Tag Archives: harpsichord

Composing for two harpsichords: some tips from the workshop

Several useful points for composers to consider came out of our recent workshop of new music for two harpsichords:

  1. Who wants it?

There is no significant professional market for new music for historical instruments. No-one (currently) makes a living from principally performing new pieces full time.

In the professional context, a new work usually appears as an added extra – perhaps as a commission inserted into an otherwise baroque programme. This immediately reduces the ongoing scope for any new work requiring a special set-up, tuning or equipment beyond that available for a baroque recital.

Very little new music for two harpsichords has made it into the repertoire, and even the solo contemporary repertoire (more than ten thousand pieces) contains few that are well known by players (the three virtuoso works by Ligeti are a good example, on grounds of their outstanding quality).

  1. First impressions count

Avoid putting the performer off by a work’s presentation before they’ve had a chance to form an opinion on the music itself.

  • Scores should normally be in portrait orientation. Landscape scores cause problems in filing and binding, especially if performers are playing from print-outs in a ring-binder (which they often are).
  • Use 6mm minimum staff size, and be aware of page turning issues.
  • Enharmonics: accidentals must be expressed in the most straightforwardly understandable way possible. Unnecessary barriers to understanding may put performers off. Don’t only rely upon the Sibelius plug-in to make the most appropriate enharmonic choices.
  • A score must give the right instructions for a human performer to achieve the desired result – avoid littering it with markings which appear solely to facilitate Sibelius playback.
  • Clarity is critical. If a performer has to spend too much time deciphering unnecessary obscurity on a first reading, they may not bother with a second one. See also Dylan Christopher’s useful article on this topic.
  1. Consider the performer

Bear in mind the comfort zone of harpsichordists. The harpsichord is not the piano, and someone who has chosen to play it has by definition not set out to reproduce pianistic effects and techniques. One particular bugbear is left-hand octaves – common on the modern piano, but less comfortable (although sometimes quite effective) for a harpsichordist.

It’s worth remembering that the usual baroque repertoire of harpsichordists tends to a limited range of key signatures. Anything beyond three-four sharps/flats will be rather less familiar for a harpsichordist than, for example, a pianist or organist.

  1. Consider the instrument

Perhaps fewer than a quarter of existing harpsichords are double manual, and those instruments tend to live in institutions, concert venues, or are owned by baroque professionals. Composing a piece specifically for two-manual instruments therefore cuts out most of the amateur market.

For compositional purposes it is best to assume a single manual, GG-d3 compass (see wikipedia article for info on ranges) with two 8′ stops and buff. These are widely available, and access to a full-size professional five-octave double manual harpsichord should be regarded as a bonus not a norm.

Real instruments vary so much that it is usually best not to specify particular stops. Give instead a dynamic marking, or a mood or tone colour which the performer can then implement appropriately with what is available, given the voicing, tone, acoustics etc.

  1. Consider the context

Why two instruments – what is added that can’t be done with one? Is it a dialogue between two voices, a soloist-accompanist scenario, or perhaps a competition between the two players? Does it allow for a particular expanded formal structure or certain types of repetition-dialogue?

Also, what is the piece for? Is it a virtuoso set-piece to sit within a public Bach recital, or a ‘social’ piece for harpsichord-owning friends to play in private? Is is an encore utilising the somewhat-neglected humorous aspect of the harpsichord, or an experimental ‘paper piece’ designed for coursework submission?

These all feed into rehearsal time constraints. If, for example, a complex piece will take as long to learn as several simpler works, it’s unlikely to be feasible for a recital involving a lot of new material. It would be far more likely to appear as a single new item in a programme of known repertoire.


Two harpsichords concert and CNM workshop at Fitzwilliam Auditorium, 15 October 2017

On Sunday 15 Oct, Francis Knights and Dan Tidhar are presenting a workshop of new works and works in progress for two harpsichords, at 4pm in Fitzwilliam College Auditorium, Storey’s Way, Cambridge. The session will include music by Mark Bellis, Colin Blundell, Philip Joy, Jenni Pinnock, Stephen Watkins, Ian Wilson and others.

Prior to this, at 2pm in the same venue, there will be a recital of contemporary American music for two harpsichords by composers including Robert Baksa, Earle Brown, Mark Janello and Edwin McLean. Entry to both workshop and concert is free.

Beaks and Quills re-invented: a new repertoire for recorder quartet with harpsichord

This article by Alexander Blustin first appeared in the Newsletter of the National Early Music Association (NEMA), Volume i/1 (January 2017) – reproduced by kind permission of the Editor.

Do you ever have the feeling that you always play the same eight pieces? Have you explored the entire extant historical repertoire of your instrument … twice? Curious about whether there is anything new out there, but uncertain whether you’d like it, or even be able to play it?

Early music performers are often aware that music is still being written for their instruments. They might not, however, know that they can influence the process to obtain the repertoire they really want. In 2016 the Colchester New Music (CNM) composers’ co-operative completed a project to generate works for an ‘early instrument ensemble’ with no existing historical repertoire: recorder quartet with harpsichord. What follows is how did we do it, and what we discovered along the way.

CNM’s membership includes NEMA’s Francis Knights, and Stephen Watkins, who directs the Dulcis Venti recorder quartet. Since recorders and harpsichords tend to be found in the same places – concerts, workshops, festivals and so on – we thought that SATB recorder quartet with harpsichord seemed an obvious combination. Intriguingly, though, it appeared to be completely unexplored by composers of the past, thereby offering today’s composers the chance to be the first to write for it.

So this presented an ideal opportunity for a Call for Scores. This is an exercise where a performer or promoter issues a public request for composers to submit works, with the ultimate aim of selecting some for performance. We compiled a Call document inviting composers to write for Dulcis Venti with Francis Knights as harpsichordist. It contained the technical parameters of the instruments, maximum duration for pieces and a submission deadline; we asked for ‘attractive, imaginative, practical and programmable works … feasible for performance by professional players with limited rehearsal time’.

The Call for Scores was posted on CNM’s website, and linked from listings on sites frequented by composers seeking competitions and opportunities: womeninmusic.org.uk, composerssite.com and soundandmusic.org. Adverts also went to some university music departments.

We received 23 entries originating from composers in the UK, Italy, Serbia, USA, Australia, Austria and Germany; ten of these were selected for performance, plus one from a parallel student project with the Colchester Institute. There was also a commissioned work from Ivan Moody and a suite of pieces by Stephen Watkins himself.

Dulcis Venti and Francis Knights at the premieres in Colchester, June 2016 (photo: Alexander Blustin)

Who entered the call? Submitters ranged from students and amateurs to established professional composers. Styles ranged widely. Pastiche baroque, serial, experimental, neo-romantic, soundscape, minimalist and even cartoon soundtracks were all represented. The recorder writing was generally competent, and given the current prevalence of computer typesetting, score presentation was usually good. The keyboard writing was more variable, however, and some of the music was clearly conceived for Sibelius software rather than human performers.

Since the purpose of this project was to generate a practical repertoire which performers would want to use, the players themselves had total control over selection. This can be controversial with composers. Will the musicians just choose the easy pieces? Will they be biased against anything original and challenging? How far will they dare to move outside their comfort zone, stylistically and technically?

The rehearsal process turned out to be a lot more effort than anyone expected, partly due to this latter issue. Dulcis Venti had to work hard to come to terms with aesthetics far removed from normal recorder territory. As well as technical difficulties, there were questions of taste, quality, and how much effort should be made with something totally alien before ruling it out. Are certain works not music at all but ‘sound art’, and therefore beyond the remit of musicians altogether?

The other major source of difficulty was having a complete concert programme of new works for a new ensemble in a new genre, written by composers often new to the instruments. Classical musicians can easily forget that their repertoire has gone through generations of editors. Newly composed works are, by contrast, sometimes in a raw state. Early musicians are well positioned to cope with this, being used to critical engagement with their sources, though there are the extra factors of copyright and opinionated living composers to consider. The ideal approach is for performer and composer to collaborate on editing, as this is the only way to ensure that the composer will do it right next time.

The final concert was held on 4 June 2016 at the Headgate Theatre, Colchester, an intimate space ideal for chamber music. The audience of around 40 included several of the composers, who had come from as far afield as Austria and Germany. A review of the concert appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Recorder Magazine, with detailed commentary on the individual works. Recordings of many of them are now available on CNM’s website https://colchesternewmusic.com, and enquiries about the sheet music are most welcome; the harpsichord parts are playable on any five-octave instrument.

Across the programme as a whole, the main difficulties for performers were caused by the surprisingly widespread use of 5/8 time signatures, impractically fast tempi, virtuosic, complex writing, and discomfort with serialism. In hindsight, a workshop with the composers would have been ideal for problem-solving and managing expectations. We also learned that there is a safe limit to the amount of new music for chamber ensemble which can sensibly be tackled in a single concert.

Did we discover why nobody has ever composed for recorder quartet with harpsichord? No. Professional recorder quartets and harpsichordists have separate repertoires and therefore no reason to share a stage. But that is simply saying that because there is no repertoire they don’t play together, and because they don’t play together there is no repertoire. The mystery continues.

Overall, though, it was a fascinating project which certainly achieved its aims. There are thousands of contemporary classical composers active around the world today, working in a vast range of styles. They are there to write music for you, the performer, and they would love to hear from you.

Composer, artist and author Alexander Blustin is Administrator of Colchester New Music; calls@colchesternewmusic.com

NB The title of this article pays homage to the titles of two of the selected works: Of Beaks and Quills by Janet Wheeler and Five-Part re-Invention by Ron Hannah.

CNM season 2017: recital in Colchester and workshop in Cambridge

We can now announce two exciting CNM public events which will be taking place in 2017:

Recital: The Pale Enchanted Gold

3pm, Saturday 17 June 2017, Castle Methodist Church, Maidenburgh Street, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1TT; tickets TBC

A summer afternoon recital by Tim Torry (baritone), Alan Bullard (piano) and Charles Hine (clarinet). The programme will include Tim Torry’s ‘The Pale Enchanted Gold’ – a setting of the first poem from JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit, Alan Bullard’s dramatic setting of First World War poet Edmund Blunden’s ‘A Swan, A Man’ and ‘Three Blues’ for clarinet and piano, plus new songs and instrumental music by other members of CNM.

Workshop for contemporary harpsichord composition

4pm, Sunday 15 October 2017, Fitzwilliam College, Storey’s Way, Cambridge CB3 0DG; free entry for audience

Harpsichordists Francis Knights and Dan Tidhar will workshop new works for two harpsichords written by CNM members. The workshop will be preceded at 2pm by a rare concert of Contemporary American music for two harpsichords by Robert Baksa, Vittorio Rieti, Mark Janello and others.