Marie Antoinette may have been responsible for making the harp a woman’s instrument, but that’s not how the harp started out. The first famous harpist in recorded history (the Egyptians played a lot of harps according to their paintings), was King David who used to play the harp for King Saul.
Another famous harpist was Turlough O’Carolan. Blind by age 18 due to smallpox, he traveled around his native Ireland and played for little more than a meal and a place to stay. He wrote many tunes for the harp and many of them are still played today.
The man who designed a harp for Marie Antoinette had a son by the name of Jean-Francois-Joseph Naderman who became one of the most famous harp players of all time. He toured Europe playing the harp for prominent groups and finally became the very first harp teacher at the Paris Conservatory.
A harpist from England named Elias Parish Alvars used the double-action harp to develop many techniques. He performed in London and Germany and published many harp solos.
The father of the French Method is Alphonse Jean Hasselmans whose methods of harp playing are still being used today. He spent many years teaching at the Paris Conservatory. Hasselmans is credited with the revival of the harp at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The first famous female harpist was Henriette Renie. She was so tiny that extensions had to be built so she could use the pedals. When she was eleven years old she won the Premier Prix. Because of her difficulties in playing the harp the Pleyel chromatic harp was developed.
Carlos Salzedo wrote many masterpieces for the harp. Some say that Salzedo did for the harp what Bach did for the organ. He studied under Toscanini and then moved to New York and became the first harpist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Salzedo himself designed the Salzedo Harp.
Gabriel Tournier was the Harp Professor at the Paris Conservatory after Hasselman died. He married Renee Lenars who was a chromatic harp teacher. Tournier was unique in his teaching method because he refused to play for his students because he insisted they needed to find their own voices on the harp.
Another famous harpist actually started his musical career on the piano. His name was Marcel Grandjany who performed in Aeolian Hall in New York City. Afterwards he taught harp at Julliard. Grandjany is known for his deep spiritualism and his compositions that are referred to as soulful.
The most famous harpist became a household word: Harpo Marx. Bullies picked on him at school so he left school and taught himself to play on a harp he inherited. He was the Marx Brother comedian who never spoke on stage. Harpo composed many pieces, but never wrote them down because he never learned to read music. If you aren’t familiar with Harpo, you can catch him on a re-run of the I Love Lucy show.