Esthetics of the Harpsichord

Since I’ve posted about matters of technique and interpretation, I thought I’d add something about the whole esthetic of the harpsichord. Now, this isn’t for people who already know a lot – it’s more for the layman who might want to know what’s so interesting about this music and how to understand it better. And it’s free, accessible to anyone anywhere with a internet connection. So bear with me, maybe it’s not as well or artfully put as someone else might do, but I try to be simple and clear.

First, it helps to understand that all of us experience classical music through the esthetic of the second half of the 20th century – during which there was this phenomenon of a slavish devotion to the most authentic score, and minimal interpretive intrusion by the performer. This was an aberration, aided by critics and academics, by Stravinsky who hated performers and their egos, and the artistic grail was an exact rendering of what was on the page. So what we got during that period was an increase in polished, smooth technique and a decrease in interpretive risk and individuality. And this was the age of the Steinway piano – a dominant standard, a highly machined, massive, glossy industrial black thing with a brilliant sound ideal for very large concert halls. Now, as to the harpsichord, think the opposite of all that.

The harpsichord belonged to a period in history well before the metronome, before the industrial revolution, and where the music preceded the page, as opposed to followed from it. It’s a time that’s almost alien to us. If you read even a few excerpts from music treatises of the times, you’ll read about philosophy of music and the emotions (Mattheson for instance). As you learn about the music, you’ll understand more and more how the roots of most music (and the keys to how to play it) lie in the music of the preceding generation; to understand how to play Bach in a deeper, more authentic-seeming way, you’ll need to understand how to play Froberger and Buxtehude at a minimum. And to understand Froberger you’ll need to understand Frescobaldi. Each of these steps back in time place us in an esthetic further and further from what our modern ears are accustomed to. And to understand Frescobaldi you really have to carefully read and think about his instructions, and the music before him. Each of those composers, and all their colleagues, were building on a profound tradition as well as modernizing and “improving” it in their way.

And a very important part of the esthetic is the diversity of sounds and instruments; play through a few museum collections and you’ll get an appreciation of how very interesting and extremely nonstandard the instruments are. This is part of the fascination, the anti-Steinway. There is no ‘best’; there are many different flavors of interesting. And the original instruments are hardly ever bland or simple, they are each intriguing, some more than others of course. The characteristics of the pluck, the “ping”, how the sound decays, the after-resonance of the soundboard, all these things make up a sound that the musician interacts with. The fascination goes well beyond matching the instrument (period and nationality) with its appropriate music. These instruments are like individual singers. Deceptively simple in appearance, every tiny detail of their design and construction and choice of materials matters and none of them are clones.

There are a couple of principles that I think are not widely enough appreciated. One is the importance of and meaning behind so-called early fingering. In brief, this is the term for playing scales without the thumb, and instead by playing note pairs 23 23 23, or 34 34 34. This creates a little space between each pair. Just as important, I think, is that you hold the first note of the pair down and release them both at the same time. This concept/tradition of pairing or grouping, holding down and releasing, is one that runs through the entire body of music for the instrument. It means that the esthetic is one of imitating an instrumental characteristic, specifically tonguing on a wind instrument and bowing on a string instrument. Said another way, if you hear an even spooling of sixteenth notes against a quarter note beat in, say, Frescobaldi or Sweelinck, it’s just being played wrong. Those sixteenths should be played in pairs or groups. They should have shape and contours, like speech. As you follow the generations of composers following Frescobaldi, you’ll find that this principle of fingering/grouping got progressively more sophisticated, culminating in Bach. It didn’t get replaced with the use of the thumb in the 18th century, it just evolved.

The other thing is something the Italians called sprezzatura, the Spanish duende; perhaps these are different things but the principle is one of apparent casualness, ease and a little oh, perhaps abandon? Lots of tiny flourishes and gestures. Not a studied precision; its opposite. Spontaneity. Freedom. Air. it’s a way of thinking, and it’s a very important way of sitting at and engaging with the instrument. I think it’s essential to be convincingly musical at the harpsichord. Perhaps that’s something intrinsic to plucked instruments.

The musicians who are the most interesting and convincing are the ones who really take the history seriously: they understand how the concepts of baroque art translate to the music; they explore the generational layers behind all the music they play; they understand how to integrate the tiny flourishes and gestures with the larger beats and dance patterns; they know how the elements of language and speech translate to music; they understand the highly developed art of evoking emotions through application of all their interpretive skills. And of course they pay attention to the mechanical foundation necessary to do all that. While doing all that, they can sound spontaneous and use their imagination. Pretty cool.



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