harpsichord (a nice specimen is shown here) is an instrument misunderstood
by many, even though its revival in modern times has been very successful.
Not only is it sometimes still considered an inferior ancestor of
the piano, it is also criticised for its mechanical lack of refinement
and sometimes just for being an "old" and "outdated" instrument.
problem is that it is being unfairly compared to the piano. This
is not only unnecessary but serves only to prevent music-lovers
from experiencing the unique qualities of the harpsichord.
The Harpsichord Concerti
for Solo Harpsichord:
D minor, BWV 1052
E major, BWV 1053
D major, BWV 1054
A major, BWV 1055
F minor, BWV 1056
2 Recorders in F major, BWV 1057
G minor, BWV 1058
D minor, BWV 1059 - Lost)
for 2 Harpsichords: in
C minor, BWV 1060
C major, BWV 1061
C minor, BWV 1062
for More Harpsichords Than You Ever Thought Possible: for
3 Harpsichords in D minor, BWV 1063
3 Harpsichords in C minor, BWV 1064
4 Harpsichords in C minor, BWV 1065 (arr. from Vivaldi Op.3,
the piano, the harpsichord has its strings plucked, not hammered,
giving rise to the tinkling, chinkling quality of its voice. Notes
cannot be sustained long, and variation of tone and dynamic loudness
is severely limited by this mechanical principle. Having said that,
the harpsichord's tone is very different from the piano - not surprisingly,
its effect is not unlike that of a guitar, capable of great intensity
yet also of quite meditation.
above all, the harpsichord is distinctly Baroque. This is something
the piano, which did not exist until around the end of the Baroque
era, cannot in essence duplicate. The voice of the harpsichord immediately
evokes an aura of a time long gone. Well-known early music pioneer
and harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt suggests that "most pieces of
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seem to want to speak instead
of sing - though this is too simplistic a statement - whereas in
the nineteenth century one thinks primarily about singing in long,
sustained phrases." (Sherman, Bernard D. "Inside Early Music." Oxford
Gregorian chant of the Middle Ages, it is a signature of its particular
era. Yet in Bach's writing for the harpsichord (or for that matter
any instrument), his ability to sculpt timeless melodies combines
its 'Baroque-ness' with the immortality of the greatest art.
Bach's harpsichord concerti were probably not "originally" written
for the harpsichord. In many cases, these concerti are simply transcriptions
of lost concerti for other non-keyboard instruments. The well-known
violin concerti, BWV 1041 - 1043, for example, are the "twins" of
the harpsichord concerti, BWV 1058, 1054 and 1062. The concerto
BWV 1059, unfortunately, only survives as a nine-bar fragment, although
the outer movements have fortunately survived in Cantata BWV 35.
is interesting therefore, to listen to the same concerto in another
(authentic - since it is also by Bach!) form. In some cases, the
surviving harpsichord transcriptions have been used to reconstruct
such beautiful works as the lively oboe d'amore concerto in A major,
BWV 1055. For the purpose of this article, however, I will treat
the harpsichord concerti as 'independent' works.
the piano, the harpsichord is capable of sunny dances of cheer,
chortling giggles of humour but also the stillness of the most heart-breaking
melancholia. It is as if the somewhat bittersweet "coarseness" of
its voice actually heightens these effects. In his harpsichord concerti,
Bach evokes from this palette an astonishing range of emotions.
is the dignified solemnity of BWV 1052, and the bright-blue summer
cheer of BWV 1053, with its sad but thoughtful middle Sicilienne.
There is the elegant humour of BWV 1055, and there is the serious
nobility of BWV 1056, where the harpsichord quietly meditates on
one of Bach's most divine melodies in the slow movement, while the
accompanying strings gently pizzicato their way to aural heaven.
1060-62 are double-harpsichord concerti, substantial works that
exhibit the same qualities of the solo concerti. BWV 1065 is a quadruple-harpsichord
concerto. That's right - four harpsichords chinkling away in a busy
transcription of Vivaldi's Concerto for
Four Violins (op.3, no.10). Finally, BWV 1063 and 1064 are triple
harpsichord concerti. BWV 1063 has an interesting middle movement
that somehow undulates between moods of light dignity to elegant
sensuousness, treading dance-like through its stately, yet somehow
un-serious realm, humorous yet regal...
1746 portrait by E.G.Haussmann
matter what medium, whether it is a solo violin or a choir and orchestra,
Bach's power to imbue his music with the deepest, undeniable essence
of humanity is the key to his immortality. His music has a certain
Romantic pathos, but unlike the Romantics, his music does not directly
utter the personal emotions of the composer. Instead, one hears
a soundworld that seems everything that humanity is. Beethoven's
spirit lives in his music; in Bach's music, it is the universal
spirit of being human.
ability to evoke the full range of emotions, and his skill in fusing
these emotions in structural forms as beautiful as their spiritual
content represents one of the highest ideals of art - the fusion
of formal, architectural beauty with an ardent love of life and
the fire of the human spirit. As Wagner puts it, Bach is nothing
but "the most stupendous miracle in all music."
The Harpsichord Concerti
Selected Transcription Details and Recommended Recordings
for Harpsichord(s) BWVs 1052-1065 except BWV 1059
The English Concert/Pinnock (harpsichord & director). DG
ARCHIV PRODUKTION 447 709-2
[3 CDs: 199'27". Mid-price. Cover above.]
Concerto with selected alternative instrument versions and recordings
(Click links for review)
1052: Violin concerto. Virgin Veritas
1053: Oboe concerto. Hyperion CDA66267.
Naxos 8.554169. Virgin
Veritas VC5 45190.
1054: Violin concerto, BWV 1042. Numerous versions.
1055: Oboe d'amore concerto. Virgin
Veritas VC5 45095. Naxos
1056: Violin concerto. Virgin Veritas
1057: Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. Numerous versions.
1058: Violin concerto, BWV 1041. Numerous versions.
1060: Violin & oboe concerto. Virgin
Veritas VC5 45095. Philips Silver Line 420 700.
1061: Harpsichord duet. L'Oiseau Lyre
1062: Double Violin concerto, BWV 1043. Numerous versions.
1063: Triple Concerto for Flute, Oboe & Violin. Decca
1064: Triple Violin concerto. Virgin
Veritas VC7 59319. Decca 440 037-2.
1065: Vivaldi: Quadruple Violin Concerto from Op. 3 (No.10).
old dead men with harpsichords, CHIA
HAN-LEON has a severe weakness for gorgeous women with guitars.
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12.11.1997 © Chia Han-Leon
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