On Teaching

April 5, 2017

Gavin Black is director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center in Princeton, New Jersey. Gavin can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

Clavichord II

Last month’s column ended with a description of the fretted clavichord, a clavichord in which for at least part of the compass some adjacent pitches are grouped onto the same strings as one another. This practice has some musical implications. The most important compositional implication of fretting on clavichords is that certain groups of notes cannot be expected to sound together. On a very early clavichord that has some notes grouped in fours, there are even minor thirds that cannot be used as harmonic intervals. Designers of instruments have always worked with an awareness of what was going on in the musical culture as a whole, and the choices about what notes to group together were made, like tuning choices, in sync with what composers and performers needed or wanted. If the four notes grouped together were B-flat, B, C, C-sharp, then the minor third that was lost would be B-flat to C-sharp (D-flat). This interval was not likely to be used anyway in the era of meantone tuning: composers had already accepted that limitation because of the various perceived advantages of that tuning. Over the years, composers began to wish to use more intervals and to use them more freely and flexibly. That led both to the development of more flexible tuning systems and to the evolution of clavichord fretting towards, at first, smaller groupings, and then no fretting at all. On a fully unfretted clavichord, common in the mid- to late-18th and early 19th centuries, you can play any or all of the notes together you may wish, as on any harpsichord, piano, or organ. 

A fretted clavichord has the following features, some of which may be considered advantages—ones that were lost, as time went on, in exchange for the flexibility of the unfretted instrument. It has fewer strings than an unfretted clavichord with the same compass, and therefore needs less work to tune it. Since the fretting—in particular, how far apart the tangents playing different notes on the same strings are placed— determines some of the details of the tuning, the amount of judgment about temperament that a tuner must make is reduced. However, the possibility of tuning the same instrument in different temperaments from one time to another is also reduced.

There is an interesting tie-in there with the organ. Any harpsichord or piano can be retuned to any temperament whatsoever quite easily as part of a normal tuning. In fact, with a harpsichord, changing temperament is not an added bit of work at all in the grand scheme of things, since you have to retune the whole instrument frequently anyway. Re-tempering an organ is, like re-tempering a fretted clavichord, a long, involved, difficult project, not often undertaken.

Because they have fewer strings, fretted clavichords are smaller and lighter than unfretted ones. This was, and still can be, an advantage wherever space was limited and an advantage for travel. Smaller instruments tend to be louder than larger ones, and also to have a more pungent, intense sound that is often perceived as having more “character.” That concept is subjective and also subject to considerable variation in individual cases. 

The existence of this kind of fretting had a particular limited but important influence on keyboard-playing technique that can be used in teaching. We have seen that on a fretted instrument some notes cannot be played together. However, it is entirely possible to play those notes in quick succession, in either direction or in any order. Practicing playing two notes that are bound together on one string both promptly one after the other and cleanly is good training for clean, accurate, precisely timed playing in general. If you have access to a fretted clavichord, find two adjacent notes that use the same strings and try a few things with those notes. First play them back and forth in succession with one finger. The effect will be generously detached. Then switch to a non-disjunct fingering, but still play them detached. Then try making them closer and closer to legato, and also faster and faster in alternation. This will converge on being a trill. You will hear clearly if you violate the autonomy of the two notes by trying to play one before you have released the other.

But in sketching out that exercise I am getting a little bit ahead of myself. That is because of one feature that distinguishes the clavichord from all other keyboard instruments. At any other sort of keyboard instrument, the act of moving a key down from its resting position will always and inevitably cause the instrument to produce its sound. On harpsichord and organ, the pressing of a key will give the full normal sonority, regardless of anything whatsoever about how that pressing is done or who is doing it. It need not even be a human: ask Scarlatti’s cat. On the piano, a deliberate effort to push the key down slowly will give very little volume, perhaps even none. But no particular skill, technique, or experience is necessary to push a key down and make a note sound. On the clavichord, it is entirely possible to press a key down and get, not a musical note, but rather a sort of funny clicking or spitting noise. As with string or wind instruments, there is a particular technical requirement that underlies the basic act of getting the instrument to produce musical sound. A description of that technique can be elusive, partly because it seems to feel and act rather differently from one clavichord to another. The gist of it is that since the key—really, the tangent—remains in contact with the string while the string is sounding, the finger pressure on the key has to start out right and remain right. If it wavers, the tangent is likely to rebound briefly from the string and then damp the sound or fail to make the sonority happen in various other ways.    

There are five clavichords on which I have done a lot of practicing over the last several years. On one of them, a modern-built instrument that deviates a fair amount from historical practice, it is fairly easy to produce real tone. Only by violating in a pretty extreme way some of the technical imperatives that I will mention below can you make the instrument not give a legitimate basic sound. On at least two of the others, including an instrument built in the eighteenth century, I have to focus very intensely and do everything right that I possibly know how to do right in order to get consistent basic sound. As I mentioned briefly in a recent column about the fifth finger, even then I have recurrent trouble making a beautiful, full sound with the fifth finger of either hand. (And I am a pretty adept keyboard player with a tremendous amount of experience with clavichord in general and with these particular instruments.)  

Most of the time, the more firmly you play, the easier it is to get legitimate tone out of a clavichord. However the sound that you get by playing hard enough to be certain of a real and sustained tone is not often the most beautiful sound that the instrument can make. Furthermore, needing to play firmly all of the time restricts the expressive use of dynamics. (It might also tend to throw the pitch of notes off.) More useful is this: the farther out on the keys you play, the more likely you are to produce real sound. Playing at the outer edge of the key also increases rather than limits control over every aspect of the sound, including dynamic nuance. Tone production is also aided by keeping the hand relaxed and by using hand positions that permit playing the keys from above, not from the side. All of these things are good and useful in organ and harpsichord playing as well. But in those contexts they only increase control over the subtleties of attack and release sounds. On the clavichord they are necessary for basic tone production. This is probably the essence of why the clavichord has always been considered a good practice and preparation instrument. It requires you to do, and therefore reinforces your awareness of doing or not doing, things that are very good but not as obvious in playing other instruments.


Acquiring my first clavichord

I had never actually played a clavichord, not even individual notes, before the day when I took delivery nearly 35 years ago of the first clavichord I ever owned. The instrument was a small late-Renaissance style fretted clavichord with a wonderful dry resonant sound. I still have it, and it is still a favorite of mine. Not surprisingly, as I tried to play it that day I had no idea what I was doing. And that lack of any idea manifested itself in my not being able to get a real musical sound or, on some notes, a recognizable pitch from the instrument. As best I remember, I panicked a bit about whether there was something wrong with the instrument, which I had bought used based on a description and a recommendation, not on having heard, seen, or played it. Then I also panicked about whether I was or wasn’t someone who could ever learn to control something like this. But I kept playing, and as I did so, I found myself reinventing that which we call “early fingering.” 

In an initially desperate effort to get sound out of the instrument, I started playing out near the edges of the keys. Then I realized that I had to keep my hand in a comfortable position, not twisted appreciably, especially not twisted outward, which locks the wrist. I also realized that it was difficult to get the fifth finger to make a good sound. Meanwhile, the combination of playing out on the keys and the necessary hand position made it awkward or sometimes impossible to use the thumbs. This began to add up to an unsystematic but pretty close version of the sorts of fingering that we see in 16th and 17th century manuscripts and treatises. This in turn suggested to me that perhaps those fingerings were at least as much about instrument and technique, that is, technique for creating sound, as they were about music and interpretation, though they deeply influence the latter.

This is how I came to acquire that clavichord. In the early spring of 1982 I visited Buffalo, New York, in order to attend as an auditor a series of master classes given by the pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski. He was and still is a musical hero of mine. I believe I had traveled significantly farther than anyone else who came to the week of events, and the staff members at SUNY Buffalo were sort of impressed and pleased by that. They were friendly and welcoming to me, helping me find a room and so on. In fact, I was asked if I wanted to ride along to the motel on the first day that I was there to pick up Mr. Horszowski and his wife, Bice Costa. Of course I went along, scared, shy, and nervous. In the car I explained who I was: a student of harpsichord and organ, hoping to make a career as a player and teacher. Horszowski, almost ninety years old and one of the great late-Romantic pianists with a career beginning in the 19th century, frowned a bit and said, “there is one beautiful keyboard instrument that you do not play.” I sunk as deep as I could into my seat in the car and began to figure out how to respond to the inevitable chiding about not playing the piano. After all, that was the late 19th-century perspective. It was also pretty much the late 20th-century perspective, and I had fielded that question many times, though never from such an august source. 

He then emphatically and joyfully exclaimed the word “clavichord!” 

I mumbled something about how I was planning to learn clavichord, but hadn’t found exactly the right instrument yet, etc., trying not to feel like too much of an early music fraud. The immediate and most important lesson for me was not to make assumptions about what other people’s perspectives were. The longer lesson was that perhaps I ought to get involved with the clavichord. I believe that it was actually during that week that I started making phone calls looking for a good used clavichord that I could afford to buy. That brought me to the day I acquired my first such instrument.


Playing the clavichord   

In playing the clavichord, it is possible to introduce a sort of vibrato to the sound. This is unique among keyboard instruments, and it is another consequence of the tangent’s remaining in contact with the string for as long as you hold a note. If you change the pressure on the key and thus the pressure that the tangent puts on the string, you will change the amount that the string is stretched and thus change its pitch. You can change this pressure by pushing a bit farther down after you have played a note and then relaxing that extra push, doing this back and forth at the speed that you want for your vibrato, for as long as you wish your vibrato to last. You can also do it by keeping your ostensible finger pressure steady, but sliding the finger back and forth along the length of the key. This latter technique seems to be less common, certainly in practice today, perhaps historically. It usually results in a gentler vibrato. That is, it produces a gentle vibrato, whereas the up-and-down technique can produce a stronger one. There is certainly a risk of the vibrato’s being strong enough to come across as out-of-tune, and it is up to the performer to control this appropriately. The historical record leaves it unclear how widely this vibrato was applied at different times and in different places. However, it was an important and well-documented part of the expressive technique of the clavichord in the late 18th century, as the piano was gaining importance and the harpsichord and clavichord were waning. 

The photograph on the preceding page shows the keyboard of an 18th-century clavichord that I was lucky to acquire a few years ago. It is unsigned and undated. The fairly wide compass, four and a half octaves, from CC to f′′′, suggests that it is not from too early in the century. It is double-fretted, which suggests a date that is not too late. It is probably from the second quarter of the 18th century from somewhere in the German-speaking regions of Europe. This instrument was once owned by the American instrument dealer and collector Morris Steinert, who exhibited it at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The instrument is normally housed at the Princeton Early Keyboard Center studio.

These two columns are just a very brief introduction to the clavichord. I strongly recommend sitting at an instrument, whenever you can track one down, and just playing, bearing in mind the few technical matters that I mentioned above. Like me years ago, at first, you (and your students) may think that it is impossible. But that will melt away rather naturally with patient experience.

I direct your attention to a few further resources about the clavichord. There is a book by Bernard Brauchli called The Clavichord, which is a thorough and well  laid-out introduction to the history of the instrument, including iconography and written mentions. It is heavily illustrated and a magnificent reference. There is a publication called De Clavicordio, which is the proceedings of the International Clavichord Symposium. It has been published every two years or so since 1994 and is full of interesting material. The website of the Boston Clavichord Society (http://www.bostonclavichord.org) has information about the instrument and about activities in that region. A highlight of that website is a series of videos featuring performer and teacher Peter Sykes. One of those videos is a concise demonstration of two instruments, one fretted and one unfretted. It covers some of what I have written about here, with the advantage of allowing you to see and hear what is going on. The website also has an impressively thorough clavichord discography.

The Australian instrument maker Carey Beebe has a website that is a cornucopia of information about harpsichords, clavichords, and related matters. It is well written and organized; see www.hpschd.nu/clav.html. From there you can navigate to anything else on the site. The website of instrument builder Keith Hill has an interesting essay about clavichords: keithhillharpsichords.com/clavichords/. I was struck by a comment that I found there, and I quote it to close for this month:


At their very best, clavichords should have the sound of thought. If this idea is new to you, focus for a while on your own thoughts and calculate how “loud” they are. Thought sounds extremely intense when empassioned with meaning.

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