Monday, June 03, 2013

How a harpsichord works

I have programmed a Telemann-based radio station for myself on Pandora, and I've been enjoying hearing so much harpsichord in its broadcast. While a harpsichord looks very like a piano, its strings actually create sound by being plucked, rather than hit with a hammer as with a piano.

The modern piano did not arrive fully-formed like Venus rising from the billowing surf, but pretty much is a product of evolution in sound engineering. Predating the piano was the harpsichord, which featured prominently in Renaissance and Baroque era music, and is a defining element of music of that period. What came to be the harpsichord was primarily engineered by Flemish instrument makers in the 16th century. Around the beginning of the 18th century, the new keyboard on the block was the fortepiano, and Mozart and Beethoven composed piano music for this exciting new iteration of keyboard.

This is a really cool demonstration of how a harpsichord works.

As you can hear, this is a very distinctive sound. I particularly love the flute music of Telemann, and he has a great body of work in which the harpsichord figures heavily,and with tremendous charm and feeling. Mozart and many other operatic composers used the harpsichord to underscore recitative (the spoken bits between arias) in their operas. Some exceptions would be the singspiel mode which is not completely sung-through. My favorite singspiel is Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) in which the performers speak lines with no music between songs. My guess would be that the use of harpsichord for underscoring the recitative passages is that the orations of the singers will not be overpowered by the sounding of the instrument.

The harpsichord apparently sounded old-timey and fell out of vogue for the whole of the nineteenth century, but has enjoyed a renaissance of its own starting in the 20th century and continuing in perpetuity, one hopes.

Here is one you are sure to recognize: Bach's Minuet in G major, beautifully played by SF Christo:

I hope you'll enjoy this music, and possibly seek out more music in which it is prominently featured.


Ed Skinner said...

Wonderful! Thank you.

Buck said...

Fascinating. I'll never listen to harpsichord music in quite the same way.

Old NFO said...


J.R.Shirley said...

Harpsichord always reminds me of Disney's Haunted Mansion.