I was thinking this weekend about how much variation there is in classical piano literature, and how little there seems to be in classical harp literature. One of the nice things about the piano is that there seem to be good-sized virtuoso ecosystems for anyone no matter their hand size. Smallish hands do better with Baroque or maybe a little Mozart; I had a roommate in graduate school once who had very small hands and played a lot of Debussy as a result. (Seriously, her fingertips came up to my distal knuckles.) Larger hands have more Romantic stuff to play, and it’s the same with nimble versus heavy hands. And in each case, there is enough literature there for someone to work within their hands’ happy place and spend years performing to their best. The piano (the keyboard in general) has been around for centuries though, and has had time to develop that sort of literature.
The harp, though? It’s only around 150 years old in its current form, probably even younger when you consider the present size and tension of the thing and not just the invention of the double-action pedal mechanism. And there only a bare few pedagogues, all of whom still exert a massive influence on the instrument. So it’s really got a severely limited literature.
One of the neat things about the piano is that you can tell what sort of hands a composer had based on how their music feels. I can tell when I play Joplin or Grieg that their hands were very similar to mine; Grieg especially sits right in the “comfortable shoes” spot: lyrical, a bit “heavy,” and big chord reaches, more challenging in a size-related way than in close footwork. I’m sure that Chopin had longer pinkies than I but he’s around there as well.* His music also seems to require a nimbler hand than Grieg and Joplin as well, more “fancy fingerwork.” And I can tell when I play them. We can all tell what sort of hands a composer had based on his music.
There just isn’t that sort of mature variation in the harp literature at this point. All of the music seems to be written for one kind of hand; there just isn’t that richness of multiple varied ecosystems yet. It’s partly nice because so much of it is an unplowed field, and frontier instruments are always fun. But it’s also frustrating because there’s really only one way to be a “classical harpist” currently.
Unlike the piano, it’s not hand size on the harp that’s the big thing but relative finger length and probably how “tightly” the hand is strung. With my reversed 2D:4D ratio and loosely strung hands, I’m looking for harp literature that doesn’t exist. I’m so glad that my teacher is open to my creating it.
I get a kick out of imagining the possibility of a harpist someday in the future with long hands, loose tendons, and short fourth fingers sitting down to my music and going, “This feels comfy for me!” while someone else who is more tightly strung, more moderately sized, and with a more reasonable 2D:4D ratio is thinking, “What in GOD’S NAME kind of left hand did this woman have?!”
* I have to admit I dislike playing Chopin on the piano, though. I’m looking forward to messing with his music on the harp, but it doesn’t do much for me on the piano.