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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 4, No. 9

Taming the Harpsichord

by Alain Bénard / June 1, 1999

Version française...

Authoritative yet inspired, today's harpsichordists are masters of their instruments as never before. The resurgence of interest in period music has led to a rediscovery of the spirit of baroque compositions and the harpsichord's subtle resonance. Audiences are drawn to this instrument in growing numbers, while established fans are intrigued by its expanding repertoire.

In anticipation of the forthcoming harpsichord festival (les Journées du clavecin) and the Montreal International Harpsichord Competition, featuring French composers and scheduled for June 3 to 6 at the Salle Pierre-Mercure in the Pierre-Péladeau Centre, we talked to four experts in the art of the harpsichord -- Catherine Perrin, Geneviève Soly, Hank Knox, and Réjean Poirier.


The harpsichord owes its current renaissance to the rise of interpretative schools in the recent past. These have had a significant effect on both the building and playing of the instrument. It was after musicians began using period instruments (or modern reproductions) that things began to develop, says harpsichordist and organist Réjean Poirier, dean of the Faculty of Music at the Université de Montréal.

"Until the early 1960s, the harpsichord revival focused on Wanda Landowska's approach to the instrument. Musicians looked at the instrument from a modern standpoint, however. They didn't play old instruments, and the repertoire was still being rediscovered. The importance of the instrument -- the need to find a good instrument -- was not considered. Generally speaking, people were doing a great deal of research to try to recapture the spirit of baroque music, but the return to period instruments was just beginning."

Geneviève Soly, the festival's artistic director, hopes today's audiences will free themselves from any preconceived notions or outmoded ideas that might hamper the harpsichord's growing popularity. "Often people don't like the harpsichord because it's unfamiliar, or because they remember how it sounded twenty years ago," she points out. "Today's instruments are infinitely better; there have been enormous improvements in production, and the same can be said of performers and styles of performance."

Capturing the spirit

The harpsichord is a very demanding instrument. Those who play it must feel really drawn to the repertoire and be willing to understand the various outlooks and cultures that influenced its use during its heyday in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Soly feels.

"You need a really attentive ear that is open to everything new. To play the distinct baroque repertoires, you virtually have to learn a new artistic language for each, since they vary from country to country. In addition, you must have the technique to handle all the intricacies of touch and sound. The harpsichord is naturally a rather dry-sounding instrument. There's no mechanism for sustaining sound; the musician's fingers have to do it all. That's why you have to keep listening to what you're playing, constantly adapting to get the sound you want. The harpsichordist is very involved with creation -- or re-creation -- because the playing of distinct repertoires requires a very sensitive approach. I don't see how anyone can interpret baroque music without an extensive musical and historical background."

Poirier asserts that university training is indispensable because researching manuscripts, which is a task for a musicologist, is part of the harpsichordist's job. And even though teaching on this side of the Atlantic is more than adequate nowadays, contact with Europe is still necessary to enrich the musician's artistic scope.

Taking chances

A creative harpsichordist must like taking chances. A thorough theoretical basis is necessary, particularly a knowledge of the figured bass, but the musician also has to combine this with a certain amount of freedom, perhaps akin to jazz improvisation. "Nothing remains theoretical," says Hank Knox, McGill music professor and harpsichordist for the Arion Ensemble. "You've got to have everything literally at your fingertips. The practical aspect is what first fascinated me. Then I discovered that you must improvise your own part. It was an exhilarating moment, and I've never looked back since. We have enormous freedom. It inspires you to try the unknown, to take chances."

Some interpreters have very strong views about baroque style and interpretation. It's possible to differ about various practices in ensemble playing -- the harpsichord being the point of contact for these diverse approaches.

"I have a lot of respect for what was done in England about ten years ago, but that doesn't prevent my finding this approach very cold now. Perhaps someone like Fabio Biondi takes a really exaggerated approach, but I admire his spirit of improvisation and his willingness to explore the music," says Knox.

A question of language

For harpsichordist Catherine Perrin of I Musici de Montréal (she has just completed a fine solo CD for ATMA), the vast repertoire is one of the instrument's great attractions. Early on in her career she developed a sensitivity for the French repertoire, which had been largely forgotten. She worked at acquiring an intimate understanding of harpsichord music and its "language." As she says, "The language and literature of the harpsichord were natural to me. The phrasing and ornamentation were as intuitive as thinking and speaking."

The language of the harpsichord is highly classical, of course, but it has the capacity to move into other musical eras. Perrin is interested in contemporary music and has no problem with combining the old and the new.

"It's my ambition to make two worlds co-exist," she says. "I choose expressive, exceptional pieces that are perfectly suited for the harpsichord. They're not conservative, but their roots are in this type of instrument. I tend to play music that doesn't just use the harpsichord as a way of producing sound; the music is a means of developing the language of the instrument, making it sound generous, the way it should."

Acoustically speaking, aside from tuning the instrument to appropriate temperaments and mastering a recalcitrant plectrum, the success of a harpsichord recital depends largely on where it is played, according to Réjean Poirier. One of the main errors in the early days of the baroque revival, he feels, was that concerts were given in unsuitable venues. Appropriate settings such as a chateau, a small church, or a modern hall like the Salle Pierre-Mercure affect the music and enable it to capture the listener's attention. The challenge to musicians is to develop a sensitive ear, and to make themselves heard not through the volume produced but through the subtle intricacies of the instrument -- a distinction that exemplifies what the harpsichord is all about.

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