Adding Sparkle and Sting

I’ve mentioned in past posts that I was asked back in November to add a harp part to my piece, Daughter of the Stars, for string orchestra. It’s time to write about it. I waited because I needed to update my website, get all the new scores and parts linked to the right download sales options and rewrite the piece description. It took longer to reformat the scores and parts and update the website than to actually write the part. But I had to get all that finished before I could announce to the world that my “all new” Daughter of the Stars now has a harp part!

I had never written anything for harp before. Frankly, I was intimidated. Not by the fingerings or note spacings. That comes to me fairly easily through one of those “freak skills” I have. I call them “freak” because I didn’t get them from practicing. One is my ability to sight-read; the other is my ability to visualize spaces. As a pianist I understand very well the shape of the hands and how that affects what I can play; for harp, I just needed to flip the right hand in my mind.

The pedals were what I found daunting. How quickly can a harpist change the pedals and how much notice in the music does a harpist need? What does a harp pedal chart look like, and how do I make one? I thought about all this and said to myself, “I’ll figure it out later.”

That was, until I was asked to write a part for harp.

When I got the order for a set of score and parts for Daughter of the Stars from Neal Springer, a high school orchestra director in Texas, he asked if he could commission me to add a harp part to the piece because their school has a growing harp program. Of course, I said yes. It was time to figure it out. Thankfully, DotS has simple keys and key changes, though there is a section that goes through quite a bit of modulation. For that portion of the piece, I was able to give the harp notes that avoided a lot of pedal changes. If there was a piece that would allow me to tiptoe into writing for harp, this was it.

Previously, I hadn’t even considered adding harp to DotS. I had originally written it to send into a competition for a high-school level All-State Orchestra piece. I had to abide by very specific guidelines, and the instrument list did not include harp. The piece was finished, and had already earned some accolades. What was there to add?

I didn’t want to write a part that was only arpeggiating chords, simply
added on as an afterthought to an existing piece. As a pianist, I am well aware that approach is often a default, especially in simpler music. Playing only chords is boring. I wanted to write a harp part with it’s own line intertwined with the other voices that equally contributes to the overall contrapuntal quality of the piece.

This required listening to the piece for what was missing. What could harp bring to the music and breathe new life into it?

The answer, in two words, is sparkle and sting.

Daughter of the Stars is inspired by the American folk tune, Shenandoah. The narrator in the song is pining for his love, as he must travel “across the wide Missouri,” or ” ‘cross this w’rld o’ mis’r’y” depending on whether you think it originated with a French fur trader or a slave. (I’ve crossed the Missouri River. It’s not that wide, at least not on Interstate 80. Not wide enough to mention it in lyrics, in my opinion. Given that slaves were taken from both Africa and portions of the U.K., one could argue that this song has both Celtic and slave origin. I digress.) Whether the traveler is crossing a river or the wide world (possibly an ocean?) water is involved, and the travel is difficult. In writing the piece, I wanted to musically depict beautiful landscape as well as stormy water, maybe even a waterfall, just as life is a journey full of both delight and hardship.

In a Native American tale, long before the Europeans arrived the Indians in the Virginia area visited a lake of sparkling blue water hidden in the mountains. It was a wide, long lake, and very peaceful. They camped there while hunting. The water was so clear and serene that, at night, the surface of the water danced with the light reflecting the stars above. They named the lake, “Daughter of the Stars” – Shenandoah. One day, the mountain broke with a loud crash. The lake drained and formed what is now the Shenandoah river. Out of the loss of the lake, a new river bringing life to the valley was formed.

Water sparkles. The sunlight glints off the surface revealing minute ripples from a faint breeze or a jumping bug. It catches sprays of water, forming miniature prisms and casting momentary rainbows. It glistens on wet skin. It reflects the stars. Water can also string. A hard splash turns water droplets into diminutive darts.

So what does this have to do with harp?

No other instrument could add that sparkle and sting to Daughter of the Stars.

The timbre of the harp is unique and brilliant and, though relatively quiet, pierces through various textures. In one setting, a glissando or arpeggio might be a relaxing shimmer, but in another setting accented plucked strings add punch to the music. I use both in Daughter of the Stars.

I had reasons for not initially including harp in the composition, but I am very glad that Neal Springer asked me to add a harp part for his students. The harp adds another layer of depth to the meaning I was intending for this piece all along.

Now, I can present to you the “new and updated” version of Daughter of the Stars. You can find the score and parts here. Only thing is, I now need a new recording!

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3 thoughts on “Adding Sparkle and Sting”

  1. Heather, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your harp experience. The harp is on of my most favorite instruments as is the cello, base, timpani and alto sax. Go figure. Thank you for all your talents and for continuing to accompany the North Kingstown Community Chours.

    1. Thanks, Pinkie! I love the sound of the harp, too. When I was young, 6 or 7 years old, my family ate at a restaurant on Cape Cod and a woman was providing live music with her harp. She let my sister and I each have a turn sitting behind her harp and plucking some strings. I was fascinated! I will never forget that experience.

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