One of the things that really gets my goat is the totally erroneous statement that the harpsichord is incapable of expression. Many famous and influential pianists who should know better regularly fall into this trap. We need to remember that the harpsichord from the High Baroque was a fully developed and mature instrument, perfect for the music written for it.
In order to play expressively on the harpsichord, it is necessary to have a highly developed sense of touch. Harpsichord players make a slight articulation before a note to give it an accent, or they might delay it or hold onto it a little longer. In an expressively slurred pair of notes, the player overlaps the two notes by holding onto the first until just after playing the second note – this overlap masks the attack of the second note, thus making it sound softer. You really can create the impression of strong-weak in a slur, especially if you let go of the second note early. Sensitive under- and overlapping of notes combined with skilful timings cause the playing to sound musical and expressive. This is but illusion, I hear you say! I suggest that making an actual honest-to-goodness crescendo in a melodic line on the piano also relies on illusion, since the individual tones begin to decay the moment they have been sounded. We achieve a crescendo by artfully blending the end of one sound into the beginning of the next. Pianists spend most of our lives attempting to make a percussion instrument sing.
As a youngster, I was fascinated by the hybrid harpsichords made by Pleyel, Goble and others, with their array of pedals. Here is the inimitable and great Wanda Landowska playing Bach on her Pleyel (incidentally the only known video footage of her).
The hammer-finger technique used by Landowska would probably be discouraged by the majority of teachers nowadays, as would Vladimir Horowitz’s splayed hand positions. This only goes to show that technique is individual and that great artists might use unorthodox ways of playing to achieve their goals. There is no doubting the supremacy of both these great players.
All my harpsichord lessons at the RCM took place on a Goble, with the occasional foray into the museum and the chance to play a real antique instrument.
In my classes with Kenneth Gilbert at the Museum Vleeshuis in Antwerp, we were lucky enough to have our classes (and to practise) on amazing harpsichords by Ruckers and Dulcken and to play the muselar that featured in Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson.
Nowadays, everyone tends to play a modern copy of an antique instrument, such is our contemporary desire for authentic sounds and performance practice.
It is more accurate to think of the piano as a different species from the harpsichord – it evolved from it, but now the two instruments stand side by side. As the piano evolved, it underwent gradual changes. As we all know, the first piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700. Here is how a restored Cristofori piano from 1720 sounds, played in this clip by Susan Alexander-Max with sonatas by Zipoli:
To end this week’s instalment, here are two videos from David Schrader that demonstrate rather neatly the differences between the clavichord, harpsichord, fortepiano and the modern piano:
If you want to read more about the history of piano technique, Part 2 of my eBook Series, Practising the Piano is now available. Please see below for details of how to get your copy.
Practising the Piano Part 2
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