Harpist Anne Denholm in her role as Official Harpist to the Prince of Wales, her contemporary ensemble The Hermes Experiment and why she loves the music of Sally Beamish
The official harpist to HRH The Prince of Wales on playing at the royal wedding and why she loves the music of Sally Beamish and Barbara Strozzi
In July 2015 you were appointed official harpist to HRH The Prince of Wales. What does the role involve?
The role was reinstated in 2000 by HRH The Prince of Wales. It mainly involves providing music for different occasions. It might be playing background music for functions or dinners, or more stand-out performances at ceremonies.
And that includes playing at the recent royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. What was that like?
It was fantastic! I still can’t really believe I was there to be honest. It was just a real privilege to witness the actual wedding, which was really beautiful. Although it was a historic national event it was also the marriage of two people who love each other and that's what was very apparent and made it extra special.
It was also amazing to accompany cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason during his solos in the signing of the register. He's just fantastic and it was really wonderful to hear him.
What do you know about royal harpists from the past?
We know that the last royal harpist before the post fell out of existence was John Thomas, who was appointed by Queen Victoria in 1871. In the harp world John Thomas is a really significant figure. He was a Welsh gentleman who went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and then he later became a professor at the Royal College of Music. He is probably most famous among harpists for writing lots of beautiful arrangements of Welsh folk melodies and some original compositions as well.
I understand there is an official royal harp. What makes that instrument special?
The royal harp was designed and created especially for HRH The Prince of Wales, so it’s one of a kind. It was designed by the late Victor Salvi, of Salvi harps in Italy. It’s a magnificent creation. It was presented in 2006 to Prince Charles, and has incorporated into the design lots of emblems of Welsh culture.
For example, instead of the usual flowers on the soundboard of the harp, there are daffodils. There are dragons along the base, and the bit at the front of the harp, the column, is inspired by the crest of The Prince of Wales, with the three feathers. The top of the harp is actually the three feathers coming out of the coronet. So it’s very intricately designed, especially for The Prince, and also has a magnificent sound. It’s a very special instrument.
Is it enjoyable to play?
Yes! One of the real privileges of the post is to play that instrument and get to know it.
Another big part of your musical life is contemporary music, and you are a founder member of The Hermes Experiment. What makes this ensemble unique?
It was set up by soprano Héloïse Werner, who I was friends with at university. It's an unusual combination of instruments. We have double bass, harp, clarinet and soprano voice, which sounds totally mad but works because we've got all the fundamental musical elements. There's bass, harmony and then two melody instruments. It's been an amazing journey of discovery. We've worked with over 40 composers. We commission, make our own arrangements of existing works and do totally free, live improvisation as well.
In fact you're playing with soprano Héloïse Werner as well as mezzo Lucy Goddard at the Spitalfields Music in the City series, with a focus on 20th- and 21st-century women composers…
This concert is part of the City of London corporation’s ‘Women: Work and Power’ initiative, which is actually a six-month season celebrating women. This recital has been curated by Héloïse Werner. We've come up with this wonderful programme, and we're also a devising a piece ourselves.
And the devised piece is based on the 17th-century Italian composer Barbara Strozzi?
Exactly. We are taking inspiration from a movement, 'Mercé di voi', from a larger vocal work. It's absolutely beautiful. I've read a bit about Strozzi, and she was one of the only women publishing her own music in the first half of the 17th century. I must admit I had never heard of her, and I'm really looking forward to exploring this piece of hers, in a new and unusual way. We will be playing chunks of the original, interspersed with semi-improvised passages.
Do you have any other favourite pieces from the programme?
All the pieces are very new to me, apart from the Sally Beamish harp solo. I absolutely love Nicola LeFanu's The Bourne. The harp writing treads a lovely line between unusual and being very beautiful, harpy and delicate.
What is the Sally Beamish piece about?
I was really lucky to get to work with Sally on it in 2014. It was one of the first contemporary pieces I played. It involves a lot of unusual textures and effects: I start the piece by drumming on the sound-board and using different parts of my hand to get different percussive sounds, so I've got a sort of rhythm section going.
The piece is about African sleeping sickness. The drumming rhythms are from Africa, and as African harps are usually pentatonic, there's lots of pentatonic movement. There's also an actual transcription of a lullaby from one of the central African tribes that was decimated by sleeping sickness in the 1940s. That's where we get the name for the piece. 'Awuya' is a little girl's name, and this lullaby was sung to her. So it's a really sad piece, but also it ends on a hopeful note.
Anne Denholm performs with soprano Héloïse Werner and mezzo-soprano Lucy Goddard at Drapers' Hall at Drapers' Hall in London on Friday 20 July, 1-1.50pm
Picture credit: Timothy Ellis