Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Anatomy of a harpsichordist

I came across this review in the Boston Musical Intelligencer when it was first published, but this phrase kept coming back to me:
Sykes this day played generally in the currently mandated metronome-banning “felt rhythm” style, which such past stalwarts of steadiness as Zuzana Růžičková and Anton Heiller (not to mention Gould, Landowska, Tureck …) would hardly recognize...
I returned to the review last night to reread the phrase and, perhaps, post a comment at the website. It's really important to note that what passes for historically correct is really just the style of our day. I was surprised to see that the review had generated a bunch of comments. Among them was this one by the excellent harpsichordist Mark Kroll:
My response will probably come as no surprise to people who have heard me play, or read what I have written on the subject, but it bears repeating: the use of rhythmic distortion and agogic accent to attempt to create expressivity is simply an indication that the player has little interest, or ability, to use subtleties of articulation and touch to achieve this goal. I should also add—once again— that this HC (i.e., “historically correct”) and apparently universally adopted style of playing has little if any basis in historical fact. Almost every writer on the subject from the 17th and 18th centuries (and the 19th as well, for that matter) makes it a point to remind players to keep a steady time, or tactus, within which they can use subtle manipulations of time—with or without an “oiled’ metronome. The keyword here is subtle. 
I am also disappointed to hear that some of the performers in this concert, whose playing I have admired since they got out of school, have now adopted this approach when I know that they are perfectly capable of doing otherwise. But I suppose they will cry all the way to the bank.
Aside from the fact that Mark makes a glaring error in his comment that "they will cry to all the way to the bank" (The historical keyboard world has not been monetized!), I want to point out Mark's somewhat dogmatic approach to articulation and touch. Mark is far better read than I on this subject, and, as I have heard him speak on this, he makes himself quite clear that his playing is more correct (hence, better?) than others because of his historically informed approach.

In the summer 2013 issue of Early Music America magazine, Davitt Moroney, another great harpsichordist, discusses the use of bird quills instead of plastic quills in a harpsichord. He says:

You can't reconstruct the art of touch by using plastic...A harpsichord with plastic won't have a soul. I know some people will disagree, but I'm really sold on quill. I feel like having a bumper sticker printed that says, "A harpsichord has quill."
Moroney's comment, like Kroll's, is dogmatic. In both cases, Moroney and Kroll cite historical evidence. (In fact, Moroney doesn't need evidence, since plastic is not a baroque material.) 

Over the years, my own teachers and colleagues have approached their harpsichord playing with their own dogmas. "I use historic fingering!" "I use historic temperaments!" "The bass line controls all phrasing!" "I studied with so-and-so, who was a student of so-and-so, who was six degrees from Rameau!" "I'm European! I'm closer to the source!"


Readers of this blog who are not harpsichordists and are not involved with the "early music" scene might wonder what is it about harpsichordists that makes us pronounce our own dogmas about why our playing is so different from the other guys. Pianists don't do this. Violinists don't do this.


The harpsichord is an instrument that has an extremely limited relevance to the modern world and on the modern concert stage. It is part of an interrupted tradition, having been obsolete for at least a century. The harpsichord is not a dynamically expressive instrument, so we harpsichordists must use our imaginations to create the illusion of dynamics. Harpsichordists live in a cultural vacuum, and many of us are, sadly, not terribly interested in hearing other players of the instrument. This highly imaginative, yet closed, world makes us come up with our own reasoning as to why our playing is different and better than others. This may seem necessary, since audiences aren't familiar with the instrument, and they may have already been turned off by some really bad playing or a lousy instrument. And the list could go on.

By creating dogma, we create a context in which we can explain to the audience why our playing is so much different and better than others'. Even if the audience can't hear the difference--after all, how many of our audience members have attended more than a handful of harpsichord recitals?--, we will explain to them how they're supposed to be listening. We're going to tell you what to listen for! We will clothe the naked emperor!


I'm not immune to this. Over the years, I've had my own dogmas, and I'll probably come up with some more. With regard to memorization, however, this is about creating and maintaining an industry standard, not just for my instrument, but for classical music as a whole. As I've already explained, we owe it to the music we love. 


At some point, the harpsichord world and, in turn, the early music world will need to grow up and allow itself to be considered at the same standard of the modern classical world. No dogmas, just good playing. The audiences for this music need to expect more as well. It's bad enough that the world feels a need to segregate music into genres. Let's just hope that our genre stands up to the level of the other genres.