Gary Blaise Early Keyboard Instruments
Home About GB Early Keyboards Special Projects Articles

Why the Clavichord ? . . .

To understand why the clavichord enjoyed such pedagogical acclaim, it is only necessary to realize how unforgiving the instrument is. It is relatively inaccessible and more difficult to play than other keyboards. With just one moving part per note, the mechanically simple clavichord puts your fingers directly in contact with the strings via the keylevers the entire time the note is sounding. In this way the clavichord requires deliberate concentration and follow-through of touch for the entire duration of the note. By comparison, the various issues which constitute good tone quality in the harpsichord, piano, and organ have been automated in the mechanically more complex design of their actions. In these instruments, tonal continuity is handed over to the instrument instead of remaining with the player. The clavichord also offers a range of volume as well as expressive pitch distortion, or vibrato, effected through deliberate changes in finger pressure, not unlike the violin. This latter feature, .called bebung・, is peculiar only to the clavichord and due entirely to its utter simplicity.

The level of a player・s artistry is determined in a way by how well he can express himself within the limitations of his instrument, or, in the case of the harpsichord and organ, how well he articulates. The piano is just as automatic as the harpsichord and organ but with one less limitation: articulation is still vitally important but choices about volume must be made as well. When limitations are removed, the parameters of expression are increased and the job of the artist is greater. It is not just that the clavichord has, in addition to the piano・s volume dynamic, the bebung feature for which the player must make yet additional decisions; it is that, in addition to everything else, the fingers are in virtual contact with the strings, affecting how they continue sounding . . . or not. Quite simply, the clavichord is, as you might expect, relatively difficult to control. Unforgiving. If a particular musical parameter is not being attended, it is easily noticeable - no ten-second reverb or sustain pedal to smooth things over. It is for this simple and completely unmysterious reason that the clavichord has been recognized as a particularly wonderful practice instrument. In short, bringing a clavichord-learned piece to the organ is like going from standard shift to automatic transmission.

In the last century, pieces for piano, harpsichord, and organ have essentially been learned through intimate familiarization with how they feel and play on the instrument for which their performance was intended; 'practice-through-familiarization'. In the process we do not develop control over parameters which are controlled by the design features of the instrument. And who needs to anyway? Pieces for organ, after all, require no particular control over volume or tone quality as these things have been pre-determined by the design of the instrument. Besides, we eventually play these pieces musically and even go on to win important competitions with techniques which have been developed only up to the level of the instrument in question and no further. The clavichord, however, offers a sort of 'practice-through-over-qualification'. Just as weight-training over qualifies the runner such that he may compete with less effort, the clavichord similarly over qualifies the pianist, harpsichordist, and organist. This, of course, could explain why W.F. could start on the Trio Sonatas when he was thirteen years old. In addition to some great genetic material, he would have begun listening to the effect of himself playing the Inventions on something as treacherous as the clavichord at age nine. As Ralph Kirkpatrick wrote, 'Nothing has ever done more to sharpen my ear, not even the experience of choral singing, than my unremitting listening to what I was producing.'18 The clavichord is so very quiet that one must listen intently, one advantage, of course, is that no one will hear you practicing in the next room. It won・t wake the baby.

Later Pedal Instruments . . .

Pedals continued to be applied to the clavichord specifically for the purpose of organ practice and references to these instruments, some more meritorious than others, by notable organists and organologists continue well into the 19th century.22b My favorite reference, however, to what is perhaps a pedal clavichord is the addendum at the end of J.S.Bach・s death inventory which states that Johann Christian was given .three claviers with a pedal・ by his father as a gift before his death.19 At that time, there was some flexibility associated with the word .clavier・ which could be used generically to denote any keyboard, as in 'The Well Tempered clavier' (that is, 'The Well Tempered Keyboard Instrument'). However, it could also be used to mean .clavichord・ in particular as when the lexicographer, E.L. Gerber, describes his father・s pedal clavichord as .two claviers and pedal・, or when J.S.Halle uses the terms 'Flugeln' and 'Klaviern' in 1764 to specifically mean harpsichords and clavichords respectively20 or as in Daniel Turk's comment of 1789,21 mentioned earlier. As Bach・s inventory does not describe the harpsichords, lautenwerk,22 or the small spinet in any ambiguous terms, why would it suddenly use the generic meaning of .clavier・ to describe a specific keyboard? It seems very possible that J.C.・s newly inherited instruments included a pedal clavichord. J.C. was just 15 and still completing his musical education when his father died. Whether this instrument was truly given or scammed from the estate to avoid taxes, what better 'gift' with which to go out into the world alone and continue his studies at the home of his brother in Berlin than a set of clavichords22a.

The huge body of fine harpsichord literature which had accumulated by mid-18th century could also have benefited from a practice instrument as effective as the clavichord and it is certainly for this reason that the clavichord's organ range of four octaves grew to match that of the 18th century harpsichord. Even in plucky France, a culture not distinguished by its love for the clavichord, instrument inventories of 38 organists between 1617 and 1789 show that 8 owned a clavichord, presumably for practice, and that some owned two and even three.23 As early as 1713 the clavichord was recognized as an instrument in its own right by proponents of the 'empfindsammer stil', and most notably C.P.E. Bach, whose compositions exploit the clavichord's special expressive qualities and devices. The virtual extinction of the harpsichord commences with the French revolution of 1789. The French harpsichord, it seems, was guilty by association with the nobility. Their property was confiscated and many of their instruments were sent off to the music conservatory. Having run low on fuel one particularly cold winter, the instruments were burned to keep the classrooms warm. The tiny few which remain form the sole basis of our understanding of French harpsichord (or clavichord!) building. In England, and especially Germany, a growing enchantment with the well deserved merits of the piano contributed further towards the demise of the harpsichord and it would not re-emerge for 150 years. Interestingly, were it not for the clavichord's well established association with the organ, which in turn had become firmly bolted to the liturgy, it too may have gone to the cultural guillotine like the harpsichord. Instead, it continued to thrive well into the 19th century and the last surviving instrument that I know of, in an uninterrupted building tradition from 1404, is a big Swedish instrument by Adam Bergstedt dated 1832.

prevous page | next page