ‘communicated directly with the heart.’

At a time when the early forte-pianos were competing with the harpsichord, the Single Action Harp’s range of dynamics and colour inspired many composers to write for the instrument. Being so fashionable this harp spawned a huge amount of music, much of which is still completely unknown today.

In this recording, I have brought together, not only pieces of quality that were written for the harp, but some of my transcriptions of keyboard pieces. Mme: de Genlis, the famous eighteenth century harpist said, (rather optimistically) that she played the complete keyboard repertoire on the harp,‘with a few minor adjustments.’!

Large harps in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had very similar sounds, pungent attack with clear and sonorous basses, also thinner stringings give a lute-like quality.

David Watkins

Antonia de Cabezon 1510-1566

Pavane and Variations
Blind from birth, this distinguished keyboard player and composer became a court musician to Charles V and to Philip II of Spain. In 1557 these variations were published in a volume which is probably the earliest publication for the harp.

Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz 17th Century

This lively dance was published in 1677 but nothing is known about the composer’s life.

Martin Peerson 1572-1651

The Fall of the Leafe
Martin Peerson was organist at St Paul’s Cathedral. He included the harp in his consort music, but sadly, most of his music has been lost. The Fall of the Leafe is an early piece of descriptive music in a memorable and obsessive style.

John Dowland 1562-1626

My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe
John Dowland was the most famous lutenist of his age and was Court Lutenist to the King of Denmark and later to Charles I of England. This delightful dance, a mere trifle, was written for the lute and I transcribed it for the harp.

William Croft 1678-1727

William Croft wrote much dignified and effective music for the church that is still in use today. He was organist at St Anne’s Church in Soho, at the Chapel Royal and at Westminster Abbey where he is buried. These two pieces are taken from his harpsichord works; The Ground, reminding one of Purcell’s haunting Passacaglias, has been described as an aural demonstration of the Holy Trinity.

George Frederick Handel 1685-1759

Aria con Variazioni
I have long believed that these variations were played on the Welsh Triple String Harp and possibly composed for it. The theme was made famous by Brahms who used it for his Handel Variations. In Handel’s large output of keyboard music, it is the only work that I know, which is in the key of Bb and without any accidentals. In 1732, Handel used the harp in his new orchestration of ‘Esther’ and these variations were published in 1733 by Walsh. Many figurations, and the same key, are found in his Harp Concerto in Bb which was performed by William Powell in 1736.

John Parry 1710-1782

Sonata in D

Parry was born at Ruabon in Wales, and although blind, became one of the most celebrated harpists of his time. He was harpist to Sir Watkin Williams Wynn of Wynnstay, publishing a collection of Welsh Melodies in 1742, and another collection in 1752 from which this sonata is taken. He played the Welsh Triple Strung Harp, an instrument which Handel knew well.

Padre Rafael Anglés 1730-1816

Aria in D minor
Anglés devoted much of his life to writing music for the church and was organist at Valencia Cathedral in 1781. Sheet music available

Padre Narciso Casanovas 1747-1799

Sonata in F
Many priests were composers (a long line which includes Vivaldi and Anglés).This delightful one movement sonata sparkles on the harp. Sheet music available

Sophia Corri Dussek 1774-1831?

Sonata in C minor
Allegro moderato
Rondo - Allegro

For many years this elegant sonata was attributed to Jan Ladislav Dussek, Sophia’s husband. However it was published in London under the name of Madame Dussek in 1796.When the family publishing business of Corri Dussek went bankrupt, Jan Ladislav fled to Paris and this sonata was republished there by Pleyel under the name of Dussek only.

Sophia Corri was an extraordinary musician. At the age of sixteen she appeared at Covent Garden playing both Harp and Piano Concerti in the same concert. With a fine voice she was also Haydn’s soprano of choice. In 1812 she opened a Music School in Paddington. All her compositions show her sensitive musicianship.

Jean Baptiste Cardon 1760-1803

Sonata in F minor
Rondo - Allegretto

Cardon was a popular and successful teacher in pre-revolution France and had dedicated four sonatas to Queen Marie Antionette. He went to St Petersburg where one of his students was Catherine II. This sonata was written in Russia and has a rondo with delightful repeated notes.

Wolfgang Amadeus 1756-1792

Sonata in C K545
Rondo - Allegretto

This sonata, beloved by all musicians, was written in 1788, one of Mozart’s busiest years, and when he wrote his last three great symphonies.

He was short of money and may have written this sonata‘for beginners’ for some quick sales, although the work was only published after his death. A manuscript in the hand of François Petrini proves that it was played on the harp at the end of the eighteenth century. Petrini was the son of the harpist to Frederick the Great, the teacher of Hinner (Marie Antionette’s harp teacher) and many of his compositions were dedicated to the Princesse de Lamballe, the Queen’s best friend.

Jean-Bernard Mayer mid C18-1820

Variations on a Theme of Mozart
Fètis states that his name was Jean-Bernard but it also appears as Jean-Baptiste. He was mentioned in one of Leopold Mozart’s letters to his son (9th Feb: 1778) as one of the musicians to be wary of. However he was a superb musician - harpist and wrote these beautiful variations on a minuet taken from Mozart’s Sonata for violin and keyboard (K377) written in 1781. Mayer’s Method for Harp was published in 1783, and he eventually settled in London where he was harpist to the orchestra of the Italian Opera. He died in London in 1820.

Louis Spohr 1784-1859

Fantasia in C minor
Virtuoso violinist and distinguished composer, Spohr married the harpist Dorette Scheidler in in 1806. On their honeymoon he composed several major works for the harp, most notably this Fantasia. Spohr’s musical God was Mozart and one can hear his influence in this work. It is one of the most important pieces of harp music from this period.

Philip James Meyer 1737-1819

Variations on a Theme of Spohr
Both P.J. Meyer and J.B. Mayer were in Paris when the harp had such an important place in the musical life. Marie-Antionette created such a vogue for playing the harp that there were forty-six harp teachers in Paris at the time. Like Mayer, Meyer also settled in London where he was reputed to have introduced the single action harp. With his two sons, Frederick and Phillippe (both harpists) he established a school of playing. Meyer (senior) was a distinguished composer and these variations on Spohr’s very ‘mozartian’ theme (from his opera Faust) demonstrate his imaginative and distinguished treatment of Spohr’s beautiful theme.


During the recording there was some sympathetic vibration from the old harp mechanism which was impossible to eliminate; it is not your loudspeakers.

Recorded in St. Mary's Parish Church, Chipping Norton, November 2007
Recording and editing: Paul Arden-Taylor DDD 24-bit.
Cover photo© David Markson. Design and layout

©2008 Watkins

Album Information

Instruments:      Harp
Genre: Classical
Format: CD
Our Ref: A0213
MCPS: DD0-CD-474
Label: Disque D'or
Year: 2008
Origin: UK