Some thoughts on writing for harpsichord in contemporary and non-traditional styles, by Stephen Watkins

Recently I have been involved with ‘Colchester New Music’ in a call for scores to encourage composers to write pieces for recorder quartet and harpsichord.

I play in a newly formed virtuoso recorder quartet called ‘Dulcis Venti’ and we are very keen to extend the range of music which is available to us. I have written extensively for the group, and also for recorders with other instruments, and it seemed to me that the combination with harpsichord would really bear investigating.

I should explain that the music which we play, although definitely of this century is not ‘avant garde’ in spirit; we do, for instance, all share a conviction that there is only really one sensible end of the recorder down which to blow. I certainly believe that using instruments in a more or less conventional way is actually a bigger challenge to the composer than finding ways which can be, if we are totally honest, alien to the character of an instrument.

The real surprise was that really there was no extant repertoire that we could find. Probably, if one looked hard enough, there would be something for four alto recorders with a continuo part, although we have not been able to find anything with SATB recorder, and certainly nothing with a fully notated harpsichord part. The perceived somewhat restricted dynamic of both instruments means that they complement each other well, as does the sweetness and brilliance of which both instruments are capable. Actually my original idea was to include a gamba in the mix as well, but as yet things have not developed in that direction.

But the real appeal for me in this is in programme planning. Even as a recorder player I have to admit that a whole concert of recorder music can be just a bit too much for the ordinary concert going public (and sometimes for me). And, I am sorry to admit in this company, that a whole evening of harpsichord music can also be a bit too much. I would not claim that either is impossible, but it is so easy to leave an audience really having enjoyed the contrasts available by ringing the changes, or should I say changing the stops, by combining solos and ensembles using the quartet and the harpsichord.

So I wrote a couple of extended pieces for my quartet and wanted to try them through with a harpsichord player. We invited one player, who shall remain nameless, who pointed out that I had actually gone out of range and found my harpsichord writing very unsympathetic. I have had a harpsichord for a few years and being a general keyboard player rather than a pianist, organist or harpsichordist I was quite happy to change anything that a specialist was unhappy about.

Unfortunately he actively didn’t like my 11/16 bars either and so I decided not to take the matter any further as they are an integral part of the piece in question, other than rewriting the harpsichord part bearing in mind the criticisms that had been made. At this stage the pieces went on the back shelf.

A few weeks later I found myself as a newcomer to Colchester New Music volunteering the services of my recorder quartet as a group for a focus for a call for scores. When I explained my ideas about the recorders with harpsichord to a committee member he divulged to me that he was on good terms with an eminent harpsichordist who may well be open to cooperating on a project.

Our group met the gentleman in question and things were very different. I had rewritten the harpsichord part once, but after speaking with our new collaborator I could see that it all needed another rewrite, which it got fairly quickly and now we look forward to taking these pieces to concert societies who may be intrigued to hear these instruments being used in an accessible modern style while still respecting the traditions of the instruments involved.

The rest of this article is intended to share what I, as a composer, have learned about writing for the harpsichord in this process. I would be delighted if harpsichordists tell me that I am wrong about what I have written, so long as they tell me about how to be right in the next sentence, and in the same spirit in which I hope that I write.

I am not pretending to write as an authority on the subject and I would be delighted if other composers come across any exchanges which result as responses to this article and are thereby helped in being able to write more sympathetically for the harpsichord.

The most intriguing part of this is that actually writing music which is sympathetic to the harpsichord and sympathetic to the harpsichord player are not actually necessarily the same thing. More of this later!

To start with the totally obvious, composers who are used to having the immediate dynamic flexibility of the piano must not think in this way. However it should be said that this should not be regarded as a limitation of the harpsichord. It is the nature of the instrument. If the piece that you are writing requires frequent very subtle and shaded dynamics and you are writing for the harpsichord you are probably writing for the wrong instrument.

In fact any piece which has crescendi and diminuendi and frequent changes between a large number of dynamics has probably missed the point. I am aware that there are two manual instruments with pedal boards, couplers, sixteen foot stops etc that probably could handle this sort of thing, but I wonder whether this is a matter of rules and exceptions. And of course the question of solo and accompaniment can be an integral part of writing for a two manual instrument.

This case of the two manual instrument of course demonstrates the point that when a contemporary composer says he or she wants to write for harpsichord,, and asks for advice, probably the first question which should be asked is ‘which sort of harpsichord?’ because the many different instruments that go under that name will all have differences of smaller or larger degree in what will be effective and grateful for them and probably the only thing that they will have in common is plucked strings playing at a fixed dynamic and no means of sustaining the length of notes other than by keeping a key depressed. And of course the answer to which sort of harpsichord will probably be ‘the one which I have available’ whereas it would be nice to think that the instrument which was being written for would have its own characteristics understood and reflected in the music which was being written.

I take as a starting point my generic 1970s Neupert instrument with one manual, an 8 and a 4 stop with a divided lute on the 8’, and while accepting that there are instruments that will do more, and there are some that do less and, bland as the instrument is, there is a sort of middle of the roadness about it that I feel is a good starting point for a composer new to writing for harpsichord, and it makes me answer the essential challenge of the instrument without giving me any easy get outs of the misuse of second manuals.

The use of stops is another area where composers can very easily miss the point, and it is very easy for those of us not brought up on organs and harpsichords to forget that the 4 foot was thought of as a way of brightening of the 8’ rather than as a voice in its own right.

Perhaps the really most significant difference between piano and harpsichord writing though is the lack of a sustaining pedal. We really do not realise just how much we use it until we don’t have it.

Yes, it is possible to play big jumps on the harpsichord but firstly it is very difficult, secondly there is no way of disguising the jumps. Consequently few jumps is the order of the day. Again this should not been seen as a limitation. In its role as a continuo instrument it really doesn’t matter, and at the time that the harpsichord was in its heyday these jumps, that are the lingua franca of the piano, just didn’t happen. Whether of course that was because the harpsichord couldn’t do them well, or because music just hadn’t reached the stage where that sort of thing was called for, is of course another question.

Another subtle but real problem in writing for the harpsichord is that of the stretch of the hands.

The innocent mind would suppose that the stretch would be the same as the piano but it just isn’t like that. Pianists do use the ‘length’ of the keys to help manoeuvre hands in to big chords and awkward stretches. Harpsichord keys are not so long and there is not the room to manoeuvre the hands in the same way.

So a few thoughts about writing for the harpsichord, as I said should anyone be interested enough to point out errors or omissions I am very interested to hear them.

As to writing for harpsichord players this is a very different proposition. There may be a number of different types of harpsichord, but there are far more types of harpsichordists.

1) As a starting point there will be people who almost never play any keyboard other than the harpsichord, perhaps as soloists, but also as continuo players.

2) There will also be players who spend an equal amount of time on a piano or organ but perhaps never read continuo.

3) Then there will be people like myself who make no claim to be one thing or the other, with a basic, probably piano based technique, somewhere between grade 8 and diploma, a reasonable touch on all three instruments and able to do all the organist tricks of transposition, c clefs and figured bass but not really play anything well enough to perform seriously.

Among these basic categorisations there are a number of skills which, although with intelligence and musicality can be learned, are not inherent to members of the group.

Players who spend all of their life playing the hand shapes that categorise baroque continuo playing will find it somewhat mechanically unintuitive to play anything as relatively non exotic as a whole tone scale.

Anything that smacks of being unconventional in terms of harmonic voice leading is again possible but not instinctive. A composer wanting to write music that is sympathetic to instrument and player has either to be prepared to take these things into account, or be very thankful to a player who is prepared to spend the time rethinking years of conditioning in very different styles of music. There is a compromise to be found of course and I am very much of the opinion that in accommodating one’s musical ideas to technical demands very often lends integrity to the composition.

So, although perhaps not the most helpful piece of advice that could be given to a composer asking about how to write for harpsichord, the first one could be to ask “for which harpsichord and which player?”

If you can answer this specifically you need to ask the player you have in mind which sort of instrument he or she has.

If you cannot answer this specifically, assume a generic harpsichord, with one manual, an 8’ and a 4’ stop, and probably a split keyboard lute stop. If you are writing for such an instrument you are probably writing for a non specialist harpsichordist (any ‘pure’ harpsichordist will have one or more specialist instruments which have a far more idiosyncratic setup authentic to one style of baroque music), but the advantage that you will have is that in writing music for a player whose roots are not firmly in the golden age of the harpsichord you are probably writing for someone who has played Debussy, Brahms, Schoenberg on the piano and is probably more at home with harmonic structures which cannot easily be reduced to figured bass and will find your writing a little less ‘foreign’ than would a purist.

All of this is probably distilled by what a friend of mine said to me when I wanted to start an unusual traditional jazz band using a cornetto instead of a trumpet, a recorder for a clarinet, a sackbutt for a trombone, a lute for a guitar, a bass gamba for a double bass and a harpsichord instead of a piano.

“Stephen, we both know players of all of these early instruments, we both know people who can improvise jazz, unfortunately these two groups of people are not the same people.”

Having said all of this there is no reason why the real specialists on the harpsichord, given an open minded attitude and a little time to sort things out, should not have have a lot of interest and enjoyment in being dragged through a time warp. But experience suggests to me that you need to be sure that the people with whom you are working really are ready to work outside of their normal comfort zone, and for the change in thought processes to which they are going to be subjected.

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