Quills, Hammers and Blades

August 2018Reflections

Ideally, keyboard players would need over 100 instruments properly to reflect historical reality. This is especially true for those of us who tackle the rich menagerie of pre-piano keyboard instruments. Broadly speaking, Bach’s French Suites don’t have to be played on the harpsichord, and Haydn’s keyboard sonatas work equally well on the harpsichord, fortepiano or clavichord. Such composers thrived within a culture of pragmatic plurality; people played keyboard music on whatever instrument was to hand. Artistically, this brings different qualities to the music. The birds’ quills that pluck the strings of the harpsichord, spinet or virginals give a brilliance to the sound; the hammers that strike the strings of the fortepiano or square piano (actually rectangular) enable greater changes of volume; the metal blades (called tangents) that press up against the strings of the clavichord can endow the musical line with a beguiling intimacy.

The harpsichord is a great vehicle for the gregarious musician. As seen here in Mercier's painting, it usually featured in ensembles as an accompanying instrument. Keyboard instruments were especially popular in the home, and Samuel Pepys gives a touching account of multiple households loading ‘a pair of Virginalls’ on to boats when escaping the Great Fire of London in 1666. Tunes from the theatre were readily available in keyboard arrangements for domestic consumption, and a lady’s education was considered complete only when she could partake in the social delights of chamber music-making in the respectable demeanour of an accompanist.

Although there is a voluminous and significant solo keyboard repertoire dating from Elizabethan times, it was only with the epic cadenza in Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto that the harpsichord transmogrified, like ‘Tubby the Tuba’, from being a group’s harmonic and rhythmic backbone to a solo instrument on a par with the violin. This game-changer of 1721 surely paved the way for the development of the solo piano concerto in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

That said, the keyboard continued to be used as a domestic jukebox throughout the eighteenth century and beyond, with an abundance of music for the blossoming amateur market. It is perhaps surprising to us that the harpsichord co-existed and competed with the fortepiano throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century, but it was only when iron frames replaced wooden ones in the early nineteenth century that fortepianos morphed into sonorous pianos, overpowering the harpsichord. Despite the contradictory nomenclature, pianos (as opposed to fortes) now had the structure to maintain a high string tension, giving them the horsepower to be heard in large spaces. The concert hall was then becoming part of the social fabric, and it was the piano that could hold its own in solo concertos with orchestras.

Private music-making had its own heroine – by comparison something of a Cinderella. But the unassuming clavichord ravishes one with its dulcet tones. Unique in the early keyboard family for its capacity to create vibrato, it was used throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods primarily as a study instrument. Its zenith came in Germany in the late eighteenth century where it was the ideal medium for expressing the empfindsamer Stil (‘expressive style’) as epitomized in many of the keyboard works of J. S. Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. If the harpsichord was the hare – dazzling the public before fizzling out at the end of the eighteenth century – the clavichord was the tortoise that continued to plod along in private. Mozart allegedly composed La Clemenza di Tito on a travel clavichord whilst en route between Vienna and Prague, and composers as diverse as Carl Nielsen, Malcolm Arnold and Peter Maxwell Davies owned one of these diminutive seductresses. 

Even though I haven’t mentioned organs, I hope these musings have alerted you to the abundance of riches to which early keyboard players had access. Just as one might resist wearing only one set of clothes, we keyboard players can avoid instrumental monogamy by embracing the sheer diversity of our tradition. In doing so, we refresh and deepen our love for a wealth of music – not only for ourselves, but also for our audiences.

© Julian Perkins


This article was published in the Summer 2018 edition of Lark Music.

Photo: Rick Simpson
Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his sisters in front of Kew Palace. Philip Mercier (1733).
Mozart with his sister Maria Anna (or ‘‘Nannerl’’) and father Leopold at a fortepiano, underneath a portrait of his deceased mother Anna Maria. Johann Nepomuk della Croce (c. 1780).
A Woman playing a Clavichord. Gerrit Dou (c. 1665).
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