Friday, April 09, 2010


Another Rembrandt! The first, (1630) of two versions Rembrandt painted on this subject. The Biblical episode of David pacifying the evil spirit of Saul is an early example of the healing power of music in sacred literature. Appropriately, it's the harp, an instrument commonly associated with heaven and angelic beings which is featured. Perhaps because the harp so readily lends itself to music of a calm and reflective nature.

The Rembrandt painting depicts the aged King Saul overcome by a melancholic, evil spell. He summons his favourite David to relieve his suffering soul. The Biblical episode in 1 Samuel 16 verses 14-17 and 21-23 reads-

The Lord's spirit left Saul, and an evil spirit sent by the Lord tormented him. his servants said to him, "We know that an evil spirit sent by God is tormenting you. So give us the order , sir, and we will look for a man who knows how to play the harp, and you will be alright again". Saul ordered them, "Find me a man who plays well and bring him to me".... ...David came to Saul and entered his service.....From then on , whenever the evil spirit sent by God came on Saul, David would get his harp and play it. the evil spirit would leave, and Saul would be all right again.

The power of the healing properties of harmony is a prominent theme in the philosophy of Pythagoras; developed further by Plato, the ancient Greek philosophers were "re-discovered" during the Renaissance. In particular by the Venetian monk Francesco Giorgio (1466-1540) author of De Harmonia Mundi (1525) in which Pythagorean and Platonic ideas on harmony and music are integrated to the esoteric lore of the Cabala and Christianity. In Giorgio's interpretation of the Cabala, music and harmony are central, so much so that by the seventeenth century the Biblical episode of Saul and David had accumulated a wealth of speculative detail. Sir Thomas Browne, who possessed a copy of Giorgio's work of Christian Cabala , queried upon the Biblical episode in his Discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) thus-

Why the Cabalisticall Doctors, who conceive the whole Sephiroth, or divine emanations to have guided the ten-stringed Harp of David, whereby he pacified the evil spirit of Saul, in strict numeration doe begin with the Perihypate Meson, or si fa ut, and so place the Tiphereth answering C sol fa ut, upon the fifth string:

I'd love to know what on earth this sounds like! Perhaps like the UFO theme from the film 'Close Encounters'?

In modern times the Breton musician Alan Stivell (born 1944) promoted the popularity of the Celtic harp; his father having constructed a half-scale harp for him at the age of 9. I was lucky enough to hear the phenomenal playing and singing of Stivell at UEA in the 1970's. His Suite of folk-tunes Ys depicting a ghostly underwater town, sunk off the coast of Brittany, complete with lapping waves on shore (always a good sound to accompany the harp, even if only one long loop) was often on my record-player turn-table for several years. As ever it is the bardic, narrative element of the harp, evoking the recital of accompanying verse in troubadour fashion which sets the scene for this piece.

Many orchestral works, in particular of the Romantic era utilize the Harp, especially Tchaikovsky in his Ballet-music. The composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) featured the harp in the role as accompanist to the poet, in his orchestral tone-poem 'The Bard' opus 64 (1913-14). The Harp sets the scene in the opening bars of the tone-poem, conjuring a lost world of Viking tales of battle and romance. After a long orchestral flurry upon these themes, the harp re-enters to summarily close the tone-poem.

Another great Harp CD I really love is Ludovico Einaudi's (born 1955) Stanze (1992), pure minimalist chill-out stuff. For a while I imagined no human musician could possibly produce such a clear, even tone and believed I was listening to some kind of synthetic, key-board sampler, but no, the sleeve-notes clearly give credit to a Ms. Cecilia Chailly, a quite extraordinary harpist.

Even more recently the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928) composed an extremely modern-sounding Harp Concerto (2000). At times somber, even chilling, its a concerto of considerable emotional depth, rewarding for the receptive listener.

Just a kitsch Victorian Sunday school picture of the same story. The harp depicted here has grown into a much larger Symphonic and Concert-Hall sized instrument since the days of Rembrandt's modest sized instrument.
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