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Alain Barker
IU Jacobs School of Music

Linda Cajigas
IU Jacobs School of Music

Last modified: Monday, December 17, 2007

Collection of rare harps finds its home at the IU Jacobs School of Music

Dec. 17, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, well known for its harp department, is now home to a collection of six harps, all dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Among these classic instruments is one that Marie Antoinette, queen of France, played during the 18th century.

"Each one of these harps has such an amazing history, and to have a harp that Marie Antoinette owned adds to the value and the prestige of the Jacobs School," said Susann McDonald, a distinguished professor of music and chair of the IU Harp Department. "The harps are one-of-a-kind. Well known people owned them and traveled with them. We have been given these historic instruments, and this is an extension of the prominence of our harp department."


A pedal harp made by Erard is now among the six harps on display at the IU Jacobs School of Music.

The collection, recently housed as a permanent exhibition in the William and Gale Cook Music Library, features French harps from circa 1760, 1790 and 1800. There is also an 1836 double-action harp made in London by the French Erard company and two folk instruments from Celtic lands -- a diminutive Irish Royal Portable harp from 1804 and a Welsh harp bearing three planes of strings. These instruments, which were among harpist Mildred Dilling's private collection, can be viewed by the public when the IU William and Gayle Cook Music Library is open.

Born in 1894 in Marion, Ind., Dilling was a renowned harpist and owner of the largest private harp collection in the world, with 65 of the instruments. She performed throughout North and South America, Asia and Europe. At the height of her career, she played 85 concerts and logged more than 30,000 miles of travel in one year. Well into her 80s, she continued to play the harp, gave 10 concerts a year, and continued to host programs and workshops in her New York City apartment.

Dilling, who taught Harpo Marx how to play and was the founder of the American Harp Society, was often referred to as the "First Lady of the Harp." She developed a connection with IU when she taught as a visiting professor during a sabbatical leave at the Jacobs School.

After Dilling passed away in 1982, the executor of her estate contacted McDonald. Dilling and McDonald were friends, and both had studied in Paris with renowned harpist and composer Henriette Reniť. The estate executor said that his client wanted the harps to be at a university where McDonald was teaching, because they both taught the instrument using the Reniť method.

McDonald, who was teaching at both The Juilliard School and at Indiana University during the early 1980s, chose to send the harps to IU. "I felt that it would mean more to IU to have these harps. I knew the school would really appreciate them," she said.

The harps were stored at IU's Musical Arts Center and viewed only occasionally -- sometimes during the triennial USA International Harp Competition held on the IU Bloomington campus. Eleanor Fell, co-owner of Vanderbilt Music and an IU alumna who studied with Dilling, wanted the harps on display year-round.

"Because of my association with Mildred, and my love and regard for IU, and also for harp-competition founder Susann McDonald, I wanted to protect and care for these harps by placing them in a display," Fell said. "IU is the only school of music in the country with such a collection."

McDonald and Fell worked together to arrange permanent housing for the harps. They asked for and received monetary assistance from Jacobs School of Music Dean Gwyn Richards, who enlisted the help of Cook Music Library Director Philip Ponella. Fell, McDonald and Vanderbilt Music paid for restoration experts Paul Knoke and Paula Fagerberg to restore and condition the harps.

Denver Wrightsman, Jacobs School facilities coordinator, built bases for the harps and arranged for the IU architect's office to construct custom-made Plexiglas encasements that were installed in the Cook Music Library.

"I am thrilled to have the collection here," McDonald said. "Every harpist who comes to visit Bloomington and harpists who come here to audition are very impressed to see that collection."

With 25 current majors, the IU Department of Harp is the largest in the world. The department has a sizeable contingent of international students who represent the finest talent from many countries. There also are many non-majors studying harp and a large pre-college program, which affords graduate students ample opportunity for teaching experience.

The department offers students a comprehensive education in harp, including solo playing, ensemble playing, orchestral repertoire, opera, band, ballet, harp ensembles and new music performances, as well as a strong emphasis on harp pedagogy. The program prepares each student for all aspects of a career as a professional harpist.

For more information, contact the IU Jacobs School of Music at For Cook Music Library hours, visit: