History Of Harmony In the words of British composer Thomas Beckman the harpsichord is, “The sound of harmony in composition.” At onetime or another most everyone has heard the piano, not so with the harpsichord. In comparison with the piano hardly anyone has heard the harpsichord or could recognize it. A question begins to form – what role did the piano orchestrate in the curtain call of the once popular harpsichord? To begin, a harpsichord is an early keyboard instrument that vaguely resembles a piano – the resemblance between the two ends there. Instead of having one keyboard like a piano the harpsichord has keys in rows called manuals. There can be one to three manuals; usage is dictated by the music.
Smaller harpsichord variants, like virginals and spinets usually had one manual, while Flemish, German, French, and English harpsichords had two or more. It was only in Italy that many harpsichords had three manuals. This aberration may have had something to do with the composition and style of dance and opera. The harpsichord dates back to the sixteenth century and the way it produces sound is even older. A harpsichord makes music by plucking a string; rather like a harp. Traditionally on the end of each key sat a crow, raven, or dove quill called a plectrum.
In the end of this plectrum is a wooden stick, which sits on the end of the key. When the key is depressed the wooden stick, called a jack, pushes upward causing the plectrum to pluck the string. In this way it is almost like plucking a harp string or the guitarist’s finger strumming. In marked contrast to the more percussive action of the piano. Music coming from the harpsichord is usually bright and sharp. The main disadvantage of the harpsichord that makes it so difficult to play is the inability to vary the sound or dynamic.
There is a way to make it seem as thought the sound is varied. This hard-to-achieve skill requires the Harpsichordist to use multiple keyboards and different keys to give the illusion. It is not uncommon to have a hand on the first manual and the other on the second at a crisscross. In this way the harpsichord is more personal instrument. One literally needs to understand the personality of this instrument in order to link music and soul. The piano is a newer instrument, approximately 200 years old, thus it has a “newer” way of producing sound.
Using a very complex system of weights and counterweights forces the hammer to strike a stiff, taunt string. In essence a pianist depresses a key which causes springs and levers to propel the hammer against the corresponding string and this action results in the unique sound and feel of the piano. If one listens to the piano, tones seem richer and deeper than that of the sharper and more abrupt harpsichord – thought different always doesn’t translate to better. Under the auspices of composers like Bach and Scarlatti, and other Baroque masters, the harpsichord and its cousins were the first chairs of the music world from 1550-1750. Scarlatti alone wrote 500 sonatas (music shorts) most of which included the harpsichord. J.S.
Bach wrote numerous pieces for it such as his Goldberg Variations and English Suites, and this was just the tip of the musical iceberg. Unfortunately as history confirms, every musician only has so many performances before the symphony closes. For the harpsichord this happened after the death of Bach and Scarlatti in the mid eighteenth century. Up until this time there had been quiet dissention by a growing number of musicians who wanted an instrument more musically versatile but that still retained the unique feel and sound of the harpsichord. For a while this was filled by a cousin of the harpsichord called the clavichord; but due to the quietness of the instrument it didn’t have much use other than for the parlor. Research was in full swing from 1700 to 1740 when the product of the experiments was born.
In 1740 the Pianoforte joined the musical ranks of such noteworthy instruments as the harpsichord, the clavichord, and clavier. Aside from structural and material changes the only difference between a pianoforte and a piano was the addition of foot pedals in the early 1800’s. The reasoning behind the creation of the piano was to take all of the good and successful characteristics of keyboard variants and combine them into one instrument; in this way to create an Uberinstrument. Soon this “new” technological wonder would sweep across Europe from Vienna to London. On the stage of musical history Beethoven and Mozart became the star duet accompanied by the piano.
With this the solo that had been the harpsichord’s came to an end; gone were the days of soaring simple sonatas and concertos. Now it was the classical period with soaring symphonies and melodic motets. Mozart and others were not content with what was seen as the “staleness” in the music world. They began to experiment with working around the melodies and enhancing movement and dynamic. The piano became the main tool for this, with the idea the harpsichord would be retired completely.
This school of thought dominated until the 1950’s when music historians started looking back upon musical history. The school of traditionalism, emphasizing returning to the original instruments took over the performing arena of classical music. Finally, the piano would soon have to share the orchestra chamber with the harpsichord. Through trial and error, it was discovered that even though older works sounded fine on the piano, too much evocative feel was lost. This was true from the early 1700’s and before.
Obviously, they had not been written for the piano but with the harpsichord in mind. Notes and structure unique to the harpsichord could not be translated adequately to the piano. For many years music purists and traditionalists had kept the harpsichord alive and stood firm in their belief that harpsichord and piano music were not as compatible as believed. Most felt that early music needed to be played upon the harpsichord and it’s relatives. Many felt that too much was lost when the old works where played on a more modern instrument. A supreme irony existed.
Certain music lost emotion when played on the piano, an instrument that exudes feeling, while it was a warm, great, and grand again on the “emotionless” harpsichord. More showy and exuberant music of Mozart and other classical and romantic composers sound cold and awkward on the harpsichord yet, when performed on piano, it was joyful and mirthful the way it was intended to be. Upon first impression it would seem that the harpsichord is doomed to play second fiddle to the piano. It seems that the harpsichord will always be second chair when it comes to a popularity contest. Thank goodness classical music isn’t into what is popular and mainstream.
Tradition and exactness are more important than anything else even above participating in a musical “beauty contest.” Many wonderful translations of Bach’s music have been performed upon piano. One recalls the Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould. But, I do hope you will got out and give the harpsichord a try. Music is nothing more than story with or without words. The piano and harpsichord tell different versions of the same story. But, no translation is as good as what the original author has intended.