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In search of the first harpist of Lugano

Updated: Mar 13

The history of music, like any other history so vast, seldom describes a linear path. Events become tangled and complicated, eras follow one another. What's more, fashions change. There are so many factors that can determine the spread of music in the world, the popularity and development of musical instruments, the development of musical practices. Studying these mechanisms has always been extremely intriguing for me and, as in this case, sometimes indispensable.

 

 

I may be biased, but the history of the pedal harp (commonly known as the 'classical' harp) is a perfect example of how twisted the development of an instrument can be. Its spread, popularity and history inevitably intersect with the political, economic and cultural history of Europe.

Suffice it to say that we had to wait until 1811 for the famous "Erard Revolution", i.e. the patent of the dual-movement pedal system which allowed the harp to access chromatic agility comparable to that of other instruments, which was indispensable for the musical tastes of the time.

 

 

Before important composers took a passionate interest in the instrument (both solo and orchestral) it was necessary to pass from patent to diffusion of the instrument, the creation of the first important harp schools and the rise to fame of the first outstanding soloists.

It is therefore no surprise that in the 1800s and early 1900s the harp was still seen as a particularly exotic instrument in many cities far from European cultural epicentres.

What might be more surprising is that even in 1995, when I was five years old and I wanted to start harp lessons but I was too young to enter the Conservatorio della Svizzera italiana, it was really hard to find a harp teacher. There was a scarcity of harp teachers and students, therefore few schools offered this possibility.

This is a paradoxical anecdote if we compare it to the hundreds of harp pupils and lovers in Canton Ticino (a region in the south of Switzerland) today.

Here, from this nourished premise my question finally arises: how did the harp arrive in Ticino?

I have no means to rule out the possibility that some travelling harpist may have passed through Ticino in the 1800s or the early 1900s. However, we can say that the first permanent and documented presence of an harpist in the territory coincides with the birth of the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana, the then Radiorchestra.

 

 

The harpist who from 1946 to 1983 held the role of first harp at the Radiorchestra, thus becoming the first harpist to live for a long time in Ticino, was Simonne Sporck.

Simonne Sporck was born in Paris in 1915 into a very special family,

her mother was a skilled textile decorator, her uncle a piano composer and teacher at the Paris Conservatory, and her father a true adventurer. At the age of 22, Simonne's father had crossed equatorial Africa on foot and then left for other expeditions to Indochina.

The history of the parents informed the eccentricity of their Parisian apartment decorated with furniture from Saigon, African weapons and decorations from all over the world.

It was in this context that, after seeing a concert with her daughter, the mother decided that Simonne would start taking harp lessons (years later, in an interview, Sporck would say that another reason for choosing the harp was that a piano would never make it into their already packed apartment).

 

 

Sporck then entered the Paris Conservatory, studying first with Marcel Tournier and then with Pierre Jamet, obtaining a 1er Prix at the age of 17.

During a meeting with Simonne Sporck's daughter, Sylvie Paltrinieri, I had the opportunity to see a beautiful notebook started by Simonne Sporck's father, which contained all the newspaper clippings concerning the young daughter's musical activity, and this allows us to see how from the very beginning of her career, the harpist was able to achieve numerous successes throughout France.

In 1944 she was called by the famous Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet to play with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Apparently, the then first harp of the Radiorchestra of Lugano, Jeanne-Marie de Marignac from Geneva, who had recently taken on the role, after learning that a "foreign woman" had been hired at the OSR, protested and demanded an exchange of positions, and so in 1946 Simonne Sporck arrived in Lugano where she became the Solo harpist of the Radiorchestra.

 

In Ticino she met her husband, sadly deceased after a few years, and her daughter Sylvie was born. She settled permanently in Lugano where she embarked on a successful and lasting career as an orchestra musician, chamber player, soloist and teacher.

The type of repertoire programmed by the orchestra in the 1950s-60s-70s, when the Radiorchestra had a permanent harp position, gave the harpist ample opportunity to catch the attention of critics who often mentioned her in their reviews.

 

 

During these years, she was also very much appreciated by her colleagues, although she did not start her tenure in the orchestra from an easy position: for a long time she was the only woman in the orchestra. Together with her colleagues, she also formed numerous chamber ensembles with which she gave many concerts throughout Switzerland.

 

 

Important were also her ongoing partnerships with Ernest Ansermet, who invited her to perform the world premiere of Frank Martin's Petite Symphonie Concertante for harpsichord, piano and harp, and with Otmar Nussio, conductor of the Radio Orchestra, who composed a piece for harp and orchestra for her and invited her to play with him Mozart's concerto in C major at the Salzburg Festival.

Reviews in local Ticino newspapers at the time described how being able to see the harp was something special and exotic. Some of the concerts she was invited to give had the express purpose of showing the unknown instrument to the public.

This is how the harp entered the imagination of a generation that finally got to see it live. From concertgoers to amateur choirs who had the chance to sing with her Britten's famous Ceremony of Carols, to the students who studied with her, thanks to Simonne Sporck, music lovers in Ticino could say that they had finally seen a harp up close.

Simonne Sporck retired in 1983 and died shortly afterwards at the age of 68.

When she died, however, something in the territory had changed profoundly.

All the harpists who came to collaborate with the orchestra after her or to work in Ticino, were no longer seen as a strange creature accompanied by an unknown instrument. That gate had already been opened by Simonne Sporck and that, I am sure, was an important factor in enabling my colleagues and I to enter this wonderful world and in enabling us to help develop the history of our instrument in the Canton of Ticino as well.

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