A Conversation with Willy Postma

Let the Harp Sound! Page 124-129 (more info by pressing here)

A Conversation with Willy Postma

December 2008

Willy Postma worked at the Norwegian Academy of Music, as the harp teacher between 1991 and 2011. She was a guest-professor at the Sibelius Academy in Finland between 1992 and 2000. Besides being the solo harpist in the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra for 46 years, Willy has performed at numerous concerts, as a soloist, chamber- and orchestra-musician. She has given master classes around the world, and been a member of the Board of Directors of the World Harp Congress. In 2007 she received the Royal Norwegian Order of St.Olav, Knight of first class, for her contributions to the harp society in Norway. Willy Postma has world premiered many new works for harp, and she has commissioned works from composers such as Per Hjort Albertsen, Bjørn Alterhaug, Fred Johnny Berg, Terje Bjørklund, Eberhardt Bøttcher, Klaus Egge, Halvor Haug, Kjell Mørk-Karlsen, Johan Kvandal, Bertil Palmar Johansen, Henk van Schevikhoven, Henning Sommerro and Magnar Åm.

I started our conversation by asking Willy how she started playing the harp and how she came to live and work in Norway:

Willy: Before I even knew what a harp was, I played the piano. At some point somebody asked me very nicely if I could learn how to play the harp, given that I was such a quick learner! Soon after that I found myself playing the harp in the philharmonic orchestra in Rotterdam. My teacher had become ill and I had to jump in as an extra. I didn’t really plan to become a harpist, and for many years I still thought of myself as a pianist. But look what happened! I was a solo-harpist in the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra for 44 years, and before that I was in the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

When somebody told me that there was a vacancy in Norway for a harp- and piano- position I thought it was a good idea to apply for it. I had previously been on holidays in Norway and thought it seemed like a nice country to live in, compared to the Netherlands. I especially thought that Rotterdam was an awful city where I never felt safe. I hoped I would be able to practice the piano in Trondheim, which I had not found the time to do while working in Rotterdam. This was in 1963 and in 1964 I went to Norway. I played the harp parts on the piano, because there was no harp to play on. Trondheim Symphony Orchestra did not get a harp until 1965. I had only had a few lessons on the harp and I wasn’t really interested in the instrument. That changed however after I had my first daughter in 1966. Then I started practicing very hard and I matured into it.

Sunniva: So with this in mind you must have started quite quickly with the commissioning of new music?

W: Yes, I did, actually already in the 60’s I started asking everyone if they could write something for me. I was participating in a competition; I travelled to Israel, where I won a price. I pretended this was my harp exam, since I didn’t graduate anywhere before that. At that time I felt the need for more new works. I asked a Dutch composer who lived in Trondheim; Henk van Schevikhoven, and he composed three preludes for me. After that, there were quite a few composers who made something; Bjørn Alterhaug, Eberhardt Bøttcher, Kjell Mørk Karlsen and Klaus Egge. Many of the pieces were composed for me to perform at the World Harp Congresses.

I also had a few conversations with Geirr Tveitt about his harp concertos. We talked about his second concerto and how the harp was not balanced with the heavy instrumentation of the orchestra. Geirr was not happy with the concerto and forbade me to perform it until he had changed it for a smaller ensemble. He passed away before he had the chance to do so. I later performed the second movement from the concerto arranged for a smaller ensemble. Bit20Ensemble and I performed it in Paris. Geirr also told me that the famous harpist Nicanor Zabaleta had performed his first concerto before it was lost. I meant to ask Nicanor about this, but he passed away before I had the chance.

S: How was the collaboration between you and Kjell Mørk Karlsen?

W: Well, I wrote to the Norwegian Composers Society and said that I would like to have a work for harp by a Norwegian composer. Then, I had to call around to ask who would be available. I knew Kjell Mørk Karlsen from having talked to him at a few concerts, and I was looking forward to working with him. I commissioned him to write a solo piece for the first world meeting for harpists, which later became the World Harp Congress.

I was not too thrilled about the collaboration with Kjell. He didn’t ask me anything and suddenly I received a finished score in the mail. Later on I asked him why he didn’t contact me and he told me he had been in contact with another harpist who worked in Oslo where he was. There were a lot of choices that they had made that I disagreed with, for instance, the tritone that starts the whole piece. I thought it was too passive. You could maybe make it work on a piano, but such a thin chord on the harp does not resonate. If he at least had used a bass tone at the same time it would have worked better.

After hearing the piece a few times he agreed with me and he composed a completely new version of the piece. At that time I had performed the first version quite a few times, including a radio recording for the Norwegian Radio. The new version however was nothing similar and would have been a lot of extra work to learn. I had spent all my energy and interest on it by then, so I never learned the second version. The version that I did was never published and the published version has never been performed.

S: The Sonata by Klaus Egge was composed around the same time, in 1976, how was your collaboration with him different?

W: Well, I world premiered the Sonata in “Aulaen” in Oslo, which I had rented to give a full evening recital. I played the piece by Kjell Mørk Karlsen at the same concert, after having world premiered it in Maastricht earlier that year. In general I thought the whole process of commissioning music was very unfair. Maybe it is better now. The composer asked me to commission him to write a piece. I applied for financial support and he got the money. Then I had to rent the concert hall to be able to perform his piece within the time limit. If I didn’t perform it I would have to pay the composer from my own pocket. This put a great pressure on me as an artist. I spent around 1200 hours learning his piece, which I had not been given a chance to influence. I performed eleven works for harp in “Aulaen” but I was financially broke because of it.

The Sonata by Egge is very hard. If you look at the music you see that there are sevenths and triads up and down, forwards and backwards for 20-25 minutes. I wrote to him and asked nicely if he could make the second movement slower, as a contrast to these big chords going up and down. He agreed with me and sometime later he sent me a new second movement. I really liked what he had written and was very happy. But suddenly he changed his mind and he told me to play the first version anyway.

There were two pages in the Sonata that were particularly difficult. I was not able to learn it before the deadline, so I decided to skip the two pages. Klaus Egge was in the hall listening to it, but he didn’t notice. I asked him about it afterwards and he became quite angry and told me never to do that again. Later on I learned those two pages as well.

What sticks out to me from this collaboration is after all that hard work, Klaus Egge comes up to me after the concert and says: “ Oh, if I had known how to use the harp I would have done it so differently!” My chin almost dropped to my knees when he said that. He had never asked me for advice. I found it very frustrating and it could be quite hurtful to experience those kinds of things.

S: Looking at all your collaborations, which one were you most satisfied with?

W: That is of course my collaboration with Johan Kvandal. He came to live at my house for a few days while working on the composition. This was in the 80’s. I had changed my tactics by then, being careful who I asked to work with. Initially I asked Kvandal for a ballade, but he insisted on wanting to write a sonata. The compromise ended up being that he called the first movement a ballade. I was very exited about the old poem that I had found, which would be the basis for the piece. Kvandal came up with a lot of suggestions. I understood what he was after and we worked and worked and worked. I was allowed to make a lot of suggestions. Where he wanted it to be mysterious I suggested that he should use enharmonic tones and double the line by using both hands. This was instead of using repetitive tones, I suggested C#-Db and so on. He was so intrigued about the possibilities that he wanted to use enharmonic tones everywhere.

That made the whole piece sound much better. Another thing we talked about was to always use four fingers and not five as on the piano. That is a common mistake. He filled in the chords as I was playing them for him. He also didn’t know how much he liked the bass until I showed him.

If you look at the score you can see that he very consciously used groupings of four wherever he could. He had really taken in what I had told him. He was the first composer who I worked with who listened and truly collaborated. I didn’t say much about the harmonization of the main theme, but a little bit into it he had written a lot of complicated groupings that didn’t work.

We also worked a lot on finding effects that would illustrate the story of the Poem. Kvandal wanted to hear Heming the young ski over the mountains and eventually disappearing, so I suggested we should use the glissandi for that. After finishing the first movement Kvandal looked at me and asked: “Who is the composer here, you or me?” So he wanted to do the second movement on his own. I only made a few corrections after that. The piece is a lot of work to learn, but almost everything works well, except for page 11, where he uses five fingers when turning in the top.

S: When a composer wants to build a big chord like this, maybe with the same big and generous sound, what advice would you give him?

W: Only to think about everything working out in groups of four and not five like I have mentioned. We worked a lot with making the harp sound optimal. To not go against the harp qualities. Also, if a composer wants to use effects, it is not enough to only “throw in” a few romantic ones, like glissandi and harmonics, he or she has to use them in a specific way.

To make the harp sound strong it is best to play in the lower keys with a lot of flats. The Sonata by Kvandal uses seven flats in the first movement (Cb Major) and six in the second (Gb Major). By doing this it is possible to maximize the use of synonyms. This makes the harp strings resonate more freely. If a composer writes in E major it is awful, then you ask him to change it at once! I can’t stand it! The strings are so taught that the sound is awful, and you have no possibilities of using enharmonic tones. That is why Kvandal has done it so you can make a D# and an F and an F# and so on. Because of this he creates an enormous sound that is not being muffled because you have to replace your fingers.

My advice of using low keys was also helpful when I collaborated with Henning Sommerro. I asked him to write in the low keys so we could use all the effects on the harp. I wrote down the harp effects I wanted to use; “bisbigliando”, harmonics, glissandos, as well as various key changes. Sommerro was using his tune “Vårsøg” to make a new harp piece. He decided to use all the effects that I had suggested, and make it into a variation piece, with one effect for each variation. The harp piece works really well, it is phenomenal.

Another thing to think about when you want the harp to sound good is the spacing of the tones. It is not a good idea to use triads in the bass, “no thirds in the bass” I tell them. It is better to think big, open chords on the harp, using wide triads. Also, it is good to use the whole range of the harp, not only the middle section as many composers do.

S: What about the pedals?

W: Well, of course you have to keep your mind on what pedal changes you have to make when you compose for the harp. But you know, we change two pedals at the time and an experienced harpist can change the pedals very quickly. I rarely think about pedals as a problem. What I do say often is that there has to be time to muffle the strings. If you have just played an E in the bass and you change the pedal to Eb without muffling you will hear a pedal glissando. You can’t change pedals when the strings are still vibrating. I have corrected that many times.

S: So to sum up, what kind of collaborations have been the more successful in your mind?

W: I really think that the harpist needs to meet the composer, to play for him and together find solutions. That is the only thing that has really worked. I have also given harp lessons to composers, emphasizing the things I have mentioned here; four fingers, big, wide chords, clear bass, to not change pedals when the tone is still ringing and to not do any quick key changes. Furthermore it is important to be able to change between enharmonic tones, not to insist that it must be an F# and not a Gb. I also want it to sound good, and not be too nitty-gritty. Another thing to think about is to have a variation in the dynamics, using both fortissimo and pianissimo.

S: What musical roles do you think the harp should have in the future, for example in the orchestras?

W: I don’t think the harp should be used as a percussion instrument, I think that goes against the harp’s characteristics. I am also not so interested in an extreme use of the harp. The most important thing is that it resonates well. I really like the way Bartôk uses the harp, as an interfering sound in the marketplace (Concerto for Orchestra, first movement, second harp). I also think it is important to build a good repertoire. We lack a lot of the solid standard pieces, like the piano has, especially in the Norwegian repertoire. We could have more pieces for certain occasions, such as Christmas, or more sonatas and sarabands.

S: Which Norwegian composers who have written for harp would you refer the younger composers to?

W: Well that would have to be Magnar Åm, Ragnar Søderlind and Halvor Haug. Haug was after all the easiest to work with of them all. My favorite living composer is Einijohanna Rautaraara. He has written “Ballade” for harp and string orchestra, which I love.

S: Thank you Willy for sharing your experiences and giving us a little insight into the processes of the works dedicated to you.



Cited works:

Bartók, Béla: Concerto for Orchestra (1943)
Egge, Klaus: Sonata for Harp, op. 33 (1974), Oslo: MIC Norway.
Haug, Halvor: Dialogue for Two Harps (1987), Oslo: Warner/Chappel Music Norway AS.
Karlsen, Kjell Mørk: Variations for Harp, op. 29 (1973/86), Oslo: MIC Norway.
Kvandal, Johan: Sonate: Ballade om Hemingen unge, op. 63 (1984), Oslo: Norsk Musikkforlag AS. Rautavaara, Einojuhani: Ballade (1973/1981), for harp and strings, London: Boosey and Hawkes. Schevikhoven, Henk Van: Three Pieces for Harp (1976), Oslo: MIC Norway.
Sommerro, Henning: Vårsøg, fantasi for harpe og strykere (1993), Oslo: Norsk Musikkforlag Tveitt, Geirr: 2do Concerto per Arpa e Orchestra, op. 170 (1978), Oslo: MIC Norway.
Åm, Magnar: Gratia (1994/2002), for harp and string orchestra/wind orchestra, Oslo: MIC Norway.