About this Recording
8.578184 - HANDSOME HARPSICHORD - Best Loved Classical Harpsichord Music
English 

Handsome Harpsichord
Best loved classical harpsichord music

 

Sir Thomas Beecham’s characteristically provocative observation that the sound of the harpsichord was like ‘two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm’, didn’t do much to help the instrument’s reputation in a world of listeners firmly accustomed to hearing Baroque keyboard works played on the piano.

The physical differences between a modern piano and a harpsichord are mirrored by differing techniques required by the player. With little ability to sustain or for dynamic contrast, harpsichords must be played with a particularly detailed approach to articulation and finger technique, the players creating cantabile melodic lines (when appropriate) with touch alone, and creating emphasis not by volume, but rather by subtle management of the timing and length of notes. The lack of sustaining power also means that harpsichordists make considerable use of ornamentation and arpeggiation (the spreading of chords one note after another rather than in a block).

Each key of a harpsichord is connected to a vertical wooden jack which itself houses a small tongue and plectrum to pluck the string when the key is depressed. When the key is released, the tongue hinges back (so as not to pluck the string again) and a small piece of felt returns to rest on the string, damping the sound. Harpsichords usually have a range of four to five octaves, and they may have one or two manuals (keyboards), each of which control one or more sets of strings – typically one or two sets playing at written pitch, with some instruments providing another set that sounds an octave higher for added brilliance. These different sets of strings will usually be brought in or out of action by a small lever, knob or pedal. Some instruments may also include further innovations such as a so-called ‘buff stop’, bringing small pieces of felt into contact with the strings to give a softer, muted timbre.

Harpsichords are often tuned using historical systems, many of which can sound particularly exotic to contemporary ears accustomed to equal temperament. This gives a different ‘colour’ to every key, and opens up a whole new world of expression in the music. Indeed, the tuning of harpsichords is something close to every player’s heart: with an entirely wooden structure, the instruments are particularly sensitive to atmospheric conditions, and players will have to tune their instruments much more frequently than a piano demands. Harpsichords will often be tuned to Baroque pitch (A = 415Hz), though modern pitch (A = 440Hz) is also common; some instruments even offer a choice by enabling the manuals to be shifted up or down as appropriate.

Though the level of tonal variety and nuance possible on the modern piano is unquestionably greater than that of the harpsichord, there is something undeniably special about hearing music on the instrument for which it was originally conceived. Indeed, since Beecham uttered that memorable quote, the notion of Historically Informed Performance Practice has become an increasingly mainstream part of musical life.

 1  Handel: Keyboard Suite in B flat major, HWV 434 – III. Aria con variazioni

Among Handel’s various keyboard suites, the B flat major is unusual in that it was published without authorisation by the composer. The third movement is a set of five variations based on a theme that was also used some 130 years later by Brahms for his Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel. Handel was a great improviser, and these charming but not overly complicated variations are typical of the sort of extemporised performances for which he was renowned.

 2  J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – Aria da capo

These famous variations form some of the most technically demanding harpsichord music of the repertoire, and serve as the culmination of Bach’s monumental ClavierÜbung, a collection of harpsichord and organ works written between 1731 and 1741. The theme on which these ingenious variations are based is a beautifully simple, song-like melody. In this recording, it played on the rarely-encountered luteharpsichord (‘Lautenwerck’), an instrument that uses gut rather than metal strings.

 3  Rameau: Nouvelles suites de Pièces de clavecin – Suite in A minor-major – L’Enharmonique (‘The Enharmonic’)

Jean-Philippe Rameau ended his career as the resident composer to King Louis XV. As well as a large corpus of more than 60 pieces for harpsichord, he was known particularly for his operas and ballets. The wistfully chromatic L’Enharmonique gets its title from a significant moment just over halfway through the piece where the key of the music changes such that C sharps become ‘re-spelt’ as D flats.

 4  F. Couperin: Pièces de clavecin, Book 1 – 1st Ordere in G minor-major – La Milordine

Much like the Bach family, the Couperin family was a renowned musical dynasty, but François was to be the greatest among them, and is accordingly often given the moniker ‘le Grand’. Working for much of his life in the royal court, Couperin’s harpsichord works are contained in four books, divided into a sequence (or ‘ordre’) of 27 suites. La Milordine is an energetic gigue with a title that suggests a dedication to an unknown foreign nobleman.

 5  Byrd: Ut re mi fa sol la in F major

Byrd was the foremost musician of the Elizabethan era. Much of his innovative keyboard music was based on dances. The title of this fantasia refers to the first six notes of the major scale – a key theme of the piece, though two folk songs are also interwoven into the texture: first The Woods so wild, and later The shaking of the sheets.

 6  Buxtehude: Suite in G minor, BuxWV 242 – IV. Gigue

Bach famously walked two hundred miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ, and although it is his organ music for which Buxtehude is probably better known, his 18 keyboard suites show the more intimate, smaller-scale end of his compositional style.

 7  J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 846-869 – Fugue No. 2 in C minor, BWV 847

Bach’s two collections of preludes and fugues in every major and minor key stand as one of the great milestones in the history of keyboard music. The C minor Fugue is a perfect example of this complex form of which Bach became the undisputed master. The Fugue subject (theme) is passed around the four voices in intricate counterpoint and in various keys, interspersed with sequential episodes.

 8  Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonata in F minor, K. 466/L. 118/P. 501 – Andante

Domenico Scarlatti (the sixth son of Alessandro) wrote over five hundred keyboard sonatas, with the majority structured in a simple binary form (two sections, each of which are repeated). Though Italian by birth, Scarlatti was heavily influenced by the music and traditions of Spain where he spent much of his life working in the royal court. The key of F minor and this Sonata’s frequent descending three-note ‘sighs’ give a plaintively thoughtful character.

 9  Handel: Keyboard Suite No. 5 in E major, HWV 430 – IV. Air and Variations (‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’)

This famous theme and variations featured in a set of eight keyboard suites published by Handel in 1720. The bright key of E major gives a particularly effervescent quality to the music, with its simple harmony and phrase structure giving the work an immediate and straight-forward appeal. The source of the piece’s nickname is unknown, but probably attributable to a 19th century blacksmith turned music dealer in Bath.

 10  L. Couperin: Suite in A minor – V. La Piemontoise

Louis Couperin was uncle to the great François, and himself a skilled organist, harpsichordist and composer. The title of this work refers to someone from the Piedmont region of Italy. Despite being one of the most important European composers of his time, none of Louis Couperin’s 122 works were published in his lifetime, but rather exist in the Bauyn manuscript which dates from around 1690 and is housed in the French National Library.

 11  Soler: Harpsichord Sonata No. 48 in C minor

‘Padre’ (for he was a priest and Jeronymite monk) Antonio Soler was a Spanish Catalan composer writing in the mid-18th century. Greatly influenced by the work of Domenico Scarlatti (with whom he may have studied), Soler wrote over a hundred keyboard sonatas, possibly as part of his tuition of Don Gabriel, son of King Carlos III. The C minor Sonata has an unrelenting energy, with dramatic use of scales in octaves and some arresting harmonic twists and turns along the way.

 12  Purcell: Round O, Z. 684, ‘Abdelazer’

Originally written for strings as incidental music for Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer (or The Moor’s Revenge), this sprightly country dance is perhaps most recognisable today as the theme used by Benjamin Britten in his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. ‘Round O’ is an anglicisation of the French ‘rondeau’—a simple dance with a recurring refrain.

 13  J.S. Bach: Concerto in the Italian Style, BWV 971, ‘Italian Concerto’ – I. Allegro

Though a concerto is usually a work for solo instrument and orchestra, Bach adapts the form for solo harpsichord by exploiting the contrasting registers of a two-manual instrument. Having made a careful study of the work of composers such as Vivaldi, Albinoni and Torelli, Bach shows his mastery of the Italian mode of composition, while never losing sight of his own inimitable style.

 14  Forqueray: Suite No. 4 in G minor – V. La Sainscy

Antoine Forqueray was a virtuoso viola da gamba player who spent his career working as a musician in the court of Louis XIV, initially alongside the great Marin Marais. When Jean-Baptiste Forqueray published his father’s selection of character pieces for gamba and continuo, he also provided adaptations for solo harpsichord, many with titles of dedication to specific people.

 15  W.F. Bach: Fantasia in D minor, Fk. 19

Wilhelm Friedemann was J.S. Bach’s eldest son, born in 1710. Admired as a virtuoso harpsichordist and organist, his style is a fascinating blend of the traditions he had learned from his father and his own innovation. The dramatic, multisectioned Fantasias are a prime example of this, with the D minor alternating improvisatory, toccata-like passages with stricter fugal writing.

 16  Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonata in D major, K. 119/L. 415/P. 217 – Allegro

In contrast to the reflective F minor Sonata (track 8), this energetic—at times almost wild—D major Sonata shows the percussive potential of the harpsichord with several instances of block chords featuring as many as eleven notes. A technically demanding piece, this sonata also includes passages of rapid repetition, brisk hand crossing and expansive arpeggio patterns.

 17  Rameau: Nouvelles suites de Pièces de clavecin – Suite in G major-minor – VI. Les Sauvages

This piece originated as part of one of Rameau’s many opera-ballets. In the fourth act of Les Indes Galantes (1735), the stage is set for the ceremony of the Peace Pipe, taking place in an American forest on the border of the French and Spanish colonies. This stirring dance was inspired by a visit made to Louis XV by a group of six Native American chieftains who danced for the king after pledging their allegiance.

 18  J.S. Bach: Harpsichord Concerto in G minor, BWV 1058 – III. Allegro assai

One of Bach’s many responsibilities in Leipzig entailed directing the Collegium Musicum in its series of public concerts. The G minor Harpsichord Concerto was written for one such occasion, and is an adaptation of his earlier Violin Concerto (in A minor). This rollicking gigue is the conclusion of the Concerto.

 19  Rameau: Pièces de clavecin – Suite in E minor-major – IX. Tambourin

The Tambourin was a folk dance from the Provençal region particularly popular in the court of Louis XV. The music for this dance would usually combine a simple beat on a drum (tambour) accompanying a lively melody played on a pipe. Rameau represents the drum with repeated open fifths at the beginning of almost every bar, and the pipe-like nature of the melody with frequent decorative mordents.

 20  Poulenc: Suite française, FP 80 – VII. Carillon

Published in 1935, Poulenc’s Suite paid homage to the music of the 16th-century composer Claude Gervaise, but with Poulenc’s unmistakable musical whimsy showing through particularly in his approach to harmony and dissonance. The Suite was written to serve as incidental music for the play La Reine Margot. Originally scored for oboes, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, percussion and harpsichord, the composer himself arranged the suite for solo piano, but given the work’s background, performance on the harpsichord is both appropriate and effective!

 21  Handel: Keyboard Suite No. 7 in G minor, HWV 432 – II. Andante

Also part of the 1720 publication, this lyrical Andante is the second of six movements. Its gently embellished melody above a predominately single line accompaniment shows Handel’s elegant mastery of two-part counterpoint.

 22  J.S. Bach: Harpsichord Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056 – II. Largo

Whether or not this Concerto, like the G minor (track 18), is also a transcription of a lost violin (or perhaps oboe) concerto remains a point of scholarly contention, but it is certainly easy to imagine the lyrical, lullaby-like melody of this famous second movement on either instrument, singing out over the gentle pizzicato string accompaniment.

 23  Seixas: Keyboard Sonata No. 24 in D minor

José António Carlos de Seixas was one of the foremost composers in 18th-century Portugal and was soon recruited to the Chapel Royal in Lisbon where he would meet Domenico Scarlatti. Though Seixas’s total output is thought to have numbered some seven hundred sonatas, all but about one hundred were lost in a devastating earthquake in 1755. The D minor Sonata is a rumbustious affair, with octaves in the left hand accompanying furiously driving semiquaver broken chords and scales.

Peter Siepmann
© Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd

 

A short history of the harpsichord

The earliest harpsichords came from Italy, first appearing sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries. Italian harpsichords were single-manual instruments with a light construction and relatively little string tension.

Italian Harpsichord
Wide angle at point, strongly concave bentside

The first major development in harpsichord design took place in Flanders in the late 1500s. These harpsichords were heavier and more solid than the Italian models, and used longer strings which had greater string tension. Flemish makers developed a style of two-manual harpsichord, which allowed for a contrast of tone with the ability to couple the registers of both manuals for a fuller sound.

The Flemish style was improved upon in 18th century France. French harpsichord makers extended the range of the instrument from about four to about five octaves. Whilst following the Flemish in using two manuals, the French design used manuals to vary the combination of stops being used (that is, strings being plucked) rather than for transposition.

Harpsichord building in England achieved distinction in the 18th century. The ‘English-style’ harpsichords were known for their powerful tone and decorated cases. However, the feeling that these designs tend to overpower the music has led to very few modern instruments being modeled on them.

Flemish French English Harpsichord
Narrow angle at point, weakly concave bentside

German harpsichords, whilst similar in style to the French, had a special emphasis on achieving a variety of sonorities—perhaps because some of the most eminent German harpsichord makers were also builders of pipe organs.

The harpsichord was eventually surpassed in popularity by the piano. However, the early twentieth century saw a revival of interest in the harpsichord, and by the middle of the century there was a new-found interest in reproducing the designs and methods of earlier centuries. Generally, the French-type instrument is preferred to this day.

German Harpsichord
Bentside continues in a single curve to the point

Close the window