Four hands are better than two: duos for two harpists at one harp

A harp with a rather interesting history has recently come to my attention. It is

an Erard-London single action, bearing the serial number 410. The entry in the Erard production ledgers held at the Royal College of Music describes this instrument as ‘noire, bordures Etr[usques], tout autour figures or bruni’. It left the Erard workshops on 8 June 1801 and was sold a few months later to ‘Lady Countess Shaftesbury, N° 50 Portland Place’. The ledger entry also mentions that the Chevalier de Marin, famous harpist and composer then in London, was paid a commission for the sale.

Erard (London), Single-action harp n° 410 (1801). Private collection.

The same year (1801) the London publisher Clementi printed a rather curious score composed by Marin, entitled Duet for Two Performers on One Harp, Op. 12: The score is dedicated to Countess Shaftesbury and her daughter Lady Barbara Ashley Cooper. The frontispiece shows two harpists (presumably Lady Shaftesbury and her daughter) simultaneously playing one harp. The harp in depicted in the engraving resembles the Countess Shaftesbury’s Erard harp n° 410.

In 1811, Choron and Fayolle wrote that Marin’s duo was the first work composed for one harp with four hands (Alexandre-Étienne Choron and François Joseph-Marie Fayolle, Dictionnaire historique des musiciens, Paris: Valade, 1811, tome II, p. 17.) I am only aware of one other work of this kind, composed by Martin-Pierre Dalvimare, harpist to the emperor’s private chamber and harp teacher to the Empress Joséphine: Duo à quatre mains pour la harpe, Op. 19. Published by the Demoiselles Erard, the score also has an engraved frontispiece with an almost identical image as on the Marin score. The Dalvimare publication is dedicated to two unidentified sisters (‘dédié à deux sœurs’).

In her excellent dissertation, Maria Cleary has a fascinating discussion of the use of the pedals in Dalvimare’s Duo. She notes that the work is composed in such a way that at several moments one performer must change pedals for the other. (Maria Christina Cleary, The Harpe Organisée, 1720-1840: Rediscovering the Lost Pedal Techniques on Harps with a Single-Action Pedal Mechanism, PhD Diss., University of Leiden, 2016, pp. 92-95.)

The close physical proximity necessary to play these works raises interesting questions about gender. In both the Marin and Dalvimare works, the two performers shown in the dedicatory engravings are either mother and daughter or two sisters. Could it be that a man and a woman—or even two men—performing the same music would have had an entirely different effect, and even been considered improper at the time?

Robert Adelson, Nice August 2021

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