The harpsichord is a beautiful instrument. When I say this, I’m not talking about its exterior appearance. Yes, there are many harpsichords with extravagant lid paintings or elegant decorations that are beautiful to look at, but when I say the harpsichord is beautiful, I’m talking exclusively about its sound. The harpsichord sounds beautiful.
That statement shouldn’t be controversial, but to a certain faction of people it is controversial. Somehow, they’ve been conditioned to think that the harpsichord is in a way deficient, a historical curiosity viewed with the same morbid repulsion as they would view a medieval torture device at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium.
You would not believe the amount of times some harpsichord hating philistine has approached me and asked if I’ve heard this quote.
“What quote?” I always have to be polite in these situations and I always have to ask.
“The harpsichord sounds like two skeletons copulating/fucking on a tin roof.” They always misattribute the quote, too. It’s always George Bernard Shaw said or Igor Stravinsky said that the harpsichord sounds like etc., etc. A simple Google search tells me it was actually Thomas Beecham who said this–not that knowing who said it makes the sentiment hurt less.
Why is this ok? I mean, I’ve told many a viola joke in my time, but I would never approach a violist and lead with something like, “What’s the difference between a viola and my bed?” Maybe it’s just me. I can’t deny the possibility that perhaps I do make the harpsichord sound like two skeletons fucking, but that quote has been around much longer than I have been playing harpsichord. I should also say that I actually love the viola. I tell the jokes because I think they’re funny, but I don’t actually believe them. I’m certainly not going to deny that the viola is beautiful, because, like any instrument, when it is played well, it is beautiful, damnit! Why do some people deny the beauty of the harpsichord? What’s wrong with these idio…I mean, people?
As much as I want to dismiss these people as idiots, I can understand why they might be predisposed to not liking the harpsichord. After all, this is an instrument that comes with a lot of baggage. For one thing, many harpsichords at many institutions that own them are horribly maintained. They either don’t have someone on staff who can do the work, or they don’t budget for harpsichord maintenance, or they often just sit in a closet somewhere and they begin to deteriorate from neglect. It also doesn’t help that so many still think of the harpsichord as that brittle, ugly sound they hear in Beach Boys tunes, those horrific Frankenstein-esque piano-harpsichords popularized by Wanda Landowska in the early part of the twentieth century–harpsichord shaped objects made from mostly piano parts. Those Landowska monstrosities are probably why harpsichords are often described by what they lack as compared to the piano–the harpsichord has less keys, the harpsichord has no pedals (ok, some do, but they don’t function like the piano damper pedal), the harpsichord has no dynamics.
Well, last I checked, harpsichords are not pianos. Try to make a harpsichord with only piano parts and of course you get an instrument that, for lack of a better phrase, sounds like shit. That’s probably why people went back to building harpsichords with the same materials that the ancients used. It wasn’t just for the sake of historical accuracy. The instruments end up sounding like how they’re supposed to sound. In a word, beautiful, damnit!
The thing is, I think the harpsichord lacks for nothing. It’s an instrument that’s full of rich, colorful sounds capable of expressing the entirety of the human experience with a wide range of dynamics. And no, I’m not crazy when I say the harpsichord has dynamics (or maybe I should say I’m not crazy because I say the harpsichord has dynamics. I am a little crazy after all, but for reasons unrelated to harpsichord playing). I challenge you not to hear dynamics when you listen to a great harpsichordist. I can guarantee you’ll hear them and I can guarantee that you’ll wonder how it’s possible. It’s possible because, despite what you may have heard before, the harpsichord is not a deficient instrument. It’s perfect the way it is.
Listen to any great harpsichordist, and the music seems to come alive in a way that’s totally different from listening to the same piece on the piano. It’s like watching a football game in super high definition, where you can distinguish every blade of grass underneath the players’ feet and each blade of grass seems to be telling its own story while still drawing your attention to the actual game playing out before your eyes. It’s a richly textured experience where I feel like I can almost reach out and touch the music, the same way I would reach out to feel tree branches poking out at me in a 3D movie.
In truth, I don’t feeling like I’m missing out when I play the harpsichord. I certainly don’t wish I was playing the same music on the piano. In fact, after years of harpsichord playing, I often feel the opposite. Whenever, for whatever reason, I’ve had to play harpsichord rep on the piano, I always wish I had a harpsichord instead. Why play it on the piano, when I feel the harpsichord speaks the music so much better? Why play Bach on the piano, when the harpsichord just feels right? (By the way, I am not suggesting you shouldn’t play Bach on the piano. If that’s your thing, then more power to you. Continue to do it and I’m happy to listen to you do it, too. I’m just saying that playing Bach on the piano isn’t for me. I could talk more about this, but it’s probably better I save it for another blog post).
I should focus on the positive. The harpsichord has made many strides in the past 30 or 40 years. More and more people have come to accept it and have come to love it as much as I do. Harpsichord haters are dwindling.
But it irks me that there are harpsichord haters still out there (I’m thinking of a specific person, who, despite his utter disdain for the harpsichord, still remains a close friend). Let me speak to you directly. You’re not bad people. In fact, you’re probably great people. But you are misguided people. I don’t know how you came to hate the harpsichord. Perhaps you’ve suffered through years of listening to those monstrous Landowska harpsichords. Or maybe you’ve heard instruments badly in need of some loving care. Whatever your past experiences may have been, I implore you to forget them. Give us another shot. Listen to the harpsichord again with an open mind. Find some great recordings by great players (Masaaki Suzuki comes to mind, and of course, Leonhardt), and I challenge you not to be swept away, not only by the performances, but by the sound of the instrument itself. Whatever your preconceptions were, the harpsichord is worth another listen. Maybe you’ll discover a new composer to explore, or find a great performer you didn’t know before, or maybe you’ll come to love the harpsichord as much as I do. Only good things can come of this. I can promise you that. Because, in the end, no matter what you think, the harpsichord is beautiful, damnit, the harpsichord is beautiful!