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10 Famous Harp Players of All Time

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Famous Harp Players
17 May, 2024

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The harp is an ancient and versatile musical instrument with a history dating back to Egyptian hieroglyphics. From the biblical harp player King David to the contemporary harp players like Joanna Newsom and Andreas Vollenweider, this list celebrates the diverse and influential harp players who have helped to shape the musical landscape. Let’s look into the top 10 most famous harp players ever.

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10 Famous Harp Players

1: King David

King David
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Born: c. 1040 BCE, Bethlehem, Judea

Genre: Biblical/Religious

Best known for: Psalms, the religious poetry and songs attributed to him in the Bible

King David is one of the most famous harp players in history. According to the Bible, he was a skilled harpist who played for King Saul, the first ruler of a united Israel, to soothe him when he was troubled by an evil spirit.

An accidental encounter with a formidable Philistine giant named Goliath turned King David into legend, and he became the revered King of Judah. Jewish writings and traditions outside the Bible also talk about him a lot.

For Christians, Jesus is seen as a descendant of King David, fulfilling a prophecy about a special leader (the Messiah). Muslims believe King David was a prophet chosen by God (Allah). Thus, King David’s legacy has spread far and wide, inspiring people of different faiths for centuries.

2: Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom
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Born: 18 January 1982, Nevada City, California, USA

Genre: Folk, Indie, Classical

Best known for: “The Milk Eyed Mender,” “Ys,” and “Have One on Me”

Awards/accreditations: Nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album

Joanna Newsom is a contemporary American harp player and singer songwriter who has gained a dedicated following for her experimental and genre blending music. She grew up playing classical harp and piano.

Joanna Newsom earned a contract with Drag City Records and has produced the entirety of her discography, consisting of four successful albums released between 2004-2015. Her harp playing incorporates a wide range of techniques and her poetic, literary lyrics. Joanna Newsom’s albums have received widespread critical praise and have helped to land among the famous harp players.

3: Loreena McKennitt

Loreena McKennitt
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Born: 17 February 1957, Morden, Manitoba, Canada

Genre: Celtic, World Music, New Age

Best known for: “The Mask and Mirror”, “The Book of Secrets” and “An Ancient Muse”

Awards/accreditations:

  • Juno Award for Best Roots/Traditional Album (1992, 1998)
  • The title of Honorary Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society
  • Billboard Music Award for International Achievement, 1997

Loreena McKennitt, a Canadian musician, composer, harpist, accordionist, and pianist, is among the few most famous harp players who have gained international acclaim for her Celtic, world, and classical music blend. She is also known for her refined and clear, dramatic soprano vocals.

Loreena McKennitt founded Quinlan Road, an independent record label. In addition to her musical career, she initiated the Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Search and Safety when she lost her family in a boating accident. Thus, she has played a significant role in bringing the harp to the forefront of contemporary world music.

4: Alice Coltrane

Alice Coltrane
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Born: 27 August 1937, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Died: 12 January 2007, Valley Village, California, USA

Genre: Jazz, Spiritual Jazz

Best known for: “A Monastic Trio,” “Journey in Satchidananda,” and “Lord of Lords”

Alice Coltrane was an American jazz harpist, pianist, and composer who played a significant role in the development of spiritual jazz. She recorded many albums for Impulse in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her musical career focus shifted from jazz to Hindu meditative music as she became a follower of the Hindu religion.

Alice Coltrane founded the Vedantic Center in 1975 and the Shanti Anantam ashram in California in 1983, where she served as spiritual director. She recorded several albums of Hindu devotional songs before returning to spiritual jazz in the 2000s and released her final album, Translinear Light, in 2004. Her contributions to jazz have made her one of the most famous harp players in the world.

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5: Andreas Vollenweider

Andreas Vollenweider
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Born: 4 October 1953, Zurich, Switzerland

Genre: New Age, World Music

Best known for: “Down to the Moon”, “Eolian Minstrel”, and “Caverna Magica.”

Awards/accreditations: Grammy Award for Best New Age Performance

Andreas Vollenweider is a renowned Swiss harpist who uses a modified electroacoustic harp of his own design. He is known for his work in the New Age and world music genres. He has worked with artists like Bobby McFerrin, Carly Simon, and Luciano Pavarotti.

Andreas Vollenweider’s musical style has been described by The New York Times as “swirling atmospheric music, which evokes nature, magic, and fairy tales.” He has released 24 albums since 1979. One of the most famous harp players of all time, Andreas Vollenweider has been critically acclaimed, and his albums have helped to establish the harp as a prominent instrument in contemporary instrumental music.

6: Dorothy Ashby

Dorothy Ashby
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Born: 25 August 1932, Moravia, Michigan, USA

Died: 13 April 1986, New York City, USA

Genre: Jazz

Best known for: “The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby”, “Hip Soul”, and “Samurai.”

Dorothy Ashby, an American jazz harpist, pianist, and composer, was one of the most famous harp players in the 1950s and 1960s. She was known for her innovative harp playing, with elements of bebop, modal jazz, and other jazz styles. She was born into a family of musicians and grew up playing the saxophone, bass, piano, and harp.

Dorothy Ashby collaborated with jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman. In 2018, Drake included a sample of Ashby’s rendition of “The Windmills of Your Mind” in his song “Final Fantasy” from the album Scorpion.

7: Beste Toparlak

Beste Toparlak
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Born: 29 June 1984, Ankara, Turkey

Genre: Classical, World Music

Best known for: “Armonies”, “Bosphorus Rhapsody”, and “Anatolian Sonata”

Beste Toparlak is a Turkish harp player and composer who has gained international recognition for her innovative and experimental approach to the instrument. She started studying music with the pianist Yevgenia Tarasova at age 8. She graduated with a degree in Harp from the Turkish Ankara State Conservatory.

Beste Toparlak blends elements of classical, Turkish folk, and contemporary music in her works. Beste Toparlak is also known for her work in promoting the harp in Turkish music. She has performed many recitals in Turkey and abroad. She even had the opportunity to play for the Russian, Italian, British, Macedonian, Costa Rican, Irish, and Estonian heads of state. Thus, she is considered one of the most famous harp players because of her worldwide collaborations and fusion music.

8: Akiko Shikata

Akiko Shikata
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Born: 9 November 1986, Yokohama, Japan

Genre: Video Game Music, Anime Music, World Music

Best known for: the “Utawarerumono,” “Ar tonelico,” and “Norn9”

Akiko Shikata is a Japanese harp player and composer best known for her work on the soundtracks of various video games and anime series. She has also established an independent label, Vagrancy, that makes independent music game releases.

Akiko Shikata blends traditional Japanese music with contemporary styles, such as classical, folk, and electronic. Interestingly, she made up a language of her own, Luripuka. She continues contributing to the music industry with her unique ethnic feel and complex vocal chorus work, thus becoming one of the most famous harp players.

9: Lavinia Meijer

Lavinia Meijer
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Born: 22 August 1988, Nijmegen, Netherlands

Genre: Classical, Contemporary

Best known for: “The Mission,” “Harp Recital,” and “Toccata and Fugue in D minor.”

Awards/accreditations:

  • Awarded the Dutch Music Prize, the highest distinction for a classical musician in the Netherlands.
  • Received the Edison Award Public’s Prize for her CD “Fantasies and Impromptus”.

Lavinia Meijer is a Dutch harp player who has gained international recognition for her mesmerizing performances and her ability to interpret a wide range of classical and contemporary harp repertoire. She began learning to play the harp at age 11 at Utrecht Conservatory. She has toured the world as a harpist and soloist for orchestras like the Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Radio Chamber Orchestra, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Her versatility has brought her to the forefront as one of the most famous harp players.

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10: Cécile Corbel

Cécile Corbel
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Born: 13 August 1980, Quimper, France

Genre: Folk, Celtic, World Music

Best known for: “The Secret of the Kells” soundtrack, “Nils Holgersson” soundtrack, and “Ronia the Robber’s Daughter” soundtrack.

Cécile Corbel is a French harp player and composer who has gained recognition among the famous harp players for her work on the soundtracks of several films and television series. At 18, she obtained her baccalauréat scientifique and moved to Paris to study.

Cécile Corbel’s music is characterized by its blend of Celtic, folk, and world music influences. She sings in many languages, such as French, English, Breton, Italian, Gaelic, Japanese, and Turkish. She also collaborated with the famous Japanese production company Studio Ghibli, writing the music for the 2010 movie The Secret World of Arrietty. She has a versatile portfolio after playing a niche instrument like the harp.

FAQs

Who is the most famous harp player?

King David has been the most iconic and well-known harp player since biblical times.

How did famous harp players influence music?

Famous harp players have influenced music in a variety of ways, from incorporating the harp into new genres and styles to pushing the technical and expressive boundaries of the instrument. Artists like Dorothy Ashby and Andreas Vollenweider helped to establish the harp as a prominent instrument in jazz and new age music. Whereas Cécile Corbel and Akiko Shikata have demonstrated the harp’s versatility in film and video game soundtracks.

Who was the first harp player?

One of the earliest known harp players is King David, whose proficiency as a harpist is documented in the First Testament Book of Samuel.

What are some signature pieces performed by famous harp players?

Some of the signature pieces performed by famous harp players include:

  • “The Psalms” by King David,
  • “The Milk Eyed Mender” by Joanna Newsom
  • “Journey in Satchidananda” by Alice Coltrane
  • “Down to the Moon” by Andreas Vollenweider
  • “Ronia the Robber’s Daughter” by Cécile Corbel

What genres of music do famous harp players perform?

The harp has been used in a wide range of musical genres, from classical and religious music to jazz, folk, world music, and even video game and anime soundtracks. Some of the famous genres include biblical/religious, folk, indie, classical, jazz, new age, world music, and more.

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