Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 3.44: Lute and clavichord

March 14, 2014

To be hardly heard is the lutenist’s lot in life.  Solo lute recitals always provide a unique opportunity for the artist who employs an historically-appropriate tone production to share rare repertory played on a sensitive and expressive instrument, only to be informed afterwards by members of the audience that the music seemed nice but was barely audible.  But a professional musician who may be accustomed to performing ensemble music on more conventional instruments must develop a rhinoceros-hide thick skin when it comes to incorporating the lute into any sort of ensemble, small or large.  We are constantly told—even by people who really should know better—that the lute is just too quiet, and can’t we please do something to make it louder?

It’s bad enough to endure asides and smirks from fellow musicians who play loud instruments only capable of producing a single noisome note at a time. But it’s just too much when keyboard players pass judgement on our much misunderstood and more subtle lute.  One wishes to be charitable and overlook the fact that many keyboardists simply can’t comprehend the advanced level of control required to play polyphonic music on the lute.  They are accustomed to sitting down and pressing the keys of an instrument conveniently tuned and placed there for them.  The lutenist schleps his instrument, tunes, tempers, and with the digits of both hands manages a highly sensitive coordinated touch with fingertips in contact with unruly strings.  By comparison, playing a keyboard instrument really is like pushing buttons.

However, there is a keyboard instrument that might be the great leveler—the clavichord.  Amusingly considered by some a mere “practice” instrument and not suitable for performance, the clavichord has a mechanical keyboard-activated design with hammers striking strings, but it produces a volume quite similar to that of the lute.  In some respects a forerunner to the modern pianoforte, the keys of the clavichord respond to the degree of pressure applied by the fingers, and is therefore capable of (slight) gradations of volume and more tonal nuance than the harpsichord.

Ralph Kirkpatrick (1911 – 1984), best known for his catalog of the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti, was among the pioneering champions of the clavichord.  Kirkpatrick first studied the clavichord with Arnold Dolmetsch, was performing public recitals on the instrument in 1933, and went so far as to record Bach on the clavichord as early as the 1940s.

Offering a keyboard specialist’s keen insight into playing a very quiet instrument for audiences accustomed to thundering iron-framed double Forte-pianos, Kirkpatrick’s remarks about initiating listeners to the sound of the clavichord should help keyboard players understand what it’s like to be very quiet for a change.  Our quotes are liberally drawn from the essential article, Ralph Kirkpatrick, “On playing the clavichord,” Early Music 9.3 (Jul. 1981): 293-305.  Kirkpatrick had so many insightful observations that it was necessary to assign our own categories.


“My musical approach was instinctive and guided for the most part by what I heard coming from the instrument. Nothing has ever done more to sharpen my ear, not even the experience of choral singing, than my unremitting listening to what I was producing…The very limitations of its volume can help to sharpen [one’s] imagination. But within these limitations, no infractions of proportion can be tolerated. Starting at whatever the clavichord’s greatest level of volume may be, the progression from there into silence must be smooth and susceptible of every nuance within those narrow limits.”

“[The clavichord]… is always on the losing end of any competition with radios, refrigerators, traffic noises and air conditioners, much in the same way as in Bach’s day it must have lost out against the cries of street vendors, the rattle of horseshoes and carriage wheels, and the sounds emitted by even the most wellbrought-up houseful of children.”

– p. 296

Tone production and articulation

“The inherent tendency of their covered strings toward coarseness and muddiness must be counteracted by the player as best he can. Any forcing of sound can wreak destruction not only on the intonation but on the whole musical fabric, and the player must be ready at all times to balance and to undercut a sound in such a way as to establish the proportion of a piece as a whole.”

– p. 298

“Over the years I had become more consciously aware of the procedures involved in shaping the performance of any work of music. Constant singing of individual voices and expanded experience of continuo playing, the disciplines and devices of articulation necessary to render the implacable harpsichord expressive, and constant harmonic and rhythmic analysis had given me a capacity more accurately and precisely to guide my natural musical instincts. Without this background, I could never have faced up to the consummate difficulties of attempting to execute [Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier] Book 2 on the clavichord.”

– p. 301

Live performance

“My attempts at performing on the clavichord for more than a handful of people were always limited by the nature of the room in which I was playing, by the character of the audience, and above all, by the necessity of absolute freedom from interference by outside sounds. Even under the most ideal circumstances, the effect of a performance could be at the mercy of someone’s fit of coughing, of objects inadvertently dropped or, on one hideous occasion, of the sounding-off of an alarm-clock in someone’s pocket. All of these dangers were constantly present…”

– p. 301

Tuning and recording

“After much experimenting with balance and position of microphones, and after the playbacks had been carefully scrutinized, the actual recording began, and with it our real troubles. In the course of the heat wave which overtook all of Europe that summer, the skylights of the studio permitted the sun at different times of day to cause an enormous variation in temperature, and hence in humidity. The daily fluctuations between morning, midday and afternoon made necessary repeated checking and tuning of the clavichord. Since I have never allowed anyone else to tune a clavichord for my performances, this burden fell upon me.”

– p. 302

“The necessarily instantaneous shifting from the detached workmanlike objectivity of a conscientious tuner to the passionate involvement of the performing artist, and consequent instantaneous transformation of personality, put me under a strain greater than any to which I have ever been subjected. It goes without saying that the better-tempered I kept the clavichord the more ill-tempered I myself became.”

“Only long prior discipline and what must be a certain native fortitude can have kept me from exploding at frequent intervals. But in addition to the constant necessity of retuning, other obstacles presented themselves. By mid-morning on sunny days, the excessive heat caused the roof beams to emit slight squeaking noises as they warmed in the late morning sun. In the framework of clavichord recording these squeaks became thunderclaps, and any acceptable recording made at that time of day had to be sandwiched between them.”

“Throughout the day, at least every nine minutes or even more often, an aeroplane made its way over our heads to or from the Hamburg airport. We tried recording in the small hours of the night, but then the whistles of the barges and steamboats on the Elbe took over. When I finally realized that I was faced with an ordeal even greater than that which I had endured in Paris, I sat for a time shaking from head to foot and thinking that every nerve in my body and consciousness would snap.”

– p. 303

Playback volume

“No one who has never experienced the magic of a good clavichord performance can be expected to understand that these recordings are meant to be played at a level of volume that would be entirely covered by an ordinary speaking voice. Unlike so many of today’s recordings they cannot be overheard, they must be listened to.”

“The strain and focus of attention attendant upon actually hearing what is being played forms part of the intensity of the experience of listening to the clavichord. In these days when the air is polluted from every direction by sound emanating from loudspeakers, a complete reversal of prevailing attitudes is necessary. Under such conditions as still are possible, silence must be rediscovered and no musical sound merely taken for granted. Dimensions are no longer absolutes but determined by proportions.”

“In listening to clavichord music, there is something of gazing into a microscope at the structure and behaviour of the minutest particles or of searching the heavens with a telescope for galaxies billions of light years away. We are transported out of a sense of scale that is determined by our actual physical dimensions, in a sense liberated from space and time and brought into a world of essential imagination.”

– p. 304

The future of quiet music

“I am not certain what the future of the clavichord will be. Almost anything about it is in direct contradiction with the prevailing tendencies of the present-day world, and with the ever-increasing imposition on us of ready-made and mass-produced sensibilities…The clavichord demands resources of concentration, intimacy, and delicacy with which everything around us is constantly at war, for it seems that the majority of mankind has decided henceforth to ban the occurrence of silence even for a moment.

The vogue into which the harpsichord and above all the guitar have returned has become habitual and extroverted, whereas the cultivation of the clavichord perilously resembles the solitary exploit of  engraving the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin. Yet one can only suppose that as long as people continue to read poetry, to maintain gardens, to observe the cycle of the seasons, to cultivate and refine their sensibilities as human beings, there will always be somewhere a place for the clavichord.”

– p. 305

Kirkpatrick’s observations relate exactly and directly to the experience of playing the lute. Frequent tuning, complete and constant control over each and every note, immense concentration upon details of musical phrasing, a highly nuanced tone that cannot bear interruption by the least whisper of a competing sound: The lute poses all of these challenges in common with the clavichord—but without keys and hammers to moderate one’s touch.  Get it?

The clavichord endures to this day and finds favor among the cognoscenti, sometimes turning up in very unexpected places.  An absolute favorite is a recording of music from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess featuring guitarist Joe Pass and the amazing Oscar Peterson on clavichord (Pablo Records, 1976).  Peterson is more tastefully subdued than usual, using the quiet volume and responsive touch of the instrument to produce some finely-tuned blue notes, and the balance and interplay with Joe Pass, playing acoustically, makes this one of the most sublime recordings ever.  Listen to their rendition of the perennial Summertime, and hear for yourself.

  1. Chlovena Byrd (Metzger) permalink

    Chlovena Byrd here. I like well your rant re the loss of appreciation for the quiet instrument played with skill and sensitivity. “…a single noisome note…” I think “noisome” usually means really STINKY–in the literal sense–also harmful, injurious or noxious and/or putrid, rotten. Maybe you meant all that.

    I too play a quiet instrument in our trio of quiet instuments–‘ukuleles played in the classical manner. Quiet instuments ask us to respect their voices with our full attention. This is the very antithesis of what most modern music asks of us.

    Love the clavichord/guitar duet. Thank you for citing that wonderful example of quiet music.

    Your scholarly posts are a joy to read!!

    • Thanks, Chlovena, and it’s great to hear from you. I might have known a reader as erudite as you would catch my half-disguised barb in the form of an adjective. I was thinking more along the lines of “fetid” and as applies to noisome noisemakers like hobos and baboons. We plucked string players are a rum lot.

  2. I remember a young boy trying out a clavichord at the late Laurette Goldberg’s Musical Resources. He was fascinated with the texture of the clavichord but kept pounding away at the keys trying to make it louder, at which point Laurette quietly walked by and whispered ” that’s as loud as it gets…”

  3. Dan Winheld permalink

    My first proper lute, an eight course Renaissance model, was built by the late New York clavichord builder Hugh Gough; who apprenticed- as player and builder- with Arnold Dolmetsch in the late 1930’s.

    -From the book “The Modern Harpsichord: 20th century Instruments and Their Makers” by Wolfgang Joachim Zuckermann, 1969:

    “At present Gough is devoting himself to his beautifully designed five octave double-strung clavichords, and to lutes (“the last instrument fit for a gentleman to play”), as well as to writing about these instruments. He recently said to me: “I’ve been purified; I have nothing whatever to do with harpsichords. When are you going to be purified?”

    • Thanks for this wonderful quote, Dan. Clavichords definitely get the seal of approval among those with more refined ears. There’s a reason why we read about lutes and harps played by angelic throngs in Heaven, but harpsichords are distinctly omitted from mention. Maybe the other place…

  4. Erika permalink

    Judging by some surviving drawings and paintings, the lute was used in ensembles during the Renaissance. Even allowing for the fact that Renaissance bowed strings were not as loud as their modern counterparts, how did they balance the sound?

  5. You ask a very good question, Erika. At least among the sort of people who both played our music (professional musicians and wealthy amateurs) and heard the results (definitely nobles and courtly hangers-on), we strongly believe that hearing was much more acute 400-500 years ago. Given that 16th century violins were built and strung much more lightly, and that bows were much less robust, it seems that balance among softer instruments was much less problematic. Also, small ensembles never really needed to play to be heard in a 1000-seat auditorium.

    Of course it’s difficult to prove what hearing was like so long ago, but it is very clear that the amount of constant mechanical noise we are subjected to today has taken the edge off our collective hearing. Add in the detrimental effects of highly amplified music and the overuse of headphones.

  6. Ned Mast permalink

    Thanks for another fine article. Upon finishing reading it I immediately ordered the Oscar Peterson – Joe Pass guitar – clavichord CD.

  7. Dan Winheld permalink

    Another set of fine recordings of the clavichord was done by Thurston Dart. Originally two records first issued in 1958 and 1961 on L’Oiseau Lyre, SDL 60038 & 60039, now available on CD, JMSCD 4 & 5 (J. Martin Stafford in association with the British Clavichord Society) “The Thurston Dart Clavichord Collection”

    These are by far my favorites of all available “Historically based” clavichord recordings. Incredibly beautiful & astutely mature, complete interpretations of J.S.Bach, J.J.Froberger, Henry Purcell, and a few others. Get in touch with me if you have trouble finding them.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quotes 5.45: Recording 2016 | Unquiet Thoughts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: