All the practicing in the world won’t get you very far if you don’t fundamentally understand the harpsichord and learn how to get complex sounds of of it. One of the reasons this instrument is so interesting to play is that in the late 20th century and early 21st we are able to rediscover or reinvent its mastery. There are a few historical texts on the harpsichord or clavichord playing; while they have great clues they are quite incomplete. It’s virtually a desert compared to the many published works on the piano. It’s an opportunity to question, and experiment, and think about what works and why.
I have to start with the objective; what should you be aiming for? Unquestionably, playing that engages you emotionally and compels your attention. And what will do that? It’s simple; listen to the greatest singers and performers – what they all have in common are naturalness and a sense of ease, and a wealth of subtle details and nuances. Great performances are marked by a mastery of the shape of the whole and of the many micro bits.
The way the harpsichord becomes musical is through how the sound texture is created, or manipulated. Mastering the instrument is about mastering textures; the many plucks and the resonances, creating a three/four dimensionality of sound, which is completely different from playing the notes ergonomically as if playing an organ or piano. it’s a huge guitar, or lute or harp, and needs to be played with that kind of imagination.
I had a realization that the way I was physically approaching the instrument was not conducive enough to coaxing from it the sounds I wanted. So I set about understanding why, and trying to figure out a method I could follow in order to improve. I think I found something useful. Where others’ input stops and my invention begins I don’t really know, so I’ll just assume that all I did was put together clues and suggestions from others into a hopeful coherent whole.
What I validated through a lot of trial and error is this:
1. To make the best sound, you play with a very gentle caressing motion as close to the front of the key as possible. That’s what Ed Parmentier told me when I asked him, and it’s simple and powerful advice.
2. You make the very smallest movements; a finger more than a few millimeters or so off the key isn’t good, well most of the time. Sometimes you want a coarse, more brutal sound.
3. Acquire as great a skill and intuition in holding down notes as in playing them.
4. Lose all tension or rigidity, not just in the hands but through the elbow and shoulders, allowing the most supple gracefulness in the motion of the fingers and hands.
5. Notes are not discrete finger movements, but always thought of in groups that make up some kind of gesture. I find sometimes when I play that I’m accompanying a little imaginary costumed figure in my mind’s eye. Weird, but helpful.
6. Notes are never played simultaneously but always strummed, and how they are strummed needs variety and intelligence.
There’s a lot more, but I think these are the most essential concepts from which everything else flows. I developed a series of exercises to be mastered first on the clavichord and then on the harpsichord, which essentially train the hands/fingers to follow these principles. I don’t think such a method exists in the historical literature. for all their thoroughness you don’t find that in either CPE Bach’s The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments or in Daniel Gottlob Turk’s School of Clavier Playing. Turk does say something important – that there should be a straight line from the elbow to the first finger joint. The other historical text I put a lot of weight in is Friedrich Konrad Griepenkerl’s description of JS Bach’s harpsichord technique, which is worth considering even though his understanding was transmitted through WF Bach and Forkel and could be inaccurate in any number of ways.
I also think that a harpsichordist should find a set of etudes, in the manner of how the Chopin etudes help a pianist achieve mastery, that develop the skills of applying harpsichord principles and the mastery of texture in the context of music. My favorite such etudes are the preludes and fugues in C major, c minor, C# major, d minor and G major from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier; Les Graces and La de Belombre in D from Duphly’s 3rd Book, La Leon and Le Sylvan from Forqueray’s c minor suite (these are the rosetta stones of great harpsichord playing) and the suite in E from Rameau’s 1724 Pieces de clavecin, as well as the 1728 a minor allemande and sarabande. All of these are very sophisticated pieces that require and reward a great investment of time. Do not confuse the occasional apparent simplicity of the score with simplicity of the music, for the score is not, ever, the music.