Clavichord Technique in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Clavichord Technique in the Mid-Twentieth Century
by Joan Benson

De Clavicordio I, Proceedings of the International Clavichord Symposium, Atti del Congresso Internazionalie sul Clavicordo, Magnano, 1993

A hundred years ago Arnold Dolmetsch restored, played and then copied his large eighteenth century clavichord. His concerts on this instrument took him from England to California. Fifty years later, there were a small number of clavichord players and builders in Europe and the United States.

Most string keyboardists, however, still believed in the evolution of the piano, which, at best, had not yet lost its colourful, subtle expressiveness. Music by Bach and Mozart was often played by overlapping notes into a long, sweet legato. Similarly, the clavichord was approached in terms of a singing, shaded, legato sound. Both players and builders em phasized the pressing and holding down of keys. In fact, any attempt at clear articulation was obscured by the sluggish release and flickering after-noise of the instruments themselves.

In museums, playable clavichords were often lightly strung. Pianissimos were possible, but it was easy to overstrike strings and force them out of pitch. Fingertips, poised on keys, had to pull inward and forward so as not to wobble the keys or push them down too far.

Mid-twentieth-century harpsichordists and organists rarely played the clavichord in public. Followers of Wanda Landowska, for example, used an explosive finger-thrust technique that suited her heavy-Pleyel harpsichord but was useless on the clavichord. In fact, Landowska considered the latter instrument “primitive”.

In England, however, clavichords were popular among a certain elite. Those of Tom Goff, for example, were loved for their gentle melancholy and required a very light, legato touch. It was customary for English players to use Bebung on every possible note. Beginners were taught to play Bach’s E Major Two-Part Invention with a constant vibrato, thus slowing the tempo to a snail’s pace. in other countries, however, the Bebung was maintained as a special effect.

In Portugal, Santiago Kastner – who would eventually influence a number of today’s clavichordists – explored a wide range of forgotten literature, emphasizing that of Iberia. He used his strong, well-padded fingers to produce vigorous, full sounds on the larger, deeper-actioned but inarticulate clavichords of Merzdorf and Jacobus Verwolf.

It was in Germany and Austria that the clavichord was more often played by harpsichordists. Occasionally, there were traces of the old Berlin school. Fritz Neumeyer, for example, taught a beginner’s exercise that came from that city’s past. Five fingers are lightly poised on consecutive lower keys. The one finger depresses a single key as slowly as possible, until the chosen pressure point is reached, maintained, and finally, released. Other fingers remain immobile. Most important, the player must produce no sound. This teaches one to be super-aware of the key lever and the increasing pressure of tangent against strings. One learns to interact sensitively and precisely with the instrument. Neumeyer described this as an elephant walking on clouds. In Empfindsamkeit music particularly, this fingertip aliveness was essential for dynamic control.

Another German, Alfred Kreutz, is said to have shaded so expressively that he brought tears to his listener’s eyes. After the harsh Second World War, however, he abandoned the clavichord.

Actually, in the mid-twentieth century, the clavichord was more of a personal instrument or for several listeners sitting near the soundboard. Ralph Kirkpatrick, for example, preferred the clavichord for himself, although he used the harpsichord for concerts. He played with a quiet hand, starting his finger strokes from key level. In the case of the concert pianist Claudio Arrau, the clavichord was used to revise his technique in mid-life. My own guru, the concert pianist Edwin Fischer, considered the clavichord a lovely, old-fashioned instrument impractical for performance.

Today, the situation has changed.

Firstly, possibilities of articulation and speed have been admirably explored by both clavichord makers and players. Colour and dynamics, however, have sometimes been neglected.

Secondly, excellent copies of clavichords from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries are now available, as well as the literature written for them. Consequently, a current player needs to be technically versatile, in order to adjust quickly to differences, for example, in fingering, key size, and key dip. For it is quite inappropriate to play an Arnault de Zwolle in the same way as a Hubert.

Thirdly, the clavichord is rarely used today as a beginner’s instrument or for personal enjoyment alone. More often, it is thought of as one of the last early keyboards to be resurrected for performance.

This introduces technical complexities. For the technique used to play for a large audience is not quite the same as that used in playing for oneself. In order for the instrument to be heard, subtleties such as those of the Bebung must sometimes be exaggerated or ignored. Actually, the acoustics and size of each room, as well as the number of listeners, require a player of the clavichord to vary his technique accordingly.

With performance foremost today, builders and players emphasise louder, brighter sounds and heavier actions able to withstand the force of more aggressive playing. The clavichord of the 1980-90’s is definitely less a symbol of nostalgia than in the mid-century. For in today’s world, many people cannot bear silence. They often prefer a constant background of sound, and this is easy to find. Consider the paradox of listening to a clavichord recording in a car or aeroplane.

In contrast, picture Graf von Durchheim’s mid-century retreat center of farm houses in the Black Forest. Here, a shy recluse of a young man introduced the clavichord to individuals, encouraging them to find their own sounds. When a burly, burnt-out German businessman innocently went to his first “clavichord hour”, he returned with a radiance and refreshing sense of wonder that reflected his complete conversion to this gentle instrument.

In a way, the clavichord can encourage a technique for life – a way to stay sensitive and human – in a rushed, computerized world. Would it not be wise to introduce this instrument to others in a quiet, beautiful setting such as Magnano? Surely, for our own group already in tune with the clavichord, the experience of being in this quiet village has not only brought us closer to each other but to the essence of the clavichord itself.

“Clavichord Technique in the Mid-Twentieth Century”
by Joan Benson

De Clavicordio; Proceedings of the International Clavichord Symposium; Magnano 1993; Bruachli, Bruachli, and Galazzo, ed.; Atti del Congresso Internazionale sul Clavicordo; Regione Piemonte, Assessorato Beni Culturali e Ambientali; Istituto Per I Beni Musicali In Piemonte

Comments are closed.