Linked throughout literature with ethereal angels, the harp makes heavenly music here on Earth.
“The sound is rich and resonant and really beautiful,” said Diana Elliott, manager of the Virginia Harp Center.
The Haddon Avenue shop sells pedal harps, the big and gorgeous instruments with as many as 47 strings, and the daintier lever harps, as small as a foot in height and limited to fewer octaves.
The center’s owners, David and Mary Jane D’Arville, met in Virginia, where Mary Jane was a harpist with the Richmond and Charlottesville Symphony Orchestra. They opened a music store near Richmond and later moved to Haddonfield, close to Mary Jane's hometown of Philadelphia. They opened the Virginia Harp Center here shortly after they married in 1996.
Elliott said they loved the quaintness of Haddonfield and the close-knit community. Now the Virginia Harp Centers here and in Virginia are among only a handful of retail harp stores in the nation. They sell to orchestras, student musicians and even novices who wander in off the street, some with lifelong dreams.
"We had a women come in recently who said she had wanted to play the harp her whole life," Elliott said. "She said her kids were grown now and she wanted to learn how to play."
The Harp Center has a rental program that allows customers interested in learning how to play to take a harp home while figuring out if they want to buy one for $1,200 to $30,000.
Elliott, who is also a performance artist and teacher, said the shop’s borough location can take advantage of nearby music students at Curtis and Temple in Philadelphia, as well as New York musicians.
Pamela Ethridge of Moorestown, a shop customer, has played the harp for the aged and ailing residents in nursing homes and hospice settings.
Ethridge grew up in the South, watching harpists on the old Lawrence Welk show. She didn’t get to learn to play until she was an adult, but fell in love with the instrument, calling it a “therapeutic” experience.
“It’s like hugging a friend,” she said. “It’s just so wonderful to play.”
“We produce the sound directly, intimately,” she said. Elliott talks about the link between artist and instrument. The harp, she said, is almost an “appendage” of the performer.
“When you feel the connection with your instrument, it changes you from a technician to a musician,” said the 26-year-old Philadelphia artist.
No matter how lovely the sound or graceful its appearance when played, the harp has its drawbacks.
“Moving it comes to mind,” said Elliott. “Tuning it comes to mind.”
Elliott said helping a customer find the perfect harp can take months.
“It’s very much like matchmaking,” she noted.
Recently, a man and woman walked into the shop and casually browsed.
“They’re beautiful,” said the man. “They’re works of art.”
The harp goes back a long time. It may date back to the ancient Egyptians. In more recent centuries, composers Debussy, Berlioz and Ravel lavished their attentions on the harp, said Elliott.
But the instrument is hardly just for those who love classical or church music. The harp is used for Celtic music, folk and jazz, as well.
Some misconceptions about the harp play on and on.
Elliott hopes, for example, to dispel the notion that harpists are delicate angelic-types.
“We work really hard,” she said. “It’s difficult to produce that heavenly sound.”