Man With Harps

Unlike most people, John Duncan has already been measured for a harp. In fact, he’s got eight of them, all making money

ANGUS McSTAY December 15 1946

Man With Harps

Unlike most people, John Duncan has already been measured for a harp. In fact, he’s got eight of them, all making money

ANGUS McSTAY December 15 1946

Man With Harps

Unlike most people, John Duncan has already been measured for a harp. In fact, he’s got eight of them, all making money



JOHN DUNCAN is the only professional male harpist in all of Canada and the only man, in this country at least, who can take both a harp and a motor car engine apart and, more important, put all the pieces together again. He is also the only musician in the history of Massey Hall, that revered citadel of culture in Toronto, who took a bow and then fell flat on his face over the footlights.

He is one of the busiest musicians in the Dominion’s entertainment industry, and in the last 12 years the limit of his annual holiday has never been more than four days. He has not had a Sunday off in eight years. In concert tours Duncan has crossed Canada four times, playing in every big city from Fredericton to Vancouver. Lately, because of his radio work, he has confined most of his out-of-town engagements to the larger centres of Ontario and Quebec; but wherever he has appeared, he has been asked back for repeat performances—often as many as 10 times.

As far as time limits permit, he is on every big radio show emanating from Toronto that needs the particular gifts of a harpist. In the regular radio season he averages three shows a day, many of them big production ventures that are beamed over the national networks of the CBC. He also records about 20 hours a week.

Duncan has just completed one of his most strenuous assignments, 104 recordings of 15 minutes each for NBC. Starting his day at 7.30 in

the mornings, he finished 52 of the discs within three weeks; on the second half of the contract he took things a little easier by mapping out a schedule which permitted his recording from some time after midnight till 2.30 in the mornings. He has also completed about 40 additional recordings of original solo compositions, some 10 of which he wrote himself. Duncan works about 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and is one of Mr. Ilsley’s heavy contributors to Canada’s national budget.

The reason for all this activity is the popularity of the harp, coupled with the dearth of people who can play the bulky contraption. There are only six professional harpists in the whole of the Dominion —and five of these are women, three in Toronto, one in Montreal, and one in Halifax.

The harp is a difficult instrument to play— and it weighs from 75 to 100 pounds. The case weighs another 150 pounds, which is the reason the boys in the orchestra look tight-lipped at the mute appeals of lady harpists packing up after a performance. Unchivalrous young men of music have been heard to mutter, “Why didn’t you take up the flute?”

There is the mistaken impression among laymen that the harp is simply a legless piano turned up on its end, and that the strings are plucked by the fingers instead of being struck by a small feltcovered hammer. Duncan points out that the harp doesn’t have to borrow distinction from anything else. It is the largest stringed instrument vibrated by the fingers, and has anywhere from 1,800 to over 6,000 separate parts, depending on its type. Much of this intricate mechanism is concealed in the

pedal box and the vertical column, the body to which the soundboard is fixed, and the elaborate action which is built to the curved neck of the instrument.

Further vital statistics: the concert harp has 47 strings, the largest averaging 62 inches in length and the shortest three inches. The tones are higher as the strings get shorter. There are also seven foot pedals to manipulate, with each pedal having three positions to which it may be depressed. For example, the C-pedal may be raised or lowered a semitone, thereby giving three semitones on all C-strings. This gives over 2,000 pedal combinations alone.

The harp, therefore, has a 63^-octave range, responsible for t he rich tonal background that gives depth and body in musical performance.' But the mechanical factors perhaps explain why there are so few harpists.

Another contribution to the dearth of harpists is the cost of the instrument. John Duncan has eight harps, and has practically cornered the Canadian market. He has four standing around the CBC studios, three in his home, and one at the RCA-Victor recording studios. They originally cost him a total of $17,500. Insurance premiums are heavy; and he has spent thousands of manhours and much money on their upkeep. His prize possession is his concert grand, which cost him $3,800. Another in his home reduced his bank account by $3,200. Despite such dignified price tags, the harp is still slangily termed “The Bedspring” in better band nomenclature. Like Stradivarius Continued on page 26

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violins, whose ownership and whereabouts are known to all musical instrument dealers, the theft of one of these four-figure harps could be traced as easily as “hot” securities, and be as valueless to the thief. Duncan has never had a harp stolen.

He took up the study of the instrument when he was 10 years old. While other youngsters wanted to be firemen or Mounties, Duncan has wanted to be a harpist ever since his mother took him to his first symphony concert in Derby, England. He remembers he hardly took his eyes off the man who drew such mellow music from the golden harp.

With his mother’s help he pestered his father into buying him a harp. Duncan senior, taking his son by the hand, grimly walked to Derby’s pawnshop district and paid out 20 guineas for a secondhand harp. Rather than be seen on the street with it, he took a taxi home. This harp was a small chromatic with a five-octave range and no pedals. The Duncan youngster started taking lessons from Thomas Archibald Wragg, choirmaster-organist of St. Michael’s Cathedral, and harpist on the side. (There were eight registered harpists in all of Britain at the time.)

Harpist Into Mechanic

Duncan never had to be coaxed to practice. He plucked the strings before and after school hours, would even get up in the early morning to draw out furtive tone combinations. At the same time he attended Woodchurch College in Birkenhead, was a boy chorister at St. Saviour’s Cathedral, swam and boxed, took part in prep school dramatics, continued to practice the harp—and also took up the study of the piano.

Duncan studied with Wragg for six years; then, at 16, gave his first public recital. He was so nervous that he hardly ate for three days before the performance and for nearly a week afterward.

After four years at the Royal College of Music, under Charles Collier, the great solo and orchestral harpist and composer, Duncan graduated with highest honors in theory, harmony and composition. When he got through school, at 18, a family conference decided that there was no money in harp playing but there was a future in automotive engineering. Duncan’s father had died and the eldest son was now the head of the family; the verdict was that the youngster take out his gentleman-apprentice papers with the Rolls Royce manufacturers, whose parent plant covers tjiree square miles in Derby.

There was no salary for the five-year training period. Nine hours a day young Duncan wound generators,

I monkeyed around with carburetors and transmissions, took engines apart and put them together again, got those white hands covered with grease, hashed his fingers with hammers and spanners—but still studied the harp.

While he suffered cuts and abrasions to his hands, Duncan developed muscles; and he admits today that he owes much of his success as a harpist to those five years he spent on automotive engines. When his lengthy term of apprenticeship was over and he was offered a junior executive job, Duncan quietly shook his head a couple of times from east to west. After a five-year job, with no lining up for the weekly pay envelope, he had no money to finance a concert tour. He took a job as harpist in the pit for the London production of “Chu Chin Chow,” and

Wragg, his old teacher, refused to speak to him the next time they met.

Duncan was doing concert work on the BBC network when his sister-— who had come to Canada to live— returned home on a visit and told him there wasn’t a professional harpist in all of Canada. That was in 1928.

John Duncan settled his personal affairs and booked passage on the Aquitania for himself and his mother. He arrived in Montreal with two bulky harps and an airy knowledge of patrician French which quickly awed the customs officers. He landed on a Sunday and, while he was not exactly met on the wharf by a musicians’ union representative, he had his membership card within the week and was playing on the following Sunday. This came about when Reginald Stewart, hearing that Duncan—with his harps—was in Toronto, immediately sought out this musical marvel and put him on the payroll of his Maple Leaf Symphony.

This advent of a harpist created further stir in musical circles. Jack Arthur, then presenting his highbrow atmospheric overtures to feature motion pictures at the Uptown Theatre, quickly engaged the lad for stringplucking solos and ensembles. Within the year the Toronto Conservatory of Music had Duncan ontheteachingstaff; he resigned in 1942 to give most of his time to radio work.

In addition to his present radio and recording contracts, Duncan has also played the beautiful watch-night service for many New Year’s eves at Yorkminster Church, Toronto. At the other extreme, he was harpist for Sonja Henie during the latest Canadian tour of her spectacular ice show, in which the highlight was her solo skating number to amplified harp and flute. When the Norwegian asked him to sign on the dotted line and cross the border as a more permanent part of the production, Duncan politely refused.

When Duncan’s sister told him back in 1928 that there was a wide-open market in Canada not only for harpists but also for harps, the lady was right. He has owned 36 harps in this country, and nearly every instrument now played in the Dominion has passed through his hands. As mentioned, he owns eight harps, most of which he freely lends when any of the three lady harpists who are Ontario union members run into trouble. He also, at considerable expenditure of manhours and materials, overhauls and conditions the harps of confreres without ever sending in a bill.

Basement Harp Shop

Duncan has never regretted that five-year stretch with the Rolls Royce people. While he constantly gets requests from motor-owning musicians —“John, take a look at this engine, will you?”—the real worth lies in the workshop in the basement of his home that is the envied delight of fellow music makers. The spotlessly clean machinery cost him over $5,000. His storage bins hold huge sheets of brass, rods of tool steel, bronze and copper. Planks of spruce and maple and wide slabs of aviation plywood are being seasoned in his cellar, with Duncan doing much of his own laminating.

The workshop shelves are lined with scores of glass jars filled with the thousands of parts that go into the making of a harp. They contain minute bolts and spindles, bored and threaded to one thousandth of an inch in accuracy. Each takes nearly three hours to make—and Duncan has over 900 of them on hand.

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Continued from page 26 gold leaf. He hasn’t had any outside professional work done on his eight harps for many years.

The only places harps are made today are Paris and Chicago. Duncan claims the best harps are made in Paris, but owing to the extreme climatic changes in Canada, where winter weather may switch from mild to subzero within a very few hours, Duncan says the European harp will split open here in six months unless it is coddled with all the care lavished on a newborn babe. This is particularly necessary when the harp is being shipped ahead to some concert hall during extremes of heat or cold. The instrument is wrapped in many layers of felt before being placed in its 150pound padded travelling trunk which itself is almost airtight and covered on the outside with heavy waterproof canvas.

Because of these variations in the American and European instruments, Duncan is now building a harp which he hopes will combine the tone of the French harp with the more efficient mechanical action of the American type. He has been working on this model for five years, and is experimenting with Canadian birch and maple he hand-carves himself.

He has made, or is making, every one of the 3,500 parts that will go into the finished instrument. He believes he could complete the task in six months of uninterrupted work, but doubts that such a long free period is possible—his concert, broadcasting and recording commitments being what they are. The taller the harp, the greater the tone volume; and Duncan’s harp, when completed, will be the tallest ever made and will have the largest sound box in the world.

In his late thirties, Duncan is still a bachelor, and is suspected of carrying the torch for a well-known Canadian singer to whom his engagement was once announced. With the lady going out to Hollywood and Duncan resolved to stay in Canada, distance killed the romance. Duncan, unembittered, however, is a charming host and gives his friends the run of his home on the stipulation that, after the food and drink are set out, he may be allowed to go down to his workshop. Often that is where the whole party ends up.

When a String Snaps

He is, perhaps, the only radio artist in Canada who has a houseman, complete with white jacket when guests arrive. Duncan’s home is decorated with fine paintings, batiks, statuary, and some good antique furniture pieces. His great - great - grandmother was Josiah Wedgwood’s sister, and Duncan has some 200-year-old precious pottery items suspended on the walls of his living room. Besides his harps, he owns a grand piano and a two-manual pipe organ. He buys the better books, and two men take care of his garden.

Fan mail has now lost its importance with radio sponsors and artists as a gauge of program popularity, but Duncan still gets his quota. Some of these letters are extravagant, and one of his most persistent admirers— by mail—is a woman who writes that she can feel Duncan’s presence in the room during his broadcasts. Fortunately for the harpist, she is several hundred miles away. The only letters he keeps are those tributes from fellow harpists in the United States or Britain and some from members of the forces overseas who heard his shortwave broadcasts or transcriptions.

The nightmare horror to any harpist, apart from hand injuries, is the snapping of a string during a performance.

This calamity may not be noticeable in orchestra ensemble, but it is disastrous during a solo recital. Despite Duncan’s constant care to offset such an accident, he has had strings unexpectedly give way on the odd occasion. When this has happened during a broadcast performance, the only thing to do is “fake”; when it happens on the concert stage Duncan briefly explains the accident and gets out his tool kit.

He always carries two complete sets of the 46 strings—gut for the middle and upper registers; covered steel wire for the bass. Even the sweat of the player’s palms or fingers will, in time, ruin a gut string; and this contributes to the costly upkeep of the instrument. Duncan, for instance, spends at least $75 a month on replacement strings for all his harps.

The “Mike” Hears All

There are other hazards. In the broadcasting of solos, or in recording, a microphone hangs about six inches just over the right shoulder of the player Duncan early discovered that the after-vibrations of the strings, and even the faintest sound of the foot pedals, were being picked up by the toosensitive mike. While such sounds were not noticeable in the academic technique of the concert platform, they were magnified in the broadcasting or recording studio. Duncan believes that discovery of this early mechanical pickup in sound has improved his playing; for now he must pluck the harp strings with infinite “cleanliness” and he must guide his feet unerringly and with just the proper pressure on the pedals.

Apart from the rare mishap of a suddenly snapping string, Duncan has suffered few embarrassments during a quarter-century career. Once a chair collapsed under him during a broadcast and the program was wrecked by the raucous laughter of his colleagues. Fortunately this occurred in the less formal days of broadcasting, and now Duncan always tests his chair before a performance.

His face, however, still flushes at the memory of the incident some years ago when, at the conclusion of a recital in Massey Hall, Geoffrey Waddington called upon the men of the orchestra to rise and take a bow. The conductor was making a short thank-you speech to the audience, when Duncan, leaning forward to hear what Waddington was saying, fell over the footlights. Not until he shamefacedly admitted that he was unhurt did the staid audience break into one of the loudest howls of laughter ever heard within that auditorium’s ' cultured confines.

John Duncan has been in only one other position of acute embarrassment. With a studio audience present for a dressed-up broadcast, complete with elaborate background and lighting, the stage was suddenly bathed in a deep purple glow just as Duncan started his solo. It should be explained that harp strings are colored red, green and purple in sequence groups, with the purples the principal guide strings. The result was, of course, that when the stage electrician pulled the switch on the purple top lights, all the strings of Duncan’s harp took on a beautiful hue of heliotrope and Duncan had to play as best he could by instinctive touch.

When he later remonstrated with the technician, he received the disgusted response that “too many of you damned musicians are temperamental.” There was nothing for Duncan to do but walk away. Now, before a performance, he takes a look at the lightcue sheet; just before and during any period he is playing, purple is out. ic