Monthly Archives: July 2018

Clavichord On Music

‘From his very childhood HANDEL had discovered such a strong propensity to Music, that his father, who always intended him for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. Perceiving that this inclination still increased, he took every method to oppose it. He strictly forbad him to meddle with any musical instrument; nothing of that kind was suffered to remain in the house, nor was he ever permitted to go to any other, where such kind of furniture was in use. All this caution and art, instead of restraining, did but augment his passion. He had found means to get a little clavichord privately convey’d to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep. He had made some progress before Music had been prohibited, and by his assiduous practice at hours of rest, had made such farther advances, as, tho’ not attended to at that time, were no slight prognostications of his future greatness.’’

John Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel, 1760

Anybody whose neighbours complain about their keyboard practice could, like Handel, turn to the clavichord. Its seemingly soft tones have enchanted musicians from about the fifteenth century, and contemporary composers including Herbert Howells, Stephen Dodgson and Peter Maxwell Davies have written pieces specifically for this Cinderella of the keyboard.

The clavichord’s mechanism is disarmingly simple: each key lever has a brass blade (tangent) at its end that pushes up against pairs of strings when the key is pressed down. This direct connection with the strings allows the player not only to make dynamic contrasts but also to sustain and control the sound. Apart from the accordion, the clavichord is unique amongst keyboard instruments in allowing the player some vibrato. Eighteenth-century composers such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, for whom the clavichord was an ideal vehicle for the ‘empfindsamer Stil’ (‘’expressive style’’), even notated vibrato in their keyboard music.

Clavichords may be fretted or unfretted. In fretted instruments, one pair of strings serves more than one note, at least for part of the compass; in unfretted ones each note has its own pair of strings. Until the early eighteenth-century clavichords were usually fretted, while later ones were frequently unfretted. Compasses range from around four octaves in the early fifteenth century to five octaves or more in the eighteenth.

Comparing the rectangular clavichord to the harpsichord is akin to the story of the tortoise and the hare. While the harpsichord has always been the more public, dazzling instrument, it petered out towards the end of the eighteenth century in favour of the fortepiano, while the clavichord, being primarily a quiet personal instrument, continued to be used into the nineteenth century – especially in Scandinavia (Carl Nielsen may even have used one when composing). The clavichord was the first type of keyboard instrument that Arnold Dolmetsch revived in 1894, and its intimate charms have inspired performers ranging from Gustav Leonhardt to Oscar Peterson.

Though do not be fooled. For the clavichord is an unforgiving mistress that requires a firm yet delicate touch. It is these apparently opposing demands that draw me inexorably to this lady. Furthermore, Johann Sebastian Bach himself is reputed to have said that the clavichord was his favourite type of keyboard instrument, and his small-scaled French Suites seem particularly well-suited to it. What better reasons to record these works on the clavichord?

Classical works about Scotland

This famous concert overture is most commonly known as Fingal’s Cave – the source of its inspiration. After a visit to the island of Staffa in 1829 Mendelssohn was so taken by the echoing waves in the cave’s natural acoustic that he immediately wrote the opening few bars. Sending the music to his sister Fanny Mendelssohn, he wrote “’In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.’ The piece’s enduring appeal has encouraged people from all around the globe to visit this natural wonder.

A Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch

Despite having never visited Scotland before its composition, the German composer took elements of traditional folk tunes such as Hey Tuttie Tatie, The Dusty Miller and Auld Rob Morris to create this four-movement composition for violin and orchestra. Bruch had a special place in his heart for the music of Scotland, saying that the folk tunes ‘pulled me into their magical circle’. The prominent role of the harp as an accompaniment to the violin is also a nod to Scotland’s earliest music. Highly popular at the time of its premiere, this piece remains one of Bruch’s most famous works.

Scottish Rhapsody by Ronald Binge

‘The mist enshrouded lochs, the calm of the glens, the skirl of the pipes and the swirl of the kilt as the highland fling dances on its with merry way.’ This is the image conjured up for composer Ernest Tomlinson by Binge’s mighty orchestral work. As well as using tunes such as Kelvin Groveand Fairy Dance Reel, the English composer simply wrote in his own melodies where he saw fit, successfully managing to emulate the traditional style.

Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold

Written in 1957 for the BBC Light Music Festival, these four colourful dances heavily use key features of traditional Scottish music, such as scotch snaps and reels. The composer also used different timbres to imitate the drone of the Highland bagpipes. Though most of the vibrant melodies are original, Arnold did use one written by Robert Burns himself.