by Brother Marinus Kim, OSB
On Jan 22, 2014, all the students of the History of Music course visited a famous harpist, Therese Schroeder-Sheker who lives very near Mount Angel Seminary. We were all interested in this unfamiliar music instrument and player. As soon as we arrived her at her studio in downtown Mount Angel, she began to explain about the history of the instrument and each part of the harp. The main topic was the presentation of the harp and the development of music in the medieval period.
According to Professor Schroeder-Sheker, harps were the premier solo instrument of the Middle Ages. This modal instrument can play all ecclesiastic modes of music without use of mechanization. Modes are from darkest to brightest. Among harps, Early Romanesque harps were very important instruments in Europe because the Irish monks who started foundations of monasteries across Europe used it to support gathering the people and catching their interest.
With this context, she began to describe the kinds of harps. Among them, she emphasized the small Romanesque harp. Due to the simple and small size, the monks could carry it easily whenever they went out. Thus, the melody and rhythm was very simple and easy listening. The newcomer who converted from the secular easily absorbed the Christian divine world. The monks especially used the hymns, Psalms and the Scripture stories with these simple rhythms.
After these words, she gave to the class a bright and beautiful sound: “This is the example of Psaltery. The psaltery also came in many different sizes and shapes. This one is called chapels Psaltery.” The harp sounds rose up, with a high pitch, very clear and sweet, spreading out entirely in the studio. All the students held their breath to prevent creating noise.
Then she played a long song. She said, “Ignatius of Loyola listened to this . . . sound while he experienced deep conversion at a Benedictine monastery.”
After that, she added more information about some famous people who relate to the harps: St. Augustine made commentaries on the psalms; Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine sister, imagined Christ in the region of the heart while she wrote songs with harp; and Mechtild of Hackeborn, a Cistercian, meditated with the harp.
Gary Bass, a student in the class, said later, “I thought she was very good. She is definitely a professional. I love how she introduced different types of harps and the styles that are used in a particular age. It was a great experience. We were out of the classroom to get lively knowledge in a small presentation.”
Schroeder-Sheker debuted as a harpist in 1980 at Carnegie Hall and has maintained concurrent careers in classical music, palliative medicine and higher education. She has given concerts across three continents for 30 years, has chaired university, college, seminary and institute departments and programs, and publishes frequently. Now, she teaches in Music-Thanatology, a way of healing with music, with The Chalice of Repose Project.