Mercer professor restores 105-year-old harp for students’ future use

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seated woman plays harp
Calista Anne Koch, adjunct professor in the School of Music, plays the 1918 Lyon & Healy harp that she restored. Photo by Matt Smith

After decades of silence, a 105-year-old harp is making music again. 

Calista Anne Koch, adjunct professor of harp at Mercer University’s School of Music, spent several months meticulously restoring the Lyon & Healy harp, which is gilded in 24-karat gold and features an intricately carved wooden column and base. 

Longtime Macon resident Harriet Comer donated the harp to the School of Music this past summer, making it the first harp the University has owned.  

“Up until now, any harp student who studied at Mercer was required to rent or own their own instrument,” Koch said. “Mrs. Comer’s gift will give more students the chance to have access and will allow for the harp program to grow.” 

Built in 1918, the harp originally belonged to Comer’s mother, Beatrice Zeller of McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Zeller, known to her friends as “Bea,” attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and traveled to gigs with a group of musicians.

During a trip to Macon, Zeller met Felton Fincher. They continued their relationship after Zeller returned to Pennsylvania, and in 1926, they married and moved to Macon. 

Comer’s mother often could be heard playing the harp on Macon’s first radio station, WMAZ, which broadcast the music from a soundproof studio in Willingham Hall. 

But with Macon’s hot and humid weather — and no air conditioning — it was difficult keeping the harp in tune.  

“Eventually she quit playing it,” Comer said. “I was born in 1935, and I never heard it played.” 

In 1964, she and her brother had the harp rebuilt as a gift. The harp was prominently displayed in her parents’ living room until their deaths in 1987 when Comer brought it to her home. 

This past summer, she connected with Koch about donating the harp to Mercer.

While the gilding and structure were well-maintained, the strings needed to be carefully replaced, the wood needed to be gently refurbished, and the harp’s 2,000 moving parts needed to be delicately made to start moving again. 

Koch consulted an expert in rebuilding antique harps, who assured her it could be done. 

“It’s very precarious to try and get something moving that’s not been oiled that was supposed to be moving,” Koch said.  

older woman stands next to harp
Longtime Macon resident Harriet Comer is pictured with the harp she donated to Mercer University after it was restored. Photo courtesy Harriet Comer

She spent two months working on the harp. Much of her time went into oiling and refurbishing the wood, so it wouldn’t crack. When she began to change out each of the 46 strings, she did just one a day to prevent stress on the wood. 

“If the wood, which is so old, were cracked, the harp would be rendered useless,” she said.

Slowly, Koch got the harp to hold its tune and bring it up to pitch. 

“This harp sings so beautifully,” she said. “The fact that I was able to revitalize it and get it to the point where it has such a resonant tone was so lovely.” 

In November, Koch played the harp as part of a Middle Georgia Harp Ensemble and Middle Georgia Flute Choir concert. Comer was there to hear it. 

“It was just beautiful,” she said. “I had my family there and good friends, so it was a special day for me.”

 

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Jennifer Falk
Jennifer Falk is director of digital communications at Mercer. She edits and writes feature stories for The Den and examines web data and analytics to drive content decisions. She also creates and supervises the creation of content for primary University web pages and e-newsletters.