Mara Galassi and the enchantment of the harp
The Italian harp virtuoso Mara Galassi, professor of harp and chamber music in Milan and Barcelona, is fascinated by harps. She collects them, plays them and her home is full of them. She has them in all shapes and sizes, four originals and a number of copies of rare historical instruments. Almost apologetically she says: "I really don’t know how many harps I have got here. I lost count. Maybe 15. At the moment here in my house I have four original harps. One (a double action Erard pedal harp, 47 strings, in Empire style, from the beginning of the 20th century), is on loan from my former harp professor Luciana Chierici. The three other originals are mine. One is from the mid 18th century: it is a single action pedal harp, a 'crochet' (hooks which are connected to the pedals can shorten the strings obtaining the semitones). It was made by Holzman, in Paris in 1778, the same year when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his Concerto alla Harpa e Flauto. The second original is a Pierre Erard pedal harp, also a single action made in Paris in 1816 and finally the third one is a Sébastien Erard double action pedal harp made in London in 1824. Furthermore I play two copies of the most important Italian Baroque Harp, the famous Barberini Harp, preserved in the museum of the Musical Instruments in Rome. This harp was made in 1632 for the Italian cardinal Antonio Barberini, who was the nephew of Pope Urban VIII. The two copies are by the American luthier David Brown and by the Italian luthier Dario Pontiggia respectively."
"My first harp teacher: Luciana Chierici. She was fantastic."
|Teatro alla Scala, Milano|
"When I was a little girl I played the recorder in the elementary school as all kids did. My parents always wanted to take me to the Scala, to watch opera performances. So, while sitting above in the loge I could oversee the whole pit with all those beautiful instruments. But there was one instrument I liked best, that was of course the harp. I liked it, because it was a golden instrument, and it was different from all the other instruments. And when my parents asked me what kind of instrument I would like to play, I answered without hesitation: 'It must be the harp.' There was no question about it, it was the only possibility for me." Mara Galassi started studying at the age of 9 at the Civica Scuola di Musica di Milano with Luciana Chierici, a harp professor, appreciated by generations of harpists and the Principal Harp in the RAI (Italian Radio) Orchestra. After studying about 10 years the modern pedal harp in Milano, Mara graduated from Pesaro Conservatory of Music and the Civica Scuola di Milano.
"Luciana Chierici was the first harpist in Italy who played early pieces on the modern harp."
Mara enthusiastically tells: "My first and only teacher was Luciana Chierici, the daughter of Giulio Chierici, who was Principal Oboe player in la Scala, at the time of Toscanini. Giulio had two daughters: Luciana, my teacher, and Claudia, who was one of the first if not the first female orchestra conductor in Italy. "I studied pedal harp with Luciana and at 19 I got my modern harp diploma with her." Mara still speaks with respect about her former professor Luciana Chierici, who unfortunately died 4 years ago. "I completed my studies with her. She was an extraordinary person and a fantastic teacher. Full of energy and spirit, she was very creative and fond of new ideas. So, when one summer I went to London and bought a neo-Irish harp, she was so interested in that instrument - nobody played it in Italy at that time - that she immediately ordered one for herself from Dublin and started to play it too. Luciana really liked all that could be a bit more 'modern', in the sense that it was not traditional, although as for the didactic school programmes, we obviously did all the traditional stuff. But she had a fantastic feeling for new things, she had charisma, she was a very enlightening and inspiring person. I think that I got from her not merely the technical skills of harp-playing, but also her lively and creative spirit. After her death I looked into her music material and found that she had started to play early music pieces on her Erard harp, when nobody was doing it, pieces by Frescobaldi, Monteverdi and Sigismondo d'India." Later Mara Galassi also studied with David Watkins in London and Emmy Huerlimann in Zurich.
"I discovered the love for early music in Sicily."
Mara continues: "I played the modern harp but some 30 years ago I developed an interest for early music and early harps while I was living in Palermo, the capital of Sicily. I had won the competition and became Principal Harpist at the Teatro Massimo, the opera house of that city. Being not totally happy with this job, I got interested in Sicilian early music and began to attend early music summer courses with Gabriel Garrido, a fantastic musician and recorder player, and joined local early music ensembles. One evening, after listening to the madrigal "Tirsi morir volea" by Luca Marenzio, I felt so moved by that music that I decided to devote myself completely to early music and to stop playing the modern harp. I felt that I could 'speak' with early harps much better than with modern ones. You can shape the sound in a more subtle way and the repertoire is immense. When playing on original instruments you feel that the harps speak to you, the music is already in the instrument, you only have to understand and interpret it. When I play a ricercare, a fantasia, a toccata, a fugue, I feel that this is 'my only music'. It has a perfect architecture in all its details, and is full of colours."
Mara Galassi also studied historical performance practice under harpsichordist David Collyer in Rotterdam and under lutenist Patrick O'Brien in New York and musicology with Michael Morrow in London. She has been teaching modern and historical harp at the "Civica Scuola di Musica Claudio Abbado" in her native city Milan for many years, while now her teaching activities also include programmes at the ESMUC in Barcelona, Spain. She has recorded Il viaggio di Lucrezia, a solo album of Italian baroque music for harp, Les Harpes du Ciel with Gabriella Bosio, harp duets from the second half of the 18th Century for two single action pedal harps.Furthermore she recorded The Microcosm Concerto, music by Georg Friedrich Händel for Welsh triple harp, Erard harp in duo with keyboard instruments, the Second Book of Capricci by Ascanio Mayone with Jean Marc Aymes, the Concerto alla Harpa e Flauto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for Harmonia Mundi France, with the Freiburger Baroque Orchester and recently Il finto Pariggino with soprano Marinella Pennicchi and Mauro Squillante playing the mandolin.
As a musicologist Mara Galassi has carried out extensive research in the field of historical harps, when preparing for Glossa her first solo recording Il viaggio di Lucrezia, - a 'historical fantasy' based on the travels of harpist Lucrezia Urbana (between 1584 and 1615); it features music by composers active in Italy in the first half of the 17th century played on an arpa doppia. Her CD 'Il Viaggio di Lucrezia' has won the 'Cannes Award' and 'Choc de la Musique Award'. Mara explains, "Il Viaggio di Lucrezia is a historical fantasy of mine. Lucrezia Urbana was a harpist who really lived at the time of Monteverdi. She was from Naples but was employed in Mantova at the Gonzaga court when Orfeo was performed for the first time in 1607. Later Lucrezia travelled also to Rome and from there to Florence. So I just followed this travelling of hers, which I called 'Il Viaggio di Lucrezia', and I played compositions of musicians who were active in the courts where she used to play and whom she might have met."
Mara Galassi has played on a variety of instruments, from the Gothic harp, to Renaissance harps with brays, to double and triple row instruments and single action pedal harps, but now she mainly plays the Baroque triple harp. She has also worked with many of the best ensembles in the European early music field, such as René Jacobs' Concerto Vocale, Rinaldo Alessandrini's Concerto Italiano, Pedro Memelsdorff's Mala Punica, Jean-Marc Aymes' Concerto Soave and the Akademie für Alte Musik in Berlin. Mara explains, "I loved playing in the ensemble Concerto Vocale, with René Jacobs. He is a Belgian singer and one of the most famous conductors in the early music scene. For me when I started to play the Baroque harp, working with him was very important, very instructive and very challenging: he really taught me a lot. At times he was not an easy person, always very demanding, but I always learned a lot. The five years I played the medieval harp with Mala Punica and Pedro Memelsdorff, under the pseudonym of Valentina Visconti, were also extremely inspiring: Pedro is a real musical genius."
"Voluptas Dolendi": Music and Gestures in Caravaggio's Paintings (a film by Francesco Vitali, with Mara Galassi and Deda Cristina Colonna).
The film and theatre performance "Voluptas Dolendi: The gestures of Caravaggio", inspired by the artistic heritage of this great painter, is an original synthesis of various art forms (music, dance, acting and painting), showing how Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (the most important Italian baroque painter), still exerts a deep influence on contemporary artists. It is an art film, produced by the 'Fondazione Marco Fodella', featuring Deda Christina Colonna and Mara Galassi. Francesco Vitali was the Director of the lighting. Mara explains: "The lighting is fundamental, both in the film and in the performances. This film is based on a performance that was played many times, also in Belgium. The idea was to try and represent on stage with dance and music the feelings experienced when watching a painting. So we made a selection of Caravaggio paintings and chose the ones which according to us were most closely connected with the music of that time and could therefore speak the same language and be acted out with the same gestures. In this performance the actress interprets the painting itself, through movement, dance and declamation of some texts describing the style of Caravaggio, his life and his art. The sources of all texts are from the time of Caravaggio. We have been touring with that project for more than two years until it became a film that obtained very beautiful reviews. To the sceptics who find the work too 'íntellectual' I always say:''It is a pity for you."
For further information please visit: www.polyhymnion.org/mus/galassi and www.maragalassi.org.