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Lieder der Goethezeit für Gesang und Harfe

Begriff und Geschichte der Vertonung in the Goethezeit –
The German song: historic concept


Gründe der Kompositionsmode "für Pianoforte oder Harfe"
Compositions "for pianoforte or harp"


Harfenspielerin. Aquarell. Auf Vélin. Höhe: 46, Breite 35 cm. Ausriss.

Harp-player. Watercolour. Vélin. Height: 46, width 35 cm. Fragment.

The genre of the German song did not escape the composing trend “for fortepiano or harp”. It is very possible that this trend has its roots in the Renaissance, when many pieces were written “para arpa, tecla o vihuela”. This meant that this kind of composition cold either be played on a harp, on a keyboard instrument or on a guitar.

It was a common practice in the 18th century to perform original pieces for keyboard on the harp, as there was little original repertoire for this instrument and the pianoforte was not very developed yet. The sound of the 18th-century harps was not so different than the one of the keyboards, so that it meant little difference to play a piece on a harp or a pianoforte. Ludwig van Beethoven, however, thought that the piano should develop its technical possibilities. As he wrote in a letter to the piano-maker Streicher:

There is no doubt so far as the manner of playing is concerned, the pianoforte is still the least studied and developed of all instruments; often one thinks that one is merely listening to a harp… I hope that the time will come when the harp and pianoforte will be treated as two entirely different instruments. (Dechario 1981)


Undoubtedly, the many works that Beethoven wrote for the piano contributed to his aim. This would only be achieved, however, when Steinway launched its grand piano in 1852. This meant the end of the “harp and piano” marriage: it became evident that it was a much more perfect instrument that the hook-harp or even the single-action pedal ones. But in the Goethezeit, the pianoforte had not still reached its “Golden age”. Writing songs “with accompaniment of pianoforte or harp” was a common practice nobody raised their brows at. There aus dem Winkel, a harpist from Dresden, published an article in the Leipziger Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of 29th January 1834. She defended the performance of keyboard pieces on the harp, something which is rare on the stages nowadays:

Ueberdem wird es für Dilettanten eben so angenehm, als lehrreich seyn, die Harfe als begleitendes Instrument zu benutzen, theils zum Gesange, theils um mannigfaltige Opernmusik, die man sehr gut arrangirt hat für Harfe und Piano, auszuführen […] Ist es nicht überdem nicht ein reicher Gewinn, dass sehr viele Pianoforte-Compositionen von Beethoven, C. M. von Weber, Herz, Osborne, Fürstenau  u. s. w. mit geringen Abänderungen sich nunmehr auf der Harfe ausführen lassen und eine neue schöne Wirkung hervorbringen?


This interchangeability phenomenon of the piano and the harp was not limited to the performance of lieder, but reached all instrumental genres: soloist repertoire, chamber music, concerto with orchestra accompaniment and duos for piano and harp . L. v. Beethoven’s Variations on a Swiss Theme was originally written for both instruments, and “rescued” for the harp by the Spanish virtuoso Nicanor Zabaleta. It is hardly known that the romantic German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote a Quintett for strings and harp or piano. Ditters von Dittersdorf’s Concerto for solo instrument and orchestra can also be performed either on a harp or on the piano. Regarding the rare genre of duos for piano and harp, Dechario (1981), 36-52 offers a very complete bibliography. Among them there are works by Baptist Cramer (1771-1858), Friedrich Wilhelm Kalkbrenner (1785-1849) or Phillip Jacob Meyer (1737-1819). 

As for the song repertoire of the Goethezeit, we find excellent examples in J. F. Reichardt’s Douze élégies et romances avec accompagnement de forte-piano ou harpe or Felix Biangini’s Werther. Cantate (à voix seule); avec accompagnement de piano ou harpe. There are other works for which no accompanying instrument is specified, so they could be played with piano, harp or guitar. Two examples are Hugo Friedrich von Dalberg’s VI Geistliche Lieder and Neefe’s Bilder und Träume von Herder. Most of them were forgotten and are waiting to be brought into music again.

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