Gary Blaise Early Keyboard Instruments
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Nineteenth Century . . .

The clavichord was particularly well suited as a practice instrument for the early piano literature simply because its action and volume dynamic relate more closely to the piano than to the organ or harpsichord. However, beyond Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, all of whom owned clavichords, the capability of the instrument to render the musical intentions of 19th century piano repertoire seems to diminish inversely with the need for sustain pedal. Mazurkas, yes. Mephisto Waltz, no. Although the range of the clavichord had grown to six octaves by the first part of the 19th century, the piano soon overtook even this range. The clavichord's final death knell was sounded by the special economic miracle of the piano: that it lends itself very well to mass production; a feature not at all shared by the harpsichord or clavichord. I imagine that a small factory-made piano would have cost about the same or less than a hand-made clavichord. Besides, you could play all that new Romantic stuff on the piano, and . . . you could hear it without even listening!

By 1840, reed organs had become a popular domestic practice instrument for organists despite the fact that their deep action and indistinct sound could offer little in the way of practice for all but the most basic hymnody. Even the popularity of these permanently tuned instruments began to decline, however, around 1920 as mass production techniques were ever more successfully applied to the piano. Some reed organ companies actually became piano manufacturers such as Story & Clark and Mason & Hamlin. Kimball had sold over 400,000 reed organs when it stopped production in 1922.

Twentieth Century . . .

Increasing demand lowered the cost of grand pianos, which could now be found in a large number of homes. Now pianists could afford to practice conveniently upon not just a spinet piano, but upon something much closer to the actual instrument of performance. Organists had been convenienced when electric motors were first applied to the breathing of organs in the 1880's,24 about the same time a safe enough form of gas mantle lighting was applied to the illumination of churches and large halls. Electric lighting, and perhaps some concept of central heating, occurred after 1913, greatly facilitating organ practice. While these developments facilitated practice on the performance instrument itself, it seems somehow sad that the overall experience of the instrument, at least in recital, had been diminished by the elimination of the human element in wind production. Further experiential degradation-accompanied-by-convenience began in the 1930ˇ¦s with the first electric organs which employed tone generators in permanently tuned instruments which were affordable and could be easily located at home, places of amusement, and, unfortunately, churches. A model introduced by Laurens Hammond in 1935 sold 3000 units by 1937. Now organists could practice at home on 'an instrument resembling the organ which sounds by means of electricity'25 Okay, I admit that an instrument which does not require tuning is like a picnic without bumble bees, and that an organ recital without hand-raised wind is, at worst, like a day without sunshine, but I'm sorry, an organ without pipes is like a body without a temperature.25a

By 1960. other keyboardists, too, were offered electric instruments upon which they could practice more conveniently away from the actual instruments of performance. (We appear to have come full circle when electric instruments, in the 20th century, have attempted to do what the clavichord did in the 15th century; offer keyboardists a more convenient and less expensive way of practicing at home.) Certainly the electric keyboard's freedom from tuning is a real convenience, but is it worth more than the control one gains from the clavichord? And is it a useless thing to have to learn to listen and tune your instrument? And what about character and tone quality? If 'you are what you eat', does your tonal aesthetic 'become what you hear'?

The Early Music Movement . . .

A resurgence of interest in early music began at the turn of the 20th century propelled largely by the enthusiasm of Arnold Dolmetsch. Dolmetsch, who possessed a great appreciation for the clavichord, worked for the Chickering Piano Company between 1905 and 1910 during which time they produced a remarkably well informed clavichord and virginal designed by him. In 1918 Dolmetsch established his own workshop at Haslemere, England, the site of the first early music festival in 1925. Although Pleyel, Neupert, and other companies continued to manufacture early keyboards, the Chickering experiment helped to confirm that early keyboard making would be most successful as the traditionally based cottage industry it always had been. Hubbard and Dowd opened just such a workshop between 1949 and 1958. What followed was a great elevation of the craft of harpsichord making and an explosion of useful keyboard organology. Only about 1982, after everyone had their glorious French double, could other early keyboards be considered as well, including the clavichord.

One problem which has plagued the clavichord in this century is the notion that instruments which do not conform to the economics of recital-giving are somehow invalid. This is unfortunate because public performance was never on the clavichord's agenda and quietness is one of its most attractive features. In fact, the instrument's hypnotic effect can only be experienced by a small group and never a harpsichord-sized audience of 100 let alone a piano-sized audience of 1000. Consider the quality of experience enjoyed by C.P.E. Bachˇ¦s diner guest, Charles Burney, in 1772:

'The instant I entered his (C.P.E.'s) house, he conducted me upstairs, into a large and elegant music room, furnished with pictures, drawings, and prints of more than one hundred and fifty eminent musicians; among whom there were many Englishmen, and original portraits, in oil, of his father and grandfather. After I had looked at these, Mr. Bach was so obliging as to sit down to his Silberman clavichord, and favorite instrument, upon which he played three or four of his choicest and most difficult compositions, with the delicacy, precision, and spirit for which he is so justly celebrated among his countrymen. In the pathetic and slow movements, whenever he had a long note to express, he absolutely contrived to produce, from his instrument, a cry of sorrow and complaint, such as can only be affected upon the clavichord, and perhaps by himself.' 'After diner, which was elegantly served, and cheerfully eaten, I prevailed upon him to sit down again at the clavichord, and he played, with little intermission, till near eleven oˇ¦clock at night. During this time he grew so animated and possessed (Burney's italics), that he not only played, but looked like one inspired. His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance. He said, if he were to be set to work frequently, in this manner, he should grow young again.'f26

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