The mystery of South Africa’s golden harp

The mystery of South Africa’s golden harp

In 1962 Igor Stravinsky, the Russian-born composer and conductor, went to South Africa to conduct the state broadcaster SABC Symphony Orchestra in a series of concerts. It was the height of apartheid – and the regime believed classical music was the domain of white people. The BBC’s Sophie Ribstein takes a walk down memory lane to see if a certain imposing harp was used in the concert.

It was like travelling back in time. The walls were covered with the brown carpet, the architecture was brutalist.

As I walked down the long dark corridors of the headquarters of the SABC – South Africa’s state broadcaster – I could have been stepping into the 1970s, when the apartheid regime occupied the building and the airwaves.

SABC was once the core of the racist state’s propaganda machine.

I then turned a corner, pushed past a metal blue gate, walked into the music library… and everything changed.

I had come to see a relic from that era – a rare, golden concert harp, beautifully sculpted by the famous American harp maker Lyon and Healy.

This exceptional instrument once shone from the grandest stages in the country.

Image caption The harp’s angelic tone was still intact and the higher octaves still crystal clear

The principal harpist of the SABC orchestra would play it at classical music concerts – that, in those days, only white people were allowed to attend.

Now, the majestic harp was standing silent, under a dust cover in the corner of a room that also belonged to the past.

I’m a harp player myself, and I had heard about this instrument from the man who made my own harp back in France.

I delicately unwrapped it, sat down and embraced it to my right shoulder.

My heart was pumping. I started to play and as my fingers danced from one string to another, the sound was so pure and profound, I felt both thrilled and content.

Its angelic tone had survived, the bass notes still resonant, the higher octaves still crystal clear.

When apartheid ended in the early 1990s, the SABC’s “white” orchestra was disbanded, and its remains were left in the library.

Alongside the instruments, were hundreds and thousands of music scores, many of them hand-written, among other relics from that time.

On the wall, I spotted a set of black and white photos… of Igor Stravinsky in South Africa.

Why, I wondered, had this famous Russian composer decided to come here? The year was 1962 and the country was in turmoil because of the repressive segregationist regime.

I later learned that Stravinsky had been invited to conduct the SABC orchestra, but what was remarkable about his tour, is that he had insisted on also performing for a black audience – and the authorities allowed him to, in KwaThema, a township 40km (25 miles) outside Johannesburg.

“I just want to perform for human beings,” the composer had explained.

I wanted to know what Stravinsky’s black audience made of it all. How had they even heard of him, at a time when the government considered classical music the domain of white people only?

Prince Thethe has vivid memories of the concert.

I met the tall, charismatic, 82-year-old choir master in the massive, cold hall in KwaThema where Stravinsky performed.

His warm presence filled the empty space.

“It was the first time I stood close to an orchestra! I could not believe it! As Stravinsky’s hands went up, the audience went berserk,” he told me, almost jumping on stage, imitating the great maestro.

“There was ululating, there was whistling! But as soon as the music started, you could hear a pin drop.” During apartheid, he explained, just entering a sheet-music shop was taboo.

Stravinsky in South Africa: The composer who defied apartheid

I pictured the scene in my head: A thousand people gathered in this hall, listening to each note, watching every move of the musicians and the diminutive Russian conductor.

And right at the back of the orchestra, had the golden harp been there too?

When a BBC colleague found, by chance, the recording of that concert in the SABC archives, we listened carefully to The Fireworks Suite, to extracts of Pulcinella and Petrushka.

The tape had probably not been heard for 55 years. We were overwhelmed. But, there was no sign of the harp on the recording. It was a tantalising, unresolved mystery.

And so, contemplating that history, I sat behind my instrument at home one day and played a very short piece of music: A canon composed by Igor Stravinsky at the end of his trip.

He based it on the notes “S, A, B, C” – S being the equivalent of E flat – to thank the orchestra for inviting him.

The True Story Of The Fake Zombies, The Strangest Con In Rock History


The True Story Of The Fake Zombies, The Strangest Con In Rock History

In 1969, the Zombies had a huge hit single, despite having broken up two years earlier. To meet the unexpected demand, one promoter did the only sensible thing: Hire four kids from Texas to tour America pretending to be a defunct British psych-rock band, by

Ancient Irish Musical History Found in Modern India

Ancient Irish Musical History Found in Modern India

An archaeologist studying musical horns from iron-age Ireland has found musical traditions, thought to be long dead, are alive and well in south India.

The realization that modern Indian horns are almost identical to many iron-age European artefacts reveals a rich cultural link between the two regions 2,000 years ago, said PhD student Billy Ó Foghlú, from The Australian National University (ANU).

“Archaeology is usually silent. I was astonished to find what I thought to be dead soundscapes alive and living in Kerala today,” said the ANU College of Asia-Pacific student. Continue reading

Nietzsche on the Power of Music

Nietzsche on the Power of Music

“Without music life would be a mistake.”

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional,” Oliver Sacks wrote in contemplating music’s singular power over the human spirit — a power that has humbled some of humanity’s most brilliant minds into a state of awe that transcends the intellect.

Among them was the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900). He who proclaimed that “god is dead” and believed that nothing worthwhile is easy found in music life’s sole unmerited grace. Continue reading

Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz”

Jackson Pollock's Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz”

Recorded in 1960, Ornette Coleman’s paradigm shifting “Free Jazz” broke conventions in recording, improvisation, composition, and the relationship between mainstream and the avant garde.  Groundbreaking use of a double quartet, one in each stereo channel consisted of Coleman’s touring quartet (horns on one side, rhythm on the other), augmented by returning Coleman Quartet drummer Billy Higgins, multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Bassist Scott LaFaro, whom Coleman had worked with the previous two days on sessions for Gunther Schuller, would both appear on this album and replace bassist Charlie Haden in the Quartet for Coleman’s next album, Ornette!.

The rhythm sections play simultaneously, and though there is a succession of solos, they are peppered with freeform commentaries by the other horns that often turn into full-scale collective improvisation. The pre-composed material is a series of brief, dissonant fanfares for the horns which serve as interludes between solos. Not least among the album’s achievements was that it was the first album-length improvisation, nearly forty minutes, which was unheard of at the time.

The original LP package incorporated Jackson Pollock’s 1954 painting The White Light. The cover was a gatefold with a cutout window in the lower left corner, allowing a glimpse of the painting; opening the cover revealed the full artwork, along with liner notes by critic Martin Williams.

A studio full of memories


This gallery contains 6 photos.

We all have cherished memories from music lessons, great concerts, or personal performances, but this weekend after the torrential storms which inundated Clear Lake we discovered my sister’s storage unit had flooded, nearly wiping out a century’s worth of family … Continue reading