Bach on Clavichord: Listen Closely

07/24/2007

Of all the instruments used in classical music, the clavichord is certainly the quietest. So quiet, in fact, that clavichord recitals are rare, and limited to very small audiences. Unlike the majestic harpsichord, or the stately piano, the clavichord doesn’t project its sound much further than to the ears of the performer. It is not an instrument designed for performance, in fact, but rather for practice at home. Bach is said to have practiced regularly on a clavichord; Mozart, it is claimed, preferred the clavichord over other instruments; Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, the son of Johann Sebastian, wrote a great deal of music for the instrument.

The clavichord has metal strings, but, unlike the harpsichord, is hammered rather than plucked. The hammers use are not as sonorous as those of a piano, partly because the hammers remain in contact with the strings as the keys are pressed. The sound is something like that when a guitarist hammers the strings of his instrument by tapping his fingertips on them against the fretboard. The clavichord does, however, offer some amplification through the body of the instrument which is, like all keyboard instruments, box-like. Another subtlety of the clavichord is the way the performer can alter the volume and sound of the notes played by pressing the keys more or less hard, and holding them down. (This Wikipedia article describes the instrument more completely.)Ever since I first heard a clavichord recording I have been enamored of the instrument. Unlike other keyboard instruments that attempt to shout their sounds out to the world, the clavichord doesn’t care if anyone other than the player hears it. Its sounds are subtle, yet rich for those who pay attention. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to record the clavichord for these very reasons: miking a clavichord is a subtle art. Nevertheless, there are some excellent recordings, especially of Bach’s keyboard works. Richard Troeger has issued four recordings so far, of Bach’s Inventions, Sinfonias and Little Preludes, Tocattas, Partitas, and, most recently, the Art of Fugue. Other essential recordings include Ralph Kirkpatrick’s Well-Tempered Clavier, recorded on clavichord; Book 1, recorded in 1959, and Book 2, recorded in 1967. It is hard to imagine the reaction to these recordings, well before the early music movement had begun, but they remain seminal examples of musicianship on this instrument.

To explore the clavichord a bit more, check out Bradley Lehman’s web site, which includes some sound samples of his recordings, the Boston Clavichord Society, and Clavichord World, a site that covers all aspects of the instrument.