Harpo Marx: Musician and Artist

Anybody who has seen a Marx Brothers movie knows Harpo is a lunatic... a wild man capable of the craziest things imaginable... and even some things that defy the laws of physics. (In one movie, he pulls a full-grown dog out of his coat; in another, a lit candle burning at both ends.)

But when he sat down to play the harp, Harpo became Arthur. You can see it in his face. He's got that rapt, hypnotized quality to his expression. These are my favorite moments of Dad's movie and TV appearances. (I love watching him in a Milton Berle show from 1959 and on the Ed Sullivan Show from 1961, where he really does a great job on the harp.)

What the casual Marx Brothers fan may NOT know is that Dad took music really seriously. And there has always been a fair amount of debate just what to do with Harpo Marx, harpist. So let me offer some background... and an opinion, that may be just a little biased... but not much.

I am a composer, arranger and performer. My instrument is piano. I studied at Julliard and I've played piano for over 50 years, releasing some jazzy albums in the 1960s, followed by popular ones based on my later "piano bar" career. I've composed symphonies and I've written for the harp. And so I am somewhat qualified to say the following:

The harp is an incredibly complex and difficult instrument to play. It looks simple, but it actually has thousands of moving parts, all housed within a block of wood that is kept under pressure and will implode if not played regularly. There are strings and pedals and tuning knobs and sounding boards and it's hard to tune.

And the harp really isn't that versatile. It has one, rather heavenly "sound" so it's usually written as a background instrument for orchestral color - the frosting on a particularly rich cake. It doesn't handle the melody as much as it underlines it. In other words... the harp is rarely the star of the orchestra.

My dad taught himself how to play the harp... as an adult. His mom sent him one when he was in his twenties and told him to learn it. So he did. He didn't get lessons and he didn't know how to read music. And the harp his mom sent him was a piece of junk. Early on he tuned it wrong and played it on the wrong shoulder.

One reason why it's a good idea to teach kids to learn instruments when they're kids is that kids' brains are engineered to soak up knowledge like a sponge. As we get older, our ability to learn... especially complex hand-eye-coordinated functions like playing an instrument... declines.

One thing my dad figured out pretty early on - it's relatively easy to play glissandos (those showy runs that go up and down the scales... and the strings) on the harp. And glissandos look impressive when you watch a harpist play one. Watch his early movies and you'll see him do that a lot in his own, unique, self-taught way.

But there's something else you can learn from watching him play the harp in his movies... beginning with "The Cocoanuts" in 1929 and ending with "Love Happy" in 1949. Dad gets a lot better at playing as time goes on. I think this is because Dad really loved playing the harp and he did it constantly. He'd practice for two or three hours every day. Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet! Every musician will tell you in order to get better you have to practice... practice... practice.

He also got better because he learned a few things as he went along. Dad never really had a harp teacher - he never learned to read music and nobody ever "trained" him in the conventional sense. But he did have help from a really wonderful harpist named Mildred Dilling who helped him break some bad habits and who walked him through certain pieces he wanted to learn. He'd call her up and play something over the phone that was causing him trouble, she'd move her harp over to the phone and play it back for him until he could correct himself or match the sound she made.

Dad was also friends with some of the greatest musicians and composers who ever lived - George Gershwin and Oscar Levant, not to mention the studio musicians at MGM. And Dad picked things up every step of the way.

Despite this, Dad would never be considered a "great" harpist... in the sense that he could sit in an orchestra and do what orchestra harpists do - read music and play classical harp as a secondary role in a big symphony. Instead, Dad did what no harpist of his day did... or wanted to do. He played the harp like it was a solo instrument, interpreting popular and classical music through the harp.

Because of this, Dad ended up being a fairly controversial figure in the harp world. At first, classically trained harpists either refused to take him seriously or were offended by his style to the point where they ridiculed his performing. His popularity as a comedian almost precluded anyone seriously evaluating his harp playing. And his unconventionality probably would have doomed a serious critique anyway.

And then I got involved, for better or worse. I showed some proclivity for music as a kid, and my Dad just ate up whatever I learned. I leaned more toward jazz and complex rhythms and my dad was more into popular music and layered harmonies. But he was such a music lover he simply had to know what I was learning... and he had to absorb it through his harp playing.

In the 1950s my dad really grew as a harpist as I brought home the music I was listening to. His first album... for RCA... is a fairly conventional album of popular music, with his harp taking the lead. It sounds a lot like what you might hear him play in his later filmed harp solos.

By the end of the decade, when he made the Mercury albums... the music was much more experimental and complex. There were some amazing performers who worked on those albums, too. And they just made Dad want to be that much better.

Technically, Dad always struggled with rhythm, but he interpreted a melody like a singer did, with pauses and stops that made you realize the music was coming out of his heart and soul, and not his fingers.

I'm not sure many people who bought those Mercury albums in the fifties thought much about that. They probably bought the albums because they were Dad's fans. Harp connoisseurs probably didn't listen to them because they didn't like what Dad played or the way he played it.

Meanwhile, something was quietly happening. More people were becoming aware of the harp through Dad's movie and TV appearances. Some of them were inspired to take up the harp. Others were inspired to compose for it... not as a background instrument, but as a lead instrument. And not just for classical works, but for popular songs, jazz and even...later... rock.

And certain unorthodox music critics made an observation that was unarguably true: Good or bad, Harpo Marx was the only harpist of his time who used his instrument to interpret and perform popular music. People admitted to being influenced by his performances... and not just people who "didn't know any better," - people without musical training who simply liked what they heard. But formally trained musicians... folks who HADN'T taught themselves how to play when they were an adult without knowing how to read music, like Dad did.

Today, some of the world's leading harpists were inspired to pursue their studies because of Dad. Critics have rediscovered Dad's rarer performances and the Mercury albums and now consider them to be unique and wonderful. Good for you, Dad!

Harpo Marx certainly had his limitations as a harpist. He'd be the first to admit this. But I can proudly say he is one of the greatest and most influential harpists who ever lived. (Along with King David, of course) And the music he created still moves people. What else can a musician ask for?

Oh, and he taught himself how to play the clarinet, too... and the harmonica... and the piano.

My dad was also an avid painter and had a remarkable output over the years. Painting was also his way to relax... and if he occasionally created a canvas that people enjoyed looking at... all the better. He enjoyed being involved in the process, and at times would provide for him a necessary extension of his creative curiosity.

He really got into it seriously when the doctors informed him after his first attack that he needed to give his heart a rest and temporarily put a cap on performing until he fully recovered.

So the uniqueness of Dad went to work by creating a scheme only he could come up with. Dad decided that he, the artist, would select the people that he wanted to have commissioning and buying his art work. He would paint a picture, usually oils on casonite, and then invite one of his rich friends over to see what he had done. I was there to vouch for the perfection of his madness. Al Hart, who created and was CEO of the then City National Bank, came over to the house one day, and Dad showed him his latest effort. He then asked Al what he thought it was worth in relation to the art community's standards. Al thought this particular piece maybe could go for about five hundred dollars. Dad said ok. You give me a check out to your favorite charity for three thousand dollars and the painting is yours.

Dad always got his man, and in all the distributions of his artwork, he never took a penny for himself. He also donated much of his work to hospitals around the country, and strangely, the more he painted toward the end of his life, the more he came to look very much like a double for Pablo Picasso

Dad had the ability to adapt to any situation, making it all work for him by taking any reality and making it surreal. Painting had become the outlet for Dad's creative thirst that was in his nature until he was given the go-ahead to return to the world of entertainment.

He and Mom were also collectors of fine art from artists such as Salvador Dali, George Grosz, Thomas Hart Benton, Joseph Hirsch, LeRoy Nieman, Doris Lee, John Decker, etc...

The HarposPlace.com website and its contents © 2010 Bill Marx. All rights reserved. You may not duplicate any information or content on this site without permission from the copyright holder.