From private secretaries to press officers, gardeners to chefs, it is well known that the British royal family employs people from a huge variety of professions. Many people may not be aware, however, that there are also some more unusual and specialist opportunities to work alongside the royals.
Among them is the position of the Official Harpist to the Prince of Wales, a role that he reinstated in 2000 to encourage musical talent and raise the profile of the instrument. The post previously fell out of existence at the end of the Victorian era, but the position now offers a young musician the opportunity to perform at royal occasions and world-class events.
In July of this year, it was announced that Prince Charles had appointed a new Official Harpist, Alis Huws. We caught up with Anne Denholm, who held the role from 2015 to 2019 to find out what it involves.
First, talk us through what it takes to become the Official Harpist and how you ended up with this position.
For me, the first step in the process happened when I was nominated as a potential applicant. I then had to complete an application (similar to a regular job application in many ways!), and finally attend an audition and interview.
What happened when you were appointed? Was there an official welcome or did you just start in the role straight away. What was your first performance like?
I found out about my appointment several months before it was announced and I was due to perform my first engagement, and so at first, it was a big secret! I was shocked and delighted when I found out, and in a way it was a good thing I had a few months to take it in!
As is tradition, my appointment was announced during HRH The Prince of Wales’s annual trip to Wales in July, and so my first engagements were carried out at the magical Llwynywermod Estate. There was also an official handover of the Royal Harpist’s badge of office–a beautiful harp brooch–from HRH himself. My first engagements that week were also my first meetings with the unique Royal Harp, designed and created by Italian harp makers, Salvi, especially for the Prince and presented to him in 2006. In short–it was quite the week!
You carried out the role for four years. Overall, what were those years like for you?
I was incredibly fortunate to be appointed to the role just as I left the Royal Academy of Music having completed my Master’s degree. My four years in the position were therefore also my first four years in the music profession at large, and so overall it was an incredibly formative and busy time for me.
In addition to the fantastic opportunities presented by my role (including performing for numerous royal events and giving solo recitals at home and abroad), I was also investing time in all the things young freelance musicians usually do, such as working with orchestras and chamber groups, pursuing my own artistic projects, and teaching. I learned a lot (the hard way!) about balance during those four years, a common battle for musicians and very much an ongoing one for me! But I could not have asked for a more well-rounded and stimulating start to my career, for which I will be forever grateful!
Is there such a thing as a typical day in the life of a royal harpist? What would this look like?
The short answer is no! Freelance musicians can have extremely varied timetables, often with no one week or day looking the same as the next. Every event is also different, and each royal occasion at which I performed required different repertoire and considerations.
Can you recall some of the most standout moments of the last four years?
I feel extremely fortunate to have had some incredibly memorable experiences over the last four years, both as part of my royal position and my wider career. There definitely isn’t room for all of them here!
If I had to pick a few highlights from my time in the role, I would mention performing for the Welsh National Service of Remembrance for the 100th Anniversary of the Third Battle of Ypres in Langemark (2017), the wedding of TRH’s The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (2018), and the 50th Anniversary of the Investiture of HRH The Prince of Wales (2019). I also enjoyed traveling to give solo recitals at international harp festivals in Bangkok, Thailand and Bogotá, Colombia.
Some people might not realize the Prince of Wales has an official harpist. What do you think about him bringing back the position in 2000?
The reinstatement of the position of Royal Harpist has had a wonderful impact for the harp as an instrument. It was brought into the spotlight and many people who may not have experienced the harp before started hearing it on the radio or seeing it in concerts. Equally important is the fact that the Prince hoped the post would promote Welsh culture through the harp as the national instrument of Wales. The post has certainly highlighted the role of the harp in Wales, and I personally explored this side of the post by taking a contemporary angle and learning lots of new solo works for the harp by living Welsh composers.
You finished the appointment in July 2019. Do you miss it and what are you doing now?
Of course, I will miss playing for wonderful events! I will also miss playing the stunning royal harp and working with the fantastic people who supported me during my time in the role, both from the royal household and at Salvi Harps.
However, I am now continuing with all the other aspects of my career that I was already pursuing during my time in the post. I work as a freelancer with orchestras, play chamber music (including with my contemporary experimental quartet the Hermes Experiment, and duo partner, flautist Alena Walentin), give solo recitals, and teach at Eton College, Windsor, and the Dragon School, Oxford.