Harpsichord, anyone?

Discussion in 'Comedy & Tragedy' started by gallahadesquire, Sep 7, 2015.

  1. gallahadesquire

    gallahadesquire Marquess

    Well, THAT was slightly misleading.

    I'm slowly going through my bucket list, and I've hit an item that will be difficult: an harpsichord.

    I don't play, well, not well. I know the oeuvre for the instrument pretty well, and I'd love to be able
    to knock off a couple of hundred Scarlatti sonatas, or any of Soler's stuff.

    I hope someone in here has some advice for me, other than "DON'T!".

    The resurgence of harpsichord making and playing had a grand base here in Greater Boston. I know Carl Fudge's wife (and met him a couple) and I think I met Dowd once. Not sure on that.

    Any suggestions are appreciated. I think I'd be looking for a relatively plain double-manual, Dowd preferred (or which tehre seem to be a glut on the market at teh moment).


    Ref: http://www.harpsichord.com/List/list_frmset.html It's in my neighborhood.
  2. honcho

    honcho Protector of the Realm

    If you're going to be shelling out somewhere between $3,000 and $9,000 for a musical instrument,
    I would make arrangements with somebody that you know to play well (like a potential teacher),
    to go with you and try out a few instruments before making a purchase. Seems like there
    are enough instruments to be had in your area to make that possible. I imagine you'ld be
    able to engage someone for rather under $100/hour.

    (I'm not a keyboard player myself, but I did solicit my oboe teacher at the time to go
    with me to try out several instruments at a local place that's one of only a handful in
    the country that keeps several professional instruments in stock at any given time,
    last time I did some serious shopping for a primary instrument).
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2015
  3. rvwnsd

    rvwnsd Teller of "Like It Is"

    I like harpsichord music. Perhaps once you learn you will play for me.
  4. gallahadesquire

    gallahadesquire Marquess

    The harpsichord Clearing House is about 30 miles away. I know several organists who would accompany me.
    I do not play a manual instrument (skin flute doesn't count), but I've coveted a harpoon for years.
    As long as I stay in New ENgland, I know one woman, prior chairman of the music department at one of our ten colleges,
    who could train me. I'm sure she'd be good with the chair, whip, and pistol.

    I could just get an eee-lectonic what-not, but ... it's not the same.
    Oh, and Honcho: It's more like $20,000 to $30,000. For those bucks, I could get a 1931 Casavant organ.
  5. whipped guy

    whipped guy Regent

    Years ago I looked into purchasing a harpsichord. They were quite expensive. I even looked into building one from a kit. I figured out that would be impossible. A clavichord seemed much simpler to build, but I wanted something more robust. That was in the mid 1970's. I then got involved with work and totally abandoned the idea.

    I do know someone who has a harpsichord. He did not build it, but restored it. Given the construction it is impossible to keep the damned thing in tune. He fortunately has the know how to somewhat deal with it, but really a professional is needed in his opinion. One more reason that I never took the plunge!

    The compromise for me, and everything in life is usually a compromise, is to indeed get an electric instrument. It may sound like heresy, but for a fraction of the price I can get a keyboard that will give a variety of piano sounds, organ, and harpsichord. Plus I will get a full sized keyboard for times when I don't want to restrict myself to older music.

    My retirement plan is to revitalize my keyboard skills that I had neglected for so many years. I have a spinet piano and really would want a keyboard with a better action. With an electric instrument I can get the action of a grand piano at a fraction of the price. It won't exactly sound like a Steinway, but it's not a bad compromise, in life we often do need to compromise.

    Over the years I had developed work related issues with my right hand. In the two months since retiring my hand is now 90'% better and I can comfortably play again. My favorite keyboard composer is Haydn and since he spans the period from the transition from harpsichord to fortepiano, I really don't want to restruct myself to just one instrument. Of course I investigated buying a fortepiano way back when as well, and they were even more complicated. Plus, the wooden construction made them just as prone to going out of tune as a harpsichord. With an electric instrument I have noted that often one of the piano sounds available can at times somewhat approximate the sound of a fortepiano. Again, I should mention that it's a compromise as is everything in life, not to mention that it sould be the most practical way to bring more music into my life. Plus it would save space! Once again I'm being practical!

    In any event, I have always been interested in older music. At a very early age I realized that the editions of most 18th Century music available were quite corrupt. In the 1970's I purchased the complete Christa Landon Edition of the Haydn Sonatas. Since that pioneering effort dates from the 1960's it was updated several years ago by Robert Levin. The differences are minor for many compositions, but it is in those little details that the whole character of a given piece can be seen in a new light. This often effects the earlier harpsichord based sonatas. To be able to play them on an instrument that approximates the sounds that the composer probably heard is something that I emphatically need to do. Even playing them on an electric instrument is an improvement compared to my spinet.

    And to the OP.... if your potential dominatrix teacher needs a whip to train you I would be willing to supply her with the tools of the trade.

    Incidentally, Yale University has quite a collection of old keyboard instruments. Unfortunately you can't play any of them, but once I did sneak into a classroom after hours where a harpsichord was brought for demonstration purposes. I was in heaven! Franz Josef never sounded so good and I was the player!!!

    PS: The OP mentions Soler... an under-rated guy in my opinion! I almost forgot about him!
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2015
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  6. AdamSmith

    AdamSmith Count de Crisco

    whipped guy is God on all these points. :) A harpsichord is never in tune for more than a few minutes. E. Power Biggs's (see our eviscerations of his musicianship on these forums ca. 2010) recording of Bach on the pedal harpsichord is a bit hilariously out of tune, for example.

    Buy a Clavinova or other such electronic instrument. As an organ purist I can't believe I'm saying that, but whipped makes the case absolutely.
    whipped guy likes this.
  7. AdamSmith

    AdamSmith Count de Crisco

    Tuning a large pipe organ, something for which I had no qualification but nonetheless was dragooned into by Fenner Douglass at Duke, is a fascinatingly maddening vexation. The flue pipes' tune goes up and down with the climate inside the chapel or whatever, but the reed pipes are what you tune, because they are much more easily tuned by sliding a little thing in them up or down.

    The Duke Flentrop has ~5000 pipes.

    My fear of heights did not help climbing the high rickety ladders up near the Chapel roof to fool with those pipes.

    But, as with any such, one of the peak life experiences.
    sync, ffdave and Lookin like this.
  8. whipped guy

    whipped guy Regent

    Well! To get an imprimatur from the illustrious Mr. Smith is high praise indeed! However, in all things I am usually the voice of reason.
    Yes keeping instruments in tune is all about climate control. Unfortunately in a normal situation be it a home, chapel or whatever that is something that is impossible to do. My piano teacher used to keep a vase of water on top of her Streinway grand in order to control the moisture. I'm not sure if it did anything. At least at times the flowers looked nice! In a museum setting it is possible, but then again the instruments are hardly played except for special circumstances so it is almost a mute point that they are mostly in tune. Now I had not given much thought to the fact that an organ might be even more frustrating!!! Plus climbing the heights!!! No wonder the Hammond organ came into existence. Incidentally, my teacher had one of those as well and I did play a few Bach preludes on it. The ones with the ultra simple peddle parts. It was strange that with its two manuals one had to play with one long arm, one short arm, and your feet as well!!! There's no way that I would to able to chew gum at the same time!
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  9. Charlie

    Charlie Peer

    I own a Clavinova, which I bought used at a very reasonable price ($600?) from a pianist friend who finally had a living room big enough for a grand piano. It has several settings, including one that sounds like a pretty good imitation of a harpsichord. You might want to start out by learning on that, and then if you get good enough, invest in a real harpsichord.
  10. whipped guy

    whipped guy Regent

    Your post reminded me that a friend has a Clavinova in his basement. It seems the children never followed through with their piano lessons and it may be just the deal for me as well.

    Incidentally, our now long defunct local opera company used an electric instrument for the harpsichord accompanied recitatives. In fact in Mozart's Don Giovanni it was also used for Don Giovanni's Mandolin accompanied serenade.

    Incidentally even when a authentic harpsichord is used it is at times amplified in some of the larger opera venues.
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  11. AdamSmith

    AdamSmith Count de Crisco

    This reminded me of another bit of organ stuff. Humidity affects those pipe ranks that are made of wood a little bit but the main thing that throws cathedral pipe organs out of tune is temperature fluctuations. So (if the organist or the organ maintenance guy has any pull) there is usually some effort not to overheat the place. And the tuning of the reed pipes before an 'important' performance is not quite so much about absolute correctness as it is about getting all the different ranks of pipes (several radically different modes of physical construction and sound production) to sound in unison. There are in fact specially designed ranks called in Dutch the mixtuurs to blend (actually sort of fudge and cover over) the difficulty of getting all the different ranks into the same temperament.
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  12. whipped guy

    whipped guy Regent

    Yes, having a good temperament is very important! Actually it is a good thing to be well tempered or wohltemperiert in all things in life not just music. :)
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  13. AdamSmith

    AdamSmith Count de Crisco

    Last edited: Sep 9, 2015
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  14. AdamSmith

    AdamSmith Count de Crisco

    The ways that large organs are so aggravating to regulate, and that I learned to love them exactly for that reason from Fenner and Dirk and Fisk, taught me such useful things when I was young and trying to learn how to think.
    honcho likes this.
  15. whipped guy

    whipped guy Regent

    Well at least you were thinking about large organs, and ultimately learned to love them.
  16. AdamSmith

    AdamSmith Count de Crisco

    I had forgotten this riveting discussion of essentially all the history of the organ:


    It was, again, one of the peak experiences to study with the author. It was presented in the curriculum as a music history and theory class, but once in there, he delightfully forced every one of us into actual practice, terrifying as it was. (Unlike a piano or harpsichord, an organ is punishingly revealing of every aspect of one's touch etc.)
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  17. whipped guy

    whipped guy Regent

    In my limited experience playing the organ I found the "touch" aspect to be the most frustrating. A harpsichord is really quite another story and other than getting the proper articulation (staccato, portato, an attempt at a more legato feel, etc.) it's really not touch sensitive. With a piano it depends on the instrument and even the same model from the same manufacturer can be wildly different. Of course with an organ the differences must be even greater depending on the construction. It must be frustrating to toggle between different instruments.

    I found the above article to be quite interesting and especially how the industrial revolution was responsible for the introduction of pneumatic devices in organ construction... and this all before the horrors of electricity were introduced. Well any digital piano with its combination of organ, harpsichord, and steel drum sounds is never going to sound like the real thing. So unless one has the space for one of each in their home such a choice is always a compromise.

    Inspired by this thread, I attempted to visit a local store that sells a combination of acoustic and electric pianos. Well it was (past tense) the only one in the area that sold both. I should have called prior to going as I discovered that it is out of business. That leaves only one establishment in the area that sells pianos of any type. I find that surprising given that I live in the shadow of Yale University.

    Along those lines, I visited the only shop that stocks an abundance of classically oriented sheet music a couple of weeks ago as well, and was totally disappointed in the lack of urtext editions such as Henle, Wiener Urtext, etc. Yes, they are pricey, but if I'm a music major with aspirations of being a professional musician I would want to learn a score from a scholarly source, not a corrupt Schirmer or Peters score (many of which are pricey as well) based on the research and editorial standards of 100 years ago! I ultimately ended up going to the Jiulliard Store in NYC to investigate and purchase that which I wanted and I am not even what one might describe as being a talented amateur. Of course one can "correct" their corrupt score with a scholarly one in a library, but I find that being exposed to a faulty version tends to subconsciously affect ones perception of the actual notes.

    Bottom line: Nothing is easy in the world of music, or anything else in this world for that matter. In an ideal situation one would be able to play a given piece of music on the exact type of instrument for which it was written and be playing from an authentic score. Anything short of that is a compromise.

    The above article speaks of being freed from "corruptive influences" yet also states that "...the elegant arts must grow up side by side the coarser plants of daily necessity". Such is life!
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  18. AdamSmith

    AdamSmith Count de Crisco

    'Touch' in a cathedral organ is the funniest thing. In a mechanical tracker-action organ there is an 'eggshell-break' feel in the middle of the key drop when you can tell by feel that you have opened the pallet and let the wind flow start. That tactile information is so valuable in performance because with large organs, more often than not the performer can't hear what's going on until it's too late! The first reverb back from the overall acoustic space may be the first time you really hear it. So much of the original sound just goes out over your head and you don't really quite know. And then different pipes take different amounts of time to speak. So the intimate physical feel, through the key desk, of what the instrument is doing is crucial to the musicianship.
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2015
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  19. whipped guy

    whipped guy Regent

    I figured as much. In a cathedral setting when you add in the acoustics and resonance factors it must get quite complicated. It probably is analogous to performing the National Anthem in a sports arena and the sound literally swirls around the stadium before the performer hears it.

    Plus it indeed takes a somewhat longer time for the really subterranean pedal bass notes to actually resonate from the larger peddle pipes. The same is true for an orchestra where some conductors have the double basses play just a fraction of a beat ahead of the rest of the orchestra in certain passages to assure that the proper impact is felt. That was a trick that Toscanini used to make his performances sound more exciting. Likewise I'm sure some organists compensate in a similar manner. One must know not only how a given instrument reacts, but how it reacts in relationship to the acoustics of the venue!

    Along those lines, when in high school I was performing on the stage at Sprague Hall at Yale which at the time had a very lively acoustic. It was the first and only time that I played the piano in such a setting and I recall that my opening phrases jumped out and actually startled me to the point that I felt as though I was playing too forcefully. I actually think that it was impossible to play anything pianissimo in that space!
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2015
  20. AdamSmith

    AdamSmith Count de Crisco

    Exactly right that the pedals are the most troublesome bit about the whole thing. Biggs didn't really understand their historical reason for being; he used them just for exaggerated thunder etc. But in the North High German, and the 17/18th-cent French, org building schools there were whole technical reasons they were needed to extend the range (actually that may be technically very incorrect - I can't remember, but I think there were tonal extension reasons that I now will go look up).