John Ahern on the Harpsichord

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John Ahern, writing for First Things, presents an interesting dichotomy of the nature of the harpsichord: it is both more private and also more communal than the piano.

The grand piano was built for the stage, and owes its reverberation to the concert hall in which it is placed (or, in modern classical music recordings, to digital plug-ins through which its sound is processed). The harpsichord’s reverberation, on the other hand, comes from within its own wooden walls. As a result, a real harpsichord simply isn’t very loud.

Having played both instruments in various environments, I can attest to this. Pianos do not sound particularly nice in rooms with little reverberation. The harpsichord, on the other hand, sound best in a relatively dampened room. The best room that I have ever played the harpsichord in was a parlor in a house at Old Sturbridge Village. In contrast, the reverberant rooms that pianos sound best in make the harpsichord sound a bit strained when it is playing by itself.

Now, Ahern points out, this does not make the harpsichord an instrument of the individual, unsuited for sharing music: rather, it allows deep participation in the musical tradition. Bach said that the Goldberg Variations, as a “keyboard exercise,” were “for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits.” This is to say, the harpsichord is quite suited for allowing participation in musical literature. Ahern calls it “discursive”—it serves as a vehicle for communication with the composer.

Ahern concludes: “The harpsichord’s music is best heard in my living room, being enjoyed by me and perhaps my friends, and there it has no need to be loud.” I agree that the harpsichord is indeed a friendly instrument.

Ahern omits an important aspect of the harpsichord, though: despite its introverted quietude, the harpsichord can serve brilliantly in a concert. With a continuo part, the harpsichord serves as the backbone of both rhythm and harmony for the orchestra. Its relative quietness allows the orchestra parts to be heard without distraction, but its bright tone and distinct ictus allows it to permeate and glue the orchestra together. Thus, the harpsichord can participate in the orchestra as an equal with the other instruments. These qualities also allow it to participate as a tightly integrated solo instrument, as it does in Bach’s harpsichord concerti.