Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Harpist Performing In Lent Extols Ancient Instrument

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published marzo 9, 2006  | Available In English

The Book of Revelation describes a heavenly vision of angels playing golden harps in praise of God amidst bowls of burning incense. In the Book of First Samuel the young shepherd David strums his harp for King Saul when he is tormented, quieting and refreshing his agitated soul.

These passages inspire musician Rhett Barnwell as he plays this ancient instrument to bring the healing, soothing timbre of harp music to those who are weary, worried or dying. He will play the Celtic harp in a Lenten sacred music concert on March 17 at the Cathedral of Christ the King with Cathedral organist Dr. Timothy Wissler and soprano Victoria Lawson.

“When (Saul) would get all verklempt , they’d bring David in to play on the harp and it (is) said when David played, an evil spirit would leave and the harp was sort of Saul’s Prozac,” he said. “In thinking about how the harp could be used in healing, I remembered that story.”

Barnwell, who has recorded four CDs of harp music and also composes and arranges music for the harp, recently played at a memorial service for a family friend of Lawson, his performing partner. The dying man had listened to one of his recordings and was comforted by it, leading his widow to ask Barnwell to play. “They called and said he was very appreciative, and at the point he was dying he listened to it as well.”

Barnwell’s mother also listened to her son’s harp music before she died four years ago, and, honoring her request, he played at her funeral. Before she died it was also a great comfort to the family and her health care providers.

“It may have been more of a benefit to the nurses and doctors and the rest of my family because there’s all this chaos and beepers and tubes and bells and whistles, and to have soothing harp music in the middle of it just sort of creates this oasis,” he said. “Patients don’t always get it, but health care workers needed it so badly because they’re under so much stress. They are dealing with this 24/7. (At one hospice) they said they just looked so forward to us coming because it just calmed the whole place down for nurses and attendants.”

Barnwell, former music director at St. Brigid Church in Alpharetta, believes that good liturgical music lifts people out of themselves. For those who are dying, harp music can help them let go of their struggle and face death peacefully.

“We have no idea what (heaven) really is like. Part of what I want with people in the end stage is to give them a little foretaste of what might be to come or an idea at least from what we have on earth of music that would be different there,” he said.

Music “is able to transcend the ordinary and it takes you out of yourself if it’s done well … and transports you to a different place, hopefully a spiritual place. I think with people who are dying this music helps them.”

It can help others to let go of their emotional burdens and rest in Christ, he added. “It’s both mind, body and spirit. People may not have any physical ailments, but they may be depressed or anxious or have anxiety or need to deal with something. Hopefully this kind of music can help them to deal with that or bring a sense of calm and serenity and peace.”

In the Lenten concert, Lawson, who has sung throughout the Southeast and was a member for nine years of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, will join in music for voice, harp and organ, including an “Ave Maria” composed by Barnwell and music from the Requiem Mass. Wissler hopes to provide an introspective, spiritual Lenten experience.

“My idea is it would be less of a concert and more of a reflective time for people to come and listen to music and let thoughts come as they will in this season of Lent as we try to go deeper inside. We’ve tried to find music to let us do that in a sacred space,” Wissler said.

The organist will play an extended organ work by Bach based on the Lamb of God and he and Barnwell will also perform an organ duet.

The harp “allows the quiet sounds of the organ to be made more beautiful with the sounds of the harp,” Wissler noted. “I like the intimacy the (Celtic harp) can produce. Often times we don’t think of the organ as an intimate instrument, but it can be too.”

Barnwell is glad to carry on the tradition of the itinerant Irish harp-toting minstrels by performing on St. Patrick’s Day, as the instrument is the national symbol of Ireland. James Flannery, professor of Irish studies at Emory University in Atlanta, said the harp’s esteemed place in Irish history dates back to times when the bards patronized by the chieftans used to recite poetry with accompaniment by harpists, the “most revered musicians” of the day. In the early Irish church, harps were used in liturgies in monastic settlements.

Early in the 17th century the harp was associated with national spirit, but by the end of the 18th century, after heavy colonization, the tradition almost died out but was recovered symbolically in the songs of poet Thomas Moore, such as “The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Hall.” Flannery said the harp has always had magical qualities in Celtic culture and been associated with the cosmos, spheres and heaven. It was played to comfort wounded soldiers and to ease women’s pain during childbirth. Since the 1960s there has been a serious musicological effort to revive this classic music tradition.

“To many the harp is the art music of the Irish tradition. Some is folk music, but it’s more complex than traditional folk music,” Flannery said. “It’s had its ups and downs and at some points been purely symbolic, but it has always been the symbol of the Irish nation.”

Flannery described the choral patterns created by the vibrating overtones of the harp as “so utterly natural, like the wind.”

Barnwell explained that the harp is unique in that when a few chords are stroked all of them vibrate to some degree at different frequencies.

“If you play one or two strings all vibrate to some degree so you get harmonic or musical wash. … If you play one, two or three notes … you get a double sound, not so much a volume thing but a very unique harmony,” he said. “If I play the harp and the sound board is pressed against me I can feel the music resonating through my whole body. … You can feel vibrations in the body whether playing or listening.”

A French horn major in college, Barnwell didn’t start playing the harp until his last semester when he decided to take a class on it as an elective, having always been fascinated from afar by this “gorgeous instrument.”

He went on to earn a master’s in French horn performance at the St. Louis Conservatory and studied at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome, Italy. It wasn’t until 11 years ago, while he was serving as music director at a Methodist church, that “out of the blue” he had the idea to play the harp as a way to help people.

“I felt that God was really calling me to do something else, and I wasn’t sure exactly what it was. I had a strong affinity for helping people or healing people who are sick or in need,” he recalled. “I felt this inner compunction or calling to start playing the harp again and somehow use that for healing.”

So he and a friend in seminary, both with musical training but not on harp, loaded up their harp, keyboard and cello to play at a hospice.

“We figured we wouldn’t get dates anyway so we might as well do something useful on Friday nights,” he recalled with a smile. They started out unsure of what they were doing, but saw how this instrument was able to comfort people.

“We had the privilege of being at the bedside of people as they actually died. To me that’s an extremely sacred moment. I don’t think there’s anything morbid about it. I was humbled,” Barnwell said.

So the musician began to learn to play more seriously and to play in various settings. He saw there was ample concert harp music but not a lot of more simple, meditative compositions for healing and began composing pieces. He came to realize that harp music therapy was a growing movement around the country. “I thought, ‘Wow, this must be the Holy Spirit because other people are doing the same thing.’”

In 1996 he was invited to sell his music at a harp conference in Charleston, S.C., and scrambled to self-publish on the Internet and set up a table. Making about $500 at the event, he established a recording and publishing company and chose the name Seraphim Music, which refers to an order of angel in the Bible associated with purification and spiritual warfare.

After that several retailers around the country and internationally began stocking up.

“It’s been going over really well. … I’m really amazed because I don’t think of myself as being a great arranger, but people have been buying the stuff like hotcakes,” he said. “It’s been very exciting. I get letters all the time from people who’ve been using the music for this purpose. I feel good it’s being disseminated. … My mission now is to spend more time getting more music out.”

Barnwell’s composing process can be unpredictable. He always loved the traditional “Ave Maria.” One day while driving a new tune popped into his head. “The ‘Ave Maria’ words fit to it so I thought maybe this is inspiration. I quickly wrote it down in the car while driving and it’s been a fairly popular piece.”

He has published several compositions and arrangements and has given concerts throughout the Southeast with Lawson. Several of his recordings were included at the 2002 International Conference on Healing Music in Athens. He has also performed the French horn and cello with a number of orchestras in the United States and abroad.

Barnwell has served as director of music at many churches in the Southeast and was formerly the director of the Schola Cantorum of Atlanta and the Philharmonia Sacra Orchestra. He worked for the last two and a half years as music director at St. Brigid Church and feels privileged to have worked there with such talented people at such a beautiful young church. “It’s a wonderful church.”

But having worked for 25 years in various churches as music director, and with an interest in instrument construction, he was unable to pass up a recent job offer to work at a local pipe organ company. The position will also allow him more time to compose and play the harp. He donates a portion of sales from Seraphim proceeds to charity and hopes to play and sell his music in partnership with groups and organizations as a fundraiser.

He also hopes to one day complete a certification program called the Music for Healing and Transition Program, which he has been unable to complete due to schedule constraints. It explores many of the physical and psychological benefits of music, such as how the frequency in which strings vibrate affects the activity level of the heart and other organs. Studies have shown it can also help relieve pain when all other treatments fail, he added.

But while some focus more on the scientific approach, “I take a more spiritual approach. I hope the music I play is inspired and touches lives at that (spiritual) level.”


The Cathedral is located at 2699 Peachtree Road, NE, Atlanta. For directions call (404) 233-2145. Donations will be accepted at the door for the Lenten music program.