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A masterful writer on a house of master craftsmen; Robert Adelson and Erard: Empire of the harp

In 2022, as part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, it was our honour to commission the eminent organologist Robert Adelson to write  Erard: Empire of the Harp, the latest and finest monograph devoted to the Erard family.  In comparison to other texts out there, harpists and enthusiasts will be delighted that it puts the harp and its history in the forefront (Sébastien Erard was as committed to the harp as to the piano, and his many improvements to the keyboard mean this can often overpower the harp in historical texts).

The writing of this work is detailed and informative without being academic to read. The chapters about Pierre Erard (Sébastien’s nephew, and later the director and proprietor of the house of Erard) are particularly absorbing not only for his relationship to the history of the harp, but as a man of his time, caught  in the swirl of revolution and sociopolitical events. For myself, I think his life would make a terrific film.

Pierre Erard (1794-18550 by an unknown artist- the art work belongs to ©BNF-Gallica

Pierre Erard (1794-1855) by an unknown artist- the art work belongs to ©BNF-Gallica

Happily, Adelson’s work is gaining critical recognition beyond this blog. A most complimentary review has appeared in Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association to Alison A. Alcorn of the State University of Illinois:

“Definitive histories of musical instrument companies sometimes evoke an expectation of dry business statistics and recitation of patent minutia. Robert Adelson’s history of harps and harp making in Maison Erard— from Sébastien Erard’s birth in 1752 through the last Erard harp in the early 1970s—is meticulously researched and full of the requisite detail, but it is also one of the most entertaining and engaging company histories on the market. 

Certainly, some of the entertainment value is due to the delightfully complex humanity of the Erards themselves, but it takes a brilliant writer to draw out that complexity in a way that leaves the reader with laughter, anger, sadness, and respect for the men and women who brought the pedal harp into the modern era. […] The photographs in Empire of the Harp are outstanding in quality and include detailed photos of crucial harp elements. Additionally, Adelson incorporates patent photos and design drawings that offer deep insight into the mechanics and thought processes of invention and design, alongside photos of the harps produced with those patents and designs.  […] 

Erard, Empire of the Harp

Erard: Empire of the Harp represents a massive undertaking utilising primary sources—business documents, personal correspondence, and instruments—much of which has not been available previously. Adelson is a masterful writer who tells the fascinating story of an empire-building family of musical instrument makers in such an engaging way that the reader nearly forgets they are reading a scholarly tome. It is an essential volume for academic libraries but equally important—and accessible reading—for anyone who simply appreciates the harp.”

For true Erard-obsessives, you will be interested to know that Dr. Adelson’s other monograph Erard: A Passion for the Piano, is reviewed in the same publication!

We stock the book in our web-shop, of course, and once you have obtained your copy, you might want to enhance your inspiration by examining the real thing. Our Exhibition The Harp: Marie Antoinette to the Present Day remains open until the end of the month and on display are a great number of beautiful historical harps including some magnificent examples of the Erard.

Of particular note are a stunning Empire style harp (built in 1921) that was the best and concert instrument of Micheline Kahn (1889-1987). Built in iridescent lemon-wood and with a restrained classical design, it is fascinating to see up close the harp that enchanted such composers as Fauré and Ravel. Less restrained in appearance is the Japanese style harp, a highly ornate orientalist work of art with gilt engravings and ornaments in ivory and mother-of-pearl, presented at the Expositions universelles in Antwerp (1894) and Bordeaux (1895) to showcase Erard’s preeminence as a producer of concert harps.

Erard Empire harp in Lemon wood, belonging to Micheline Kahn (1889-1987)

All of the Erard Harps on display remind us that few instruments have inspired the artisan’s most artistically rich and refined creations. The house of Erard recognised that the look and the sound of the harp exist in a unique harmony.

Click here to order your copy of Erard: Empire of the Harp

 The Harp: Marie Antoinette to the Present Day remains open to the public until 30 March 2024


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