AUG 19, 2001 [2015 update at end]

A Way to Hear Bach Intimately, if Barely


Bernard D. Sherman is the author of Inside Early Music and of many articles for The New York Times and other publications.

Fifty years ago, pianists and harpsichordists traded insults like "purist" and "inauthentic." Today, famous pianists practice Bach on the harpsichord, and harpsichordists admit to listening to Bach on the piano. Is there anything left to argue about in the Baroque keyboard field?

Enter (quietly) the clavichord. Modern players have focused on the harpsichord, but in 1775 Bach's student Johann Friedrich Agricola wrote that his teacher "often" played his unaccompanied violin works on the clavichord, and Bach's first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, asserted in 1802 that the clavichord was Bach's "favorite" keyboard instrument. Scholars long dismissed both reports as projections of later tastes back onto Bach. David Ledbetter, for example, in his unequalled book on the Well-Tempered Clavier, notes that Agricola's German nationalist sentiments led him to deny French elements in Bach's music, including the use of the harpsichord.  Still, says Ledbetter, Forkel's words "deserve consideration." So do some new CD releases, that demonstrate how well the instrument can work in Bach when played by a master.

Forkel, who was born in the last year of Bach' life, 1749, got his information from the composer's sons Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784) and Carl Philipp Emanuel (1744-1788). They told Forkel that J. S. Bach considered the clavichord the best instrument for "private entertainment and study," and few scholars have a problem with this attribution: the use of the clavichord for private study was attested in German sources as early as 1610. More controversial is Forkel's claim that Bach felt the harpsichord "had not enough soul," while the clavichord let him "express his most refined thoughts," because no other keyboard instrument could equal "its variety in the shadings of tone."1  After all, the best harpsichordists can evoke far more shading than we might imagine; the clavichord came into its own only in the 1740s; the fortepiano was "in its infancy" in Bach's day, and he was unimpressed by the one he played; and today's options include a Steinway.

But some musicians say that the clavichord can be more responsive than any. Ralph Kirkpatrick,  an American early-music pioneer whose recording of "The Well-Tempered Clavier" has just been reissued, called it the keyboard instrument that "least resembles a machine." A harpsichord key plucks the string, and a piano key throws a hammer at it, but a clavichord key touches the string directly and continues to do so for as long as the note sounds. According to the American clavichordist Richard Troeger, this ongoing contact allows "an enormous range of nuance" that sometimes go beyond the piano or harpsichord. For example, the clavichord can add vibrato to a tone already sounded - an effect central to singing and to wind and string playing but impossible on a piano or harpsichord, even if the best players make us imagine it's there.

Ledbetter notes that Bach, unlike his sons, wrote almost no keyboard music that seems to call for the clavichord's unique expressive nuances He adds that Bach used "the vague word clavier" ("keyboard instrument") because the Well-Tempered Clavier was meant for use in teaching or private study, rather than concert life; there was no telling what instrument a person may have at home. Still, the clavichord has some appealing features. One of them is its sound, which can be sweeter than that of the more muscular harpsichord. Another is its ability to let the player subtly shape inner voices and bass lines, so that the ear doesn't lose track of them in complex textures.

So why the neglect of the clavichord? For one thing, it is surprisingly hard to play. No other keyboard instrument requires such precise control of the fingers. After pianists or harpsichordists strike a note, their fingers need only release it at the right instant, but a clavichordist's fingers must nurture a note throughout its life. If the player's attention flags for a split second, the note can turn ugly or go out of tune.

A bigger disincentive for performers - noted by Forkel - is the clavichord's notoriously soft voice. While it may be an antidote to ear-damaging rock concerts, the clavichord's low decibel level probably challenges 21st-century ears more than it did 18th-century ones. Hearing loss and tinnitus have become epidemic in recent decades. Further, modern background noises can mask the clavichord's sound, and huge modern concert halls engulf it.

To be sure, recent scholarship shows that the clavichords Bach knew were not as feeble as those built in the early-20th-century revival of the instrument. The leader of that revival, Arnold Dolmetsch, compared the tone of his instruments with the humming of bees, but the best clavichords now being made (or restored) can create a stunning forte.

Stunning, that is, within the instrument's quiet context. Even the loudest clavichords are far too soft for most performance spaces. In a paradox that is common with period instruments, the perfect medium for clavichordists is that least historical one, the CD. The Troeger release and the Kirkpatrick reissue let us hear extraordinary Bach playing that would barely be audible from the stage of Carnegie Hall, and they show that the challenging little instrument seems to attract probing, responsive players.

Kirkpatrick's 1959 recording of Book 1 of "The Well-Tempered Clavier" (Archiv 463 601-2; two CD's) uses a humming-of-bees instrument made by Dolmetsch. Once your ears adjust to the soft volume, familiar preludes and fugues seem more eventful than usual. Kirkpatrick understands the hierarchy of levels in these pieces, from ornaments to long-range harmonic tensions. At first hearing, his Book 1 sounds rather "straight": when a passage is driving toward a goal, he never interrupts it in midsentence. But on closer listening, it reveals evocative shapings and half-tints.

Kirkpatrick recorded Book 2 (Archiv 289 463 623-2; two CD's) eight years later on an even softer clavichord with a less homogenous sound. Its upper register, which uses steel strings, sounds dulcet; its lower one, strung in brass, has a metallic buzz. But the instrument's limitations often seem to inspire Kirkpatrick. The difficult D major Fugue, for example, is magical: structural command melds with heartfelt nuance. In some pieces, Kirkpatrick bends the tempo more overtly than he did in Book 1, sometimes to breathtaking effect, as in the opening prelude.

Kirkpatrick's virtuosity is usually infectious. Only rarely do his tempos seem to me too hasty, and I attribute my feeling to our differing views on the implications of Bach's time signatures for tempo. I think Bach chose time signatures partly to convey something about the tempo, Kirkpatrick disagreed. Thus he plays the F-major Prelude from Book 2 as fast as possible, ignoring its relatively weighty 3/2 meter, and does the same in the C#-Major Prelude of that book, ignoring the "ordinary" tempo implied by its 4/4 time signature. (I also believe that the "Allegro" Bach wrote over the section near the end of that piece implies speeding up the pulse, while Kirkpatrick slows it down). Scholarly questions aside, on occasion a little more repose wouldn't hurt. But such problems are rare. Kirkpatrick's tempos "feel right" more often than on most recordings. His Book II is, to my ears, one of the supreme Bach recordings.

Kirkpatrick's two volumes remain, after 34 years, the only complete "Well-Tempered Clavier" on clavichord2. But not for long: Mr. Troeger is in the process of recording all of Bach's major solo keyboard works on the instrument (except for a few works that Bach specifically designated for harpsichord). Many of them have never been recorded on the clavichord.

The three releases so far have been memorable not only for Mr. Troeger's mastery of his instrument but also for his interpretations. In the inventions, sinfonias and preludes (Lyrichord 8047), his sensitive molding serves both the structure and the expression. In the toccatas (Lyrichord 8041), he uses the colors of the clavichord to give shape and variety to long fugues or sequences while also conveying a sense of improvisation. In the partitas (Lyrichord 8038; two CD's), he responds unerringly to the character and emotion of the different movements while projecting more of the contrapuntal interest than most performers. The orchestrally conceived opening of the Fourth Partita substantiates Mr. Troeger's claim that his instrument can sound "grand and robust" as well as lyrical. Indeed, the clavichord by no means reduces the stature of major works; on the contrary, by revealing so much detail to the ear, Mr. Troeger often conveys more of the music's stature than typical performances.

Mr. Troeger has since made clavichord recordings of Book 2 of "The Well-Tempered Clavier," "The Art of Fugue," the English and French Suites, various other suites, fantasias and fugues, and transcriptions of Bach's solo violin works. A student of Bach's recalled that the composer often played the solo violin works on the clavichord, but Mr. Troeger is the first to record them this way. Unfortunately, his record label, Lyrichord, is having trouble with its distributor, so the release of all these recordings has been delayed.

Charles Rosen once suggested that the best keyboard instrument for a Bach fugue is the one that draws the least attention to itself. A drawback of the clavichord in Bach is that it still sounds exotic to our ears. The cure would be for the instrument to become as familiar as its larger keyboard brethren, and these recordings should help. Their attractions lie, ultimately, not in letting us hear how Bach's music sounds on an instrument he might have favored, but in letting us hear how the music sounds in the hands of masterly performers.

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Click here for a lengthy article I wrote on harpsichord recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier


1. Here's what Forkel wrote in one translation: "[Bach] liked best to play upon the clavichord: the harpsichord, though certainly susceptible of a very great variety of expression, had not enough soul for him; and the piano in his lifetime was too much in its infancy and still much too coarse to satisfy him. He therefore considered the clavichord the best instrument for study, and in general, for private musical entertainment. He found it the most convenient for the expression of his most refined thoughts, and did not believe it possible to produce from any harpsichord or pianoforte such a variety in the gradations of tones as on this instrument, which is, indeed, poor in tone, but on a small scale extremely flexible."

There is corroborating evidence that Bach preferred the clavichord in at least some music. One Bach student--Agricola--reported that Bach liked to play his solo violin music on the clavichord. Agricola is specific in mentioning which instrument Bach used (something unusual for his time) - not just the "clavier" but the clavichord. Back to text

2. Colin Tilney did record Book 1 on a fine historic German clavichord for the Hyperion label. This ruminative, highly nuanced performance is out of print. Back to text

UPDATE: This is one of the few old pieces of mine that I still largely agree with. Troeger and Kirkpatrick still sound terrific to my ears. I'm not certain about the clavichord, of course, and I strongly recommend David Schulenberg's indispensable book, "The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach" second edition (Routledge, 2006), pp. 14-16 and elsewhere for really excellent discussion.