Katerina Englichova and the harp: not just the music of angels

Katerina Englichova

After her 1998 solo concert in New York's Weill Recital Hall, the New York Times' critic described the young Czech harpist Katerina Englichova's playing as "feisty", with a "vigor and precision of touch", adding that for someone so slender she made "a surprisingly large sound on the harp." Indeed you shouldn't be deceived by appearances. With her long blond hair and slight frame Katerina may look the typical harpist, but, as we'll be hearing in this programme, her playing proves that the harp is an instrument of many different moods and not just the music of angels. A few days ago Katerina Englichova joined me in the studio to talk about her music. I asked whether she had always dreamed of becoming a harpist.

"I always say that I started playing the harp by accident. It was not an accident completely, but in a way. I had played the piano since I was five years old. My parents led me in this direction because they knew that I like music and it looked as though I was talented for music. At the same time they realized that being a pianist was not easy at all. So when the question came, when I was about ten years old: what am I going to do if I want to go for the conservatory? - they asked the question whether I should play another instrument as well. So I started to play the flute. It was a disaster. I was an absolutely terrible flute player. Then my father came from work. He was at that time a manager of an avant-garde theatre in Prague "Semafor" and one of his colleagues suggested that I should play the harp, because she was the daughter of a very well-known Czech harpist in the Czech Philharmonic, Karel Patras. He came home and he said: 'Do you want to play the harp?', and I remember, I thought: 'The harp? Well why not?' So that's how I started playing the harp."

Is there much Czech music composed for the harp?

"In comparison with violin and piano music of course there is not that much Czech music, but there is some. Like for example Rössler-Rosetti or Krumpholtz or Jan Ladislav Dussek (in Czech "Dusik"). These are all composers of the 18th century, and it was also the period of time when the harp was becoming more and more popular, also because of its technical improvements. And I think in the 19th century it really became very popular, especially at afternoon tea parties! I don't want to put it down, but at least in Bohemia then - in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was very popular to have music in the afternoon - on Sunday or the weekend. The harp, along with the piano, was very popular among young girls who wanted to play some instrument, because it was more and more technically improved, it was also possible to play more and more demanding harp pieces. That's why one can say today that there is a harp tradition in the Czech Republic. People say that harp music is all French, but it's not true, because I must say that the Bohemian harp-playing was very well known, in the 17th century, in the 16th century also, but of course we are talking about a completely different type of harp."

Most harpists are women, and yet this is a very big, very hefty instrument.

"Yes, it's kind of a contradiction, isn't it? People are always asking me why I don't play the piccolo, which gets on my nerves [laughs]. Well, the sound is very feminine, I suppose, but at the same time, talking about France, there are many very good French harpists - male harpists."

Let's go back to your own career. You studied at Prague's conservatoire and then you won a Fulbright scholarship to the United States.

"Yes, I won a Fulbright scholarship, which was excellent of course, because I was able to go to the United States, and Fulbright enabled me to be there five years and to be in a place which was just a dream."

And it was also the beginning of a long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra, wasn't it?

"Yes, it was wonderful, because they were residing right next to our school, so we could go to concerts every week, and when I was in my third year I won the audition for the substitute harpist and could play with them whenever they wanted and whenever they needed another harpist."

And I've noticed from many of the pieces you've performed and recorded that your repertoire isn't just at the more "angelic" end of the harp. You also quite often record and perform pieces that are - at least in the public imagination - quite untypical.

"I'm trying to show the instrument in a slightly different way. Of course the sound of it is very soothing, but at the same time I sometimes have a feeling that the pieces don't have a beginning and an end, so I like to present the harp as a rhythmical instrument, not only as an angelic instrument."

Your life isn't just the harp, you recently became a mother.

"I certainly hope that my life is not just the harp. That would be pretty sad, I think. Yes I have a four-month-old daughter Johana. I'm very happy about that."

Does she like the sound of the harp?

"She seems to like it very much, but we will see in a year's time."

How do you find it, combining being a mother with a small child and having a career really at the top end of the classical music industry?

"It's very difficult, of course it's very difficult, but at the same time I don't play abroad now. I refuse to play abroad now, because I don't want to leave for more than a few hours and I always want to come back in the evening. Without my family, my husband, who is wonderful, and my mother-in-law and my mother who are baby-sitting - and they seem to be very happy to baby-sit - it wouldn't be possible. It really wouldn't be possible."

If you want to know more about Katerina Englichova and her recordings, you can go to the website www.englichova.cz

Magic Carpet - world music in the heart of Europe

Magic Carpet is Radio Prague's monthly music magazine that looks at music from Czech, Moravian and Silesian towns and villages. The programme covers a wide selection of genres, from traditional folk to the exotic and experimental.

Petr Doruzka
It is presented by Petr Doruzka, one of the Czech Republic's foremost music journalists.


4.1.2004: Petr looks at some new releases by Czech independent labels. Well be hearing the Czech guitarist Pavel Richter as well as the amazing Romany musician Iva Bittova, with the re-release of a fantastic recording from 15 years ago with her half-sister, Ida Kellarova. Listen out as well for the new album of the band Gothart, entitled "Rakija 'n' Roll". Gothart are a group of Czech musicians who've become enamoured of the Balkans and draw from Serbian, Greek, Macedonian, Bulgarian, and Armenian tradition.


For copyright reasons we are unable to archive the programmes in audio, but here at least are a few words about some of the recordings featured recently in the programme

7.12.2003: Petr Doruzka introduces us to Tarafuki a very unusual band, made up of two young women cellists who sing their own songs ranging from quiet intimacy to load ecstasy. Dorota Barova and Andrea Konstankiewicz are of mixed Czech-Polish ancestry and sing in both languages. They have just released their second CD Kapka meaning a drop - and are rapidly becoming well known, throughout Europe and especially in France. At the end of the programme, listen out from the most unusual song on the CD Quiet Weeping.

12.10.2003: Katka Sarkozi, singer, songwriter and guitarist started her career almost ten years ago, but her latest CD seems to be a breakthrough.  It is titled "Magorie", translated as Insanity, Rage or Ferocity, and its impact is like that of a hushed scream that keeps haunting you for the rest of the day.


09.11.2003: To this day in Moravia you still come across traditional cimbalom-and-fiddle village wedding bands. In the last ten years this music has enjoyed a revival. Established artists like Iva Bittova now compete with a new generation of young, fresh and creative musicians. In Magic Carpet we hear music from the CD sampler "Magic Playing Moravian Roots", introducing new discoveries and featuring a rare recording of Iva Bittova and her sister Ida Kellarova.

Link: www.indies.cz

See also The History of Music.