Applications are still open for Arts Camp and Arts Academy. Programs fill quickly—submit your app today!

Bach—Piano, Harpsichord or Clavichord?

by Rosalyn Tureck

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

Some people maintain that Bach must be played on instruments of his time, others say he must be played on modern instruments. First, I should like to state that I do not hate the harpsichord and clavichord! I have played both since my early teens and have always loved them. I believe that the subject is not one for endless controversy, but one where greater knowledge and understanding are needed.

The greatest fuss has been made over the harpsichord versus the piano. Why hasn't an equal amount of fussing occurred over the use of the clavichord also all instrument of Bach's time? I think that in all the worry about the harpsichord, the fact that Bach was a German has been somewhat lost sight of. Germany was slower than the rest of Western Europe in becoming a modern and cosmopolitan country. It brooded under a religious mantle for a longer time than France or England, with the result that most of its music making, creative or recreative, was for, or in, the church and home. The instrument for the church was obviously the organ. The instrument for the home was, in Germany, the clavichord. The great court concerts and entertainments were rare compared with the activities of the French court. In the French court the harpsichord reigned. English, French and Italian tastes were strongly for the harpsichord. The Germans loved the organ and the intimate singing tone of the clavichord. It was much more to the taste of the Germans' mystical religious and home life than the sharper-toned harpsichord.

Who, in fact, was the great harpsichord composer of the time? — it was Couperin. He was to the harpsichord what Chopin was to the piano. He developed its possibilities to the utmost : the very structure, figure and ornament of his works are so intrinsically developed from harpsichord technique and its possibilities of sonority that I would be the first to say "this is harpsichord music, and is best on the harpsichord". I would never play Couperin on the piano. Yet he himself complains, in his own excellent treatise "L'art de toucher le Clavecin", that the harpsichord is an inexpressive instrument and that to give it a more yielding character he has conceived certain playing devices to give the illusion of expressiveness. One of the most important is "l'aspiration"—a rhythmic change where one plays the note late and which, by loosening the steady beat from its moorings, creates a sense of greater fluidity. It is common knowledge that the harpsichord, with its plucked tone, was regarded by musicians of that time as lacking in expressiveness. In this respect it had a place far below the clavichord, one of the most expressive and sensitive of Western instruments. The main advantage of the harpsichord was in its brilliance due to the plucked tone, and in its later days in expanded register and the possibilities of changes of quality through registration. These changes. however, were mechanical, dependent on pulling a knob or pushing a pedal, as on the organ. The harpsichord was, therefore, the very antithesis of the clavichord where all tone and colour were achieved directly through the fingers, and the entire sense of connection with this instrument was extremely personal.

People growing up within the last twenty or thirty years have been exposed mainly to the harpsichord school, and cannot help but make the artificial division between the impersonal and the personal. stressing the impersonal because the harpsichord as such enforces this impression and must, because of its very nature. If these same people had equal experience in listening to a clavichord, they could complete a very important side of their understanding of Bach. Unfortunately, I find that the greater majority of those who are -interested in early instruments and music have had little contact with the clavichord, and many students and members of listening audiences who have often heard a harpsichord have never heard a clavichord. Yet the clavichord was equally, and in Germany more generally, employed in Bach's day along with the harpsichord. Add to this the facts that Couperin was the harpsichord composer of his day, that French and Italian interests brought the harpsichord to its high point of fashion, and one begins to wonder why this instrument is so singled out in our time for Bach playing. If the harpsichord were revived for the playing of Couperin and the French composers of his time, this would be understandable, for their music without the harpsichord remains in a twilight sleep except for a few interested composers and students. Bach, however, has lived and will live no matter what instruments are around.

I believe that the main reasons for singling out the harpsichord are practical ones. It has a wide register and can be heard, to some extent, in a small concert hall; whereas the clavichord cannot be heard at all outside of a normal sized room and is therefore absolutely useless in our modern concert life. And yet, when a harpsichord is played in a large hall, who can say he really hears it? Most of its subtleties are lost in any concert room seating over 250 or so; and in a large hall, or with even a small chamber orchestra, one can hardly hear it at all. Indeed, many listeners associate the harpsichord with a regular or irregular twang which they like or dislike as the case may be. The music of Bach is too rich and too fascinating for one to be content with only a rustle from a major part; and I cannot believe that the practice of playing harpsichords in concert halls is fair either to Bach or to harpsichords.

With regard to authenticity, the either-or thinking appears again. The harpsichord is right because it was used in Bach's time; the piano is wrong because it was not. Is art really as simple as that? It is, of course, so safe to play Bach on a harpsichord: there is simply no question about one's intentions, and there is often no question about how one is playing Bach, as long as one plays it on a harpsichord.

I doubt that Bach would have been so pleased about this emphasis on the harpsichord as Couperin would have been. As for historically correct sound, how can one entertain the thought of authenticity when a harpsichord plays with an orchestra of string players who, whether they use some version of a curved bow or not, are playing the violin with a technique, tone, style and bowings derived from the study of Paganini, Bruch and Tchaikowsky, and with an orchestral style mostly formed by modern orchestras and harmonic music? — to say nothing of ornamentation which, for the most part, is excruciatingly wrong. Aside from the fact that the harpsichord can hardly be heard, the combination of modern violin playing and harpsichord is utterly anachronistic.

It is too easy to he lulled into a false security on seeing (or even in performing on) a harpsichord. Harpsichordists do not always play the harpsichord in its own terms: they often make a simple transfer of piano playing to it. Harpsichordists as well as other instrumentalists bring with them musical attitudes, concepts, unconscious psychological values which are the result of 19th century music and ideas. By this I have in mind larger matters than crescendo and diminuendo. I mean, as one instance, that the concept of sonata, progress, dynamic growth is brought to the harpsichord, where it does not belong in Bach, just as easily as to any other instrument. Another instance: one can double on the harpsichord in typical octave piano style, and few people will be the wiser. Doublings were indeed employed on the harpsichord in Bach's time: but the style of doubling was very different from that of the octave doublings of Liszt and Busoni in their transcriptions of Bach. On the other hand, there is the harpsichordist who is too sparse because of superficial knowledge of ornamentation and figured bass, and little or no identification with the quality of style implicit in Bach's form and structures.

The use of the harpsichord is, therefore, by no means enough; and it has proved in many instances, instead of realising the composer's intentions, to bring about distortion. Sonority is sound—sound is not music. Music is highly organised material; the style of organisation communicates meaning, musical and extra-musical meanings. The medium for reproducing music is sound. Therefore sound of course plays an inevitable part; but does Bach's music depend so much on specific sonorities that all else is lost if these specific sonorities are not duplicated? This must be answered.

We must recognise it, whether we like it or not, that concern with precise sonority is a 19th century heritage. Thus the orchestra developed its varied choirs of strings, brass, wind, percussion to the extent we know today. Composers such as Berlioz and Debussy became obsessed with the colour possibilities. Chopin could not write successfully for any other instrument than the piano, Paganini for the violin. From composers who wrote mainly or best for a particular instrument or combination, it was a natural step to associate certain types of music with specific instruments. Bach never suffered from these limitations. Have we not enough examples of the range of Bach's abilities in all fields of music, solo, instrumental, choral, orchestral, and all sorts of combinations? And have we not enough examples of his numerous transcriptions from one combination to another, from one instrument to another? By insisting on specific sonorities in Bach, the 20th century imposes the limitations of the 19th century on this vast, unlimited genius. Must Bach be throttled and confined to an imitation of a single sonority when Bach himself moved so freely from instrument to instrument? This concern with sound duplication is an imposition of our time upon Bach. And since we are so mechanically minded, we have been duped into thinking that duplication is the real thing. Duplication is at best the concern of the historical teacher, at worst it is mechanical. The appalling thing is that duplication can become a desired end in art.

I feel that the study of earlier instruments and techniques is invaluable and that it should be an integral part of the curriculum in every music school. I would go further and prescribe harpsichord, clavichord and organ for pianists; viols and their techniques of bowing and tone production for strings; and study of the dances of the suites for all. But we must not confuse historical scholarship with living art. If we long for duplication of periods in art and make it a standard of art, is this not the greatest nostalgia of all, far exceeding that of the 19th century, ending in utter sterility? If the aim for duplication in art is continued, then we must duplicate Mozart pianos and develop specialists in that; we must re-manufacture Chopin's piano, which is very different from the piano of today. Performance then becomes a closed series of identifications based on material factors such as instrument specification and imitation. A sorry end indeed, for end it would be.

We must make distinctions between art and scholarship, and respect each for its contribution. But it is folly to confuse the two. Scholarship is by no means divorced from art—and in Bach especially it is an essential need. But it is a means for the artist, not an end.

No great art dictates its terms to the letter. If so, it would be so confined to its own period that it would be incommunicable to other times. There are subjects which can be the pets of scholars but they remain within their own circle, contributing little and leading nowhere.

Let us face the fact that 200 years from now instruments will be different. What will people do then? With the accumulation of great music since, say, 1600—five hundred years of music—would it be seriously suggested that performance be filed in compartments of preserved instruments and techniques? Recently I was on a panel discussing The Relation between Composer and Performer. I asked another member of the panel. Mr. William Schuman, the composer, what he would prefer for performers of 200 years hence to do about his music. Were they to play it on the instruments of our time or theirs? He answered with the greatest conviction : "But of course on theirs". There is no more sure way of killing a composer than of confining him to his own period.