Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz

Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz


• 1742 1790


Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz (KROOMP-hohlts) was the greatest harp player of the Classical era, and the composer of some of the most significant music in the early repertoire of the instrument.

His father was an impoverished bandmaster in bonded servitude to the local nobleman, Count Kinsky. The father taught Jean-Baptiste (then known by the Czech version of that name, Jan Krtitel) to play the horn. A new Count Kinsky took over in 1758 and sent the boy off to Vienna to study the horn so that he could return and keep up the Count's band.

However, the boy's mother was a harpist, who had also taught her son to play that instrument. In Vienna, he concentrated on the harp, causing trouble with the Count. So instead of returning home, he joined a regimental band as a hornist; an uncle was also a member of that band. The regiment was in the Netherlands, and from there he managed to get to Paris. (Another child of the family, violinist Wenzel (Vaclav) Krumpholtz (1750 - 1817), became an orchestral player in Vienna and was a close friend of Beethoven.)

He returned at some point to Prague, and there, in 1771, he was heard by two of the most influential Bohemian musicians of the day, the violinist Vaclav Pichl and the pianist F.X. Dusek. His harp playing impressed them. They provided him with a letter of introduction to Franz Joseph Haydn and a general letter of recommendation, and sent Krumpholtz to Vienna. This got him playing jobs, including an appearance at the Burgtheater, where his successful concert was witnessed by Haydn, who hired him as a solo harpist in the orchestra he ran for Prince Esterházy, and also took him on as a composition student.

In 1776, Haydn judged that Krumpholtz was ready for a major concert tour. He started off using a "harpe organisée," an instrument with some design improvements he had made. The concert tour was made under a German version of his name, Johann Baptist Krumpholtz. When he arrived at the town of Metz he interrupted his tour for six months to work on further design improvements in the workshop of Christian Steckler, an instrument maker. While there, he gave lessons to Steckler's talented 12-year-old daughter, Anne-Marie.

She was so talented that her father wished her to continue her lessons and also to have an opportunity to perform in major capitals, so he sent the girl along with Krumpholtz to Paris, where they arrived in 1777. In 1778, he married Marguérite Gilbert, the daughter of a harp-maker in Paris. All too soon Marguérite had died in childbirth. Anne-Marie Steckler attained the young (by our standards) marrying age of the time, and Krumpholtz married her. She made a sensational debut playing on a concert with him at the Concerts Spirituel in Paris in 1779.

Krumpholtz, now using the most familiar, French, form of his name, remained based in Paris, where he and his wife both remained great favorites. Working with another manufacturer, Naderman, Krumpholtz developed a new form for the harp. It had 24 strings, eight of which were made of metal. Seven pedals altered the pitches of the strings, and an eighth opened a set of five shutters in the instrument's resonator, to allow a fuller volume of sound.

Anne-Marie demonstrated the instrument before the French Academy, which approved it. At that point Krumpholtz and Naderman went into production. The improved instrument was a success. Since it had first been demonstrated by a pretty young woman, it was particularly popular with young ladies, starting a tradition that the harp was a suitable instrument for a woman, even on the professional stage. For many long years it was impossible for women to get into many orchestras playing anything else.

Krumpholtz's original prototype is now in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna. The new instrument came with a repertoire ready-made by Krumpholtz, who had been specializing in composing for harp since the latter days of his studies with Haydn in 1775. He had numerous concertos with harp, sonatas, and other solo and chamber music compositions, all featuring the harp. His music has the beauty one expects (perhaps stereotypically) from harp compositions, but they are also evidence of fertile and inventive musical mind; they are more than just a pretty sound. They keep up (and actually are a little ahead of) the new possibilities in modulation that Krumpholtz was developing with his new pedal harp. He also wrote a harp method privately for a German baroness. It was published posthumously.

The Krumpholtzes had three children. But by 1788 Anne-Marie had fallen for the pianist J.L. Dussek. This player was so proud of his splendid profile that he turned the direction of the piano around by 90 degrees so that instead of facing the audience he presented his right profile to the audience (forever changing the stage arrangement for piano soloists in the process). She ran off with him to London in 1788. Krumpholtz never recovered from the shock. He threw himself into the freezing waters of the Seine and drowned on February 19, 1790. Anne-Marie became a popular soloist in London, often playing Dussek's duos concertantes for harp and piano. But he left her and married another harpist (and also singer and pianist), Sophia Corri, in 1792. By the end of the century, he had abandoned her and their daughter.

Krumpholtz's compositions remain important in the repertoire of the harp, and were of major importance in setting the style for harp music. Furthermore, his improved instrument was the direct forerunner of the modern harp with double-action pedal mechanisms. (The shutter mechanism has been consigned to history.)