Thursday, December 22, 2016

Jörg Demus plays the Claviharp at Ringve Museum (1977)

The English-style garden at Ringve Museum near Trondheim

We love the shapes of boats, and of violins. By long evolution, and by restless striving against the intractable constraints of natural forces, a form emerges that appears optimal and classical. Being an answer to Nature’s question, it becomes in a certain way a part of nature; though the violinist knows from his calloused chin that the instrument is not quite optimal, and contains many measures of failure, pain and compromise. But the pain, like a high price, to a certain extent validates the form: it is worth this. 

But if a fiddle can be compared with a yacht, most of the thousands of other musical instruments that have been invented are more like rafts. Most of them didn’t work well enough and strike us now as amusing travesties, testaments to misplaced ingenuity.

The Ringve Museum, near Trondheim, is Norway’s national museum of musical instruments. Jörg Demus is an Austrian pianist who has made many recordings. The “pianoharpe” (from the Norwegian liner-notes) is the instrument known in English as a claviharp, claviharpe,  keyed harp or harp piano. This one was made around 1870 by  Christian Dietz, instrument-maker of Brussels. (The claviharp was invented by J C Dietz in around 1813.) It is a decorative instrument, lacquered in Japanese style. It has a six-octave keyboard and looks rather like a small upright piano, except that instead of an enclosed chamber for the strings, a sweeping harp-like frame rises in front of the player’s head. The strings are plucked rather than hammered, and the instrument weighs far less than a piano does.  

The Ringve Claviharp (left)

In the recording of 1977, Jörg Demus plays a number of short pieces by Debussy, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and others on this instrument.

The chiming, bell-like tone of the melody line in the upper register is at once striking. (It seems, however, that this can be restrained, as in the piece by Bach.) I don’t know how the piano-harp is played, but I assume it is entirely by means of the keyboard and the two pedals. It hardly sounds like it. Though that clear bell-like tone is beguiling, one is immediately aware of a stealthy scuffle of apparently unrelated sounds behind it. In the bass a muffled thump half-conceals the note. There is a continuous, inconsequent background of soft thuds, perhaps a side-effect of the mechanics. Sometimes even the higher notes sound muted, and sometimes in the midst of passages we hear a quite different sound: a sharp, unresonant twang that sounds a bit like someone striking the strings of an unamplified electric guitar.   

No instrument is without its limitations, and the piano-harp would seem to have more than most.  Some of the noises just mentioned sound as if they are not under the performer’s control, fine musician though he obviously is. The tempi have a perennial flutter about them, so that the notes in a run are of slightly unequal lengths;  an effect we eventually come to accept as intrinsic, rather as we accept the stumbling rhythm of a peal of bells. The dynamics, too, seem widely varied, suggesting that the performer does not always know if a note will plang or plink. Just as precision tempi seem to be difficult, so do precisely marshalled chords; they tend to be played broken, and the pieces seem to come to a halt with odds and ends of notes.

Yet the music is delightful. It is also exciting, because it opens a door, and lets us overhear, faintly, how different our culture could have been if, through some accident, the piano-harp had stood in the piano’s place. With repeated listens we begin, without conscious effort, to learn the aesthetic of the piano-harp.

Eventually there comes a point where it is difficult to assert with real confidence that we are better off for not having to make do with the piano-harp. An instrument’s limitations, quite as much as its strengths, are what give the music and our conception of the instrument a “character”, which is perhaps the essential factor in being able to interpret what we hear as having a “meaning”, that is to say a cultural significance. Therefore limitations in an instrument do not produce limitations in the wisdom of what can be said with it; in fact, the technical challenges they create provide opportunities for exposing, and polishing, new facets of that wisdom. Just as fully functional languages can be composed from any number of narrow selections of all the noises that a human voice can make,  so we could have made music as natural and as human with different instruments. The difference, utterly transforming as it would have been, is not clearly a difference of value. [The difference that it makes whether, for instance, we grow up speaking English or Italian, is something that can only be contemplated by those who are fluent in both languages; those who are, of all people, the least prone to claim that one language or the other is superior.] 

But I have written this in the past conditional, as if the piano-harp is an odd, trivial, dead end of the sort that interests only those mostly elderly folk who knock about in museums. But in fact, to listen to it is to hear the certain future as well as a curiosity of the past. Our musical instruments, like our languages, will change and are slowly changing every day. And these changes, in any aspect of human culture, affect all the rest, so that even when something does stay the same (such as a sound recording) it is now heard differently – a recording of the Léner Quartet sounds not like a string quartet but like an old string quartet. Which is one application of Gösta Ågren’s poem, The Ego:

            The one who never changes
            becomes another.  


There was a serious fire at Ringve Museum in August 2015. Some instruments were lost on upper floors. Fortunately the ground floor rooms, such as the "Beethoven" room that contains the piano-harp, were not affected.  

Ringve Museum


Jörg Demus, LP Sleeve from 1978

Jörg Demus (b. 1928) is an Austrian pianist. He has made prolific recordings including a complete edition of Schumann's piano music. You can find lots of his musicianly and sensitive performances on Youtube. 


On YouTube you can hear several pieces performed by Daniel Grimwood on a claviharp restored by David Winston.  Here are two that demonstrate the instrument's sonorities particularly well.   



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