Historical praise for the harpsichord’s uniform dynamic level

Dear colleagues,

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,

Robert

Robert Adelson
Professor of Organology and Music History
Conservatoire de Nice/Université Côte d’Azur
127, avenue de Brancolar
06100 Nice
France
robert.adelson@ville-nice.fr
robertadelson@gmail.com

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Unlike modern players, I personally doubt that players of the baroque period found the fixed dynamic a disadvantage of the harpsichord, or spent their time finding work-arounds.

That said, it seems to be a reason why the invention of the pianoforte was so universally welcomed, and the harpsichord abandoned for a century or more.

Personally, I could never make the keyboard music of JS Bach work on the piano, and turned to the harpsichord with relief as soon as I met authentic copies.

While it is fashionable to pooh pooh the efforts of Glenn Gould nowadays, I think his approach was largely an honest attempt to make JSB work on the piano. After all, the only harpsichords he seems to have encountered were Serien-Instrumente. You dont have to like the results, but he did try.

David

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Robert,

This doesn’t exactly address your point, but I’ll share it anyhow. Our little group Sospiri in St. Paul did an all-Merula concert this afternoon. His compositions have so much variety, it wasn’t too much of one guy!

When it came time to talk to the audience about my instrument, I said they hadn’t invented the piano yet because they didn’t know they needed it.

In playing continuo for music like this, with 1-2 violins, a soprano, a violone and theorbo, I never felt limited by the range of dynamics of my instrument. It would have been handy to have a double, but even with my Flemish single with two 8’s controlled way out on the side, I was able to make register changes to compliment the extensive articulation effects I applied throughout.

If I were a far greater talent, living at the time, I doubt my inclination would have been to write about the dynamic range of the harpsichord, good or bad.

The music was written for the harpsichord, and so it works great.

Cheers

Bruce Jacobs
St. Paul, MN

Robert Robert Adelson
November 14

Dear colleagues,

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,

Robert

Robert Adelson
Professor of Organology and Music History
Conservatoire de Nice/Université Côte d’Azur
127, avenue de Brancolar
06100 Nice
France
robert.adelson@ville-nice.fr
robertadelson@gmail.com

Robert Adelson, musicologist and organologist
### Robert Adelson, musicologist and organologist

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Thank you for your comments, Bruce. And thanks also to David, with whom I share a fondness for Glenn Gould’s recordings.

I agree with both of you that harpsichordists in past centuries would not have been preoccupied by the harpsichord’s relatively uniform dynamic level. Musical instrument museums are filled with examples of instrument types that were quickly abandoned because their disadvantages were too great to attract enough adherents. Obviously, the harpsichord was not only seen as a useful instrument, but arguably the most admired one, for several centuries.

I find it interesting that Bruce mentions his experience playing with other musicians. It seems to me that when accompanying singers, or violinists, for example, the harpsichord’s uniform dynamic makes for a highly effective foil; remaining constant while the soloist makes crescendos and diminuendos. This is related to the Hubbard quote I gave in my initial posting: ‘we sense the endless tension between the implied nuance of the line and the meticulous but rigid statement’.

For most instrumental types one can find laudatory historical descriptions of their tone ; for example, comparing the sound of the viol to the human voice, etc. But it still surprises me that it is so difficult to find explicit praise from the period for the pure, unwavering dynamic of the harpsichord.

With all best wishes,

Robert