I am hoping that your collective wisdom can shed some light on a music-historical question that has always intrigued me: Can anyone suggest any historical sources (from treatises, correspondence, or the like) that present the relative difficulty of the harpsichord to vary dynamics by touch in a positive light?
Of course, the comparative difficulty of the harpsichord to vary dynamics by touch has usually been understood as a drawback, with writers taking pains to explain how a skilled harpsichordist is able to compensate for the inability to produce dynamic nuances by manipulating textural and rhythmic aspects of the music to create varied effects. For example, François Couperin wrote in his L’Art de toucher le clavecin:
‘As the sounds of the harpsichord are determined, each one specifically, and consequently incapable of increase or diminution, it has hitherto appeared almost impossible to maintain that one could give any ‘soul’ to this instrument.’ (‘Les sons du clavecin étant décidés, chacun en particulier ; et par conséquent ne pouvant être enflés, ni diminués : il a paru presqu’insoutenable, jusqu’à présent, qu’on put donner de l’âme à cet instrument.’) Couperin then proceeds to explain how the harpsichordist can use rhythmic and other means to artfully compensate for the inherent deficiency of the harpsichord.
However, in my opinion, throughout most of the harpsichord’s long history, the instrument’s beautifully pure and unwavering sonority was seen in a positive light. In that respect, the harpsichord was not alone: some other important instruments of the time shared its relatively unfluctuating dynamic level, notably the recorder. In other words, for much of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, there existed a sonic ideal, at least for certain instruments, of an unchanging dynamic level, free from the swelling and shrinking of sound possible with the voice, or on wind and bowed string instruments.
This aesthetic ideal of the pure and unwavering dynamic for certain instruments is mostly proven by the long and rich history of music for the harpsichord and the recorder. However, this seems to be mostly an implicit and unstated ideal that is rarely mentioned in historical sources. For a modern expression of the same sentiment, one can find no better formulation than that of Frank Hubbard:
‘All art gains force and intensity by the compression of its matter by its means, the reduction of nature to order. It is precisely the statement of a sinuous and elusive musical line in the geometric terms of the harpsichord which provides the keyboard works of the baroque with their tension. More than any other style the baroque depends on the conflict of substance and medium. Carved into the rigid stones of its architecture we find the flowing lines of natural forms, on the static panels of its painting we feel the exuberance of motion, and upon hearing its music we sense the endless tension between the implied nuance of the line and the meticulous but rigid statement. To express every implication is to deflate the music utterly.’ (Three Centuries of Harpsichord Building (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), p. 127)
I would be very grateful to know of any such praise for the harpsichord’s pure and unwavering dynamic in period sources. (By posing this question I do not intend to (re)open any can of worms about whether or not the harpsichord is actually capable of dynamic nuance, as I think that is a relatively settled matter!)
With all best wishes,