The Lyre in America
Veronika Roemer performing Suite by Maria Schüppel on a solo Derscheid lyre
Janet McGavin and the founding of LANA
In 1959, when a long-term friend of mine, Janet McGavin, had come over from England to take on the Special School of Bill and Gladys Hahn in Downington, PA [and CAL was still living in the British Isles], she told me she is undertaking the task with lyre in hand! I sensed what that meant, especially when she seemed to have ignited enthusiasm for playing this new instrument in enough Americans that a first big lyre conference could take place in Spring Valley, NY, already in 1971.
It was largely due to Janet that in 1982 a few friends founded the Lyre Association of North America to issue a lyre newsletter and hold annual lyre conferences in Harlemville, NY, and elsewhere. Initially, the work rested on Janet, Channa Seidenberg, Stephan Rasch, a few other co-opted friends and myself; soon the Lyre Assocation attracted many active members.
After her Beaver Run and Triform years, Janet eventually moved to the teacher training work in Detroit. There, she also planted a garden in a derelict part of town and, on a Sunday morning in March 1994 when she was intending to play her lyre at a service of the Christian Community, died unexpectedly.
The many roles of the lyre
Since Janet's strong push to introduce the lyre to Americans, the lyre has proved itself in a variety of situations: for solo playing, in ensemble, with other, traditional instruments, for the care of the sick and the dying, in religious services, for Advent gardens, for accompanying songs, for playing for the lonely individual or at large social occasions. It is also used extensively in therapy, to mark life's many phases, in festival celebrations, and, last but not least, in Waldorf Schools, mostly with good results. In the elementary grades, the different lyre models and sizes come to be important; the little Kinderharp, the 9-stringed "Hermes" lyre or other cantele forms, the small soprano lyre, the regular soprano model, all graded according to the different age groups.
Sometimes the lyre was requested for situations that none would suspect: The Parnassus Ensemble of New York City was playing Gyorgy Khurtag's Herdecke Trilogy, which calls for a lyre, and somehow found their way to me. Being indisposed, I asked Stephan Rasch to join the ensemble with this Choroi harp. Although he had to learn to play the most difficult passages he had ever played in his life, the performance of "Herdecke Trilogy" took place the next week, in January 1995. After the concert, Penny Roberts wrote: "The lyre was out there amidst the traffic of the 20th century, doing its best to live up to a task without losing itself . . . but it seemed as though, in that unlikely setting, the lyre had been welcomed into the world."
When it came to celebrating the 70th birthday of the lyre, on October 6. 1996, something special happened indeed: Many lyre players around the globe agreed to play on that day with lyres tuned to the lower, more amenable pitch of A = 432 Hz, and numerous lyre groups have stayed with this lower pitch ever since, even though it conflicts with some of their instruments. The eminent researcher Maria Renold, in her study of "Intervals, Scales and Tones and the Tuning C to 128 Hz" (soon to come out in English), paved the road for a novel way of tuning, based on some of Rudolf Steiner's indications. In the Lyre Association the subject of tuning "right" forms an ongoing discussion. American symphony orchestras tune to an ever sharper pitch, beyond A = 440 Hz—a phenomenon that prompted Michael Brewer to ask whether we are trying to push the cosmos along a little faster than it wants to go. The lower pitch connects us with the rhythm of the earth harmoniously and makes the listener (and performer) feel more at ease.
Many lyre people from Europe came to our shores. Dr. Julius Knierem—composer, lyre teacher, and great promoter of the lyre impulse—enthused American teachers and performers alike. I vividly remember the large conference in 1987 in Santa Cruz, "The Healing Force of Music", which he organized with the help of friends from Europe. Julius also came to a lyre conference in Harlemville, NY, where we improvised a performance of Gluck's opera Orpheus and Euridice. Andrea Pronto, who had come with him to the first Lyre and Music Conference in California, then stayed on. Having been trained in the Independent Music School in Germany, she was able to take up the Choroi and music teachers' work in the Rudolf Steiner College. Norbert Visser, founder of the Choroi lyre building shops in Holland, Germany and other countries, came to visit the lyre work in America. John S. Clark and John Billing, two notable lyre teachers and composers from Ireland, came over for courses and conferences. Also, Colin Tanser, therapist and composer from Scotland, joined one of our conferences.
Cultural exchange peaked in July 2003, when the Lyre Association of North America hosted the second world lyre congress. Held in Keene, NH, 122 adults from 14 countries as well as 17 children from 2 countries participated in this gathering, which focused on the theme of "Building Community Through Music." Among the attendees were 7 lyre builders.