If You Give a CLAM a Cembalo, or, How to Perform a Concerto
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This last semester, I performed Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C Major (BWV 1061). I learned a lot about performance through this experience. I suppose that I ought to begin by explaining this title. CLAM is what we Classical Liberal Arts Majors who are also Music Minors call ourselves at Patrick Henry College. A cembalo is a harpsichord. CLAMs (or at least this particular CLAM) and cembalos function as a mouse and a cookie.
To perform a concerto for two harpsichords, one must have two harpsichords. Harpsichords are not readily available objects and are rather expensive. I rebuilt the action and restrung my own harpsichord a few years ago. My harpsichord came with most of its parts and that rebuild was essentially following kit instructions.
Another harpsichord was donated to the college. This harpsichord was not entirely functional; many of the jacks did not work. The real challenge here, however, was that there were no readily available replacement parts, and the jacks themselves were badly designed. In fact, they were made with the plectrum and tongue molded as a single piece of plastic, meaning that there was no way to repair them. I researched various solutions, and it appeared that Jake Kaesar of New London, Connecticut could make custom jacks that would fit the harpsichord, plus a matching lower guide and register. This required funding, which required making my research even more thorough than I normally do in order to make a budget that could be approved. This budget was approved and I purchased the action parts.
Putting these parts in the harpsichord presented another challenge. There was no instruction manual for these parts, and I had never worked with wooden jacks before. I was able to deduce from my knowledge of harpsichord actions how this action should fit together. After I put the lower guide and register in the harpsichord, overcoming a few challenges caused by the difference between wood and plastic, I put the jacks in. Before I could do this, I had to cut the jacks into an even gradient of sizes. To do this, I measured a few jacks and then used a ruler to draw a straight line. I then cut the jacks to these sizes. To double-check the jack heights, I quilled and voiced a few notes throughout the range of the harpsichord, testing them to ensure that they were sufficiently responsive and of good tone quality. I would later further adjust the heights of the jacks after inserting the rest of the quills.
After installing the jacks, I finished the action and voiced the harpsichord. Each jack needed a felt flag damper; I reused the felt from the previous jacks’ dampers. A few dampers did need to be adjusted and cut to fit the new jacks, but most of them fit quite nicely. I also put quills in the jacks and voiced the harpsichord. I experimented with cutting the quills to length using the technique called “ghosting” where the register is adjusted so that a quill of the proper length just brushes the string. I did not have much success with this; perhaps I misunderstand what it requires. I therefore used my normal method of estimating the length of the quill and voicing it using my eyes, ears, and intuition.
Voicing and regulation continue throughout the life of a harpsichord, and these harpsichords are no exception. After playing on the college’s harpsichord for a while, I gradually improved the voicing, paying special attention to making it match in dominance with my own harpsichord. While the college’s harpsichord has a bigger soundboard and so is louder, my harpsichord has a brighter sound, partially because of the nature of the strings and soundboard construction, but also because I have voiced it to be louder. Mine is a less sensitive instrument because has weighted keys, a historical inaccuracy which I chose not to remedy for two reasons: first, drilling lead sounded inconvenient1, second, I wanted to make it easier for pianists to switch between it and the piano (hence, I had Dr. Tanner and Hannah Davidsmeier play that harpsichord). This lesser sensitivity means that there would be little expression to be gained if I voiced it more quietly.2 Thus, the two harpsichords sounded fairly balanced. Each sounds quieter from its own player’s perspective because of the music desk and also because of the direction that the lid reflects the sound, but if this is kept in mind it is not a problem. Because harpsichords have a more transparent texture than pianos do, it is more possible to hear the individual contrapuntal voices than it would be with a piano, so it is also less necessary to fret about balancing volume.
Playing the Concerto
Obtaining harpsichords all took quite a lot of time, but I had to begin practicing Bach’s concerto for two harpsichords long before the work on the harpsichord was done. The second harpsichord was not playable for the first few weeks of the semester in which I performed the concerto, the spring semester of 2023. This concerto is quite challenging, and it would not have been possible to learn it satisfactorily within a semester. Planning for this, I began practicing it at the end of the previous spring semester, even before I knew for sure that I could get replacement jacks. I am glad that I did this; I do not think it would have been possible otherwise. This does show the importance of planning practice as carefully as other aspects of performance. I have previously had the tendency to just practice as I thought I could and perform when I was prepared. This time, having an approximate performance time for this piece meant that I had to plan my practicing.
While the concerto is certainly a difficult piece, there are not many technical challenges that I had not seen before; there are simply more of them. Bach’s writing is precise but is technically difficult and musically transparent; it is therefore quite unforgiving for mistakes. This means that every part of any Bach piece must be carefully prepared. This is obvious for the most difficult sections. I practiced these sections quite carefully, and some of the most difficult sections became the most familiar. One part which I was not able to prepare as well as I would have liked is the very fast scale in the middle of the piece. Despite thorough practicing, I could not make it smooth and in time by the performance. I wonder if I simply lack the finger strength, or the harpsichords were not nimble enough. This was not overly important, though, as long as the entrance of the theme immediately after was on time. It is easy to ignore easy-looking sections sometimes. I tend to do this, and so there were a few less-technically challenging sections which I had problems with as the concert approached. In the future, I should more methodically divide pieces for practice.
Besides the technical challenges of this piece, there were challenges in working with other musicians. Keyboard musicians do not often work with other keyboard musicians, and when they work with other musicians they either are independent concerto soloists or accompanists (or collaborative pianists…). In this piece, there are two keyboard instruments that participate as equals and also a string orchestra; the string orchestra usually follows the harpsichord parts with only occasional sections of independent lines. I first worked with the other harpsichordists to make the two harpsichord parts work with each other. This took up the greater part of this semester. Before I rehearsed with the string players, I looked at the full score to identify passages that are difficult both technically and musically.
Scheduling was difficult. There were not many times when the entire ensemble could meet, so a few partial rehearsals was necessary. This did mean that rehearsals had to be quite efficient, but the other musicians were excellent collaborators and so were ready for the speedy rehearsal. More rehearsal time would have been helpful, and though there were circumstances that prevented scheduling rehearsals earlier in the semester. Though we were still able to perform well, it would be much more enjoyable if I can plan more rehearsal time for future projects. It was also difficult to schedule a performance venue. Ultimately, we ended up performing in the ensemble rehearsal room, which is rather small. I rather liked the small room though, especially since this was chamber music. The audience and the sound filled the room, leading to a very energetic performance.
Admittedly, I’m working with lead an awfully lot now that I am working with organ pipes at Foley-Baker, Inc., but I am now confident in my ability to do so safely. I hope to eventually improve the harpsichord by removing the key weights.
I was a pianist when I built my harpsichord, albeit focusing on baroque music.