We friends of classical music huddle in the wilderness, spiteful and sighing, wondering where it all went wrong. Forget about declining sales. What really worries me isn’t the indifference of outsiders, but the abominations within classical music, and especially the trend toward “authentic” period instruments. This movement keeps spreading, like a historically informed mildew. As a piano-enthusiast, I've always found the harpsichord, or cembalo as it’s sometimes called, particularly galling. Week after week, I check the new releases only to find Bach performed on some rusty contraption revived from the Baroque. The faithful should renounce the harpsichord.
A preliminary objection to the cembalo is that it sounds terrible. Quite awful, really. The conductor Thomas Beecham supplies the canonical description: “Like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof.” The keys are connected to a plectrum that picks at the strings with a vulture’s quill, which naturally results in a sonic death-rattle, quite unlike the piano, which strikes with the hammer of Thor. The plucking of the cembalo thus sounds desiccated and thin, while the clean, crisp strokes of the piano remind us of glaciers and Norse gods.
A more technical objection rests on the piano’s key feature, right there in its full name, fortepiano, loud and soft. The piano, unlike its rivals, permits variations in dynamics. Everything on the harpsichord is the same loudness, allowing no emphasis of particular lines or sections. To appreciate the difference this makes, consider that Bach liked to play straight through pieces like the Well-tempered Clavier, which meant five straight hours without any changes in emphasis.
Of course, there are the opposing arguments. Historicists say the harpsichord is better suited to the music written for it. Sure, wheel out the nine-foot Steinway for Rachmaninoff, but the counterpoint of Bach requires a thinned-out instrument that doesn’t smear those delicate lines. Yet a competent performer can make a piano seem gracile enough, and the lack of dynamic contrasts is itself damaging to the music, since you cannot emphasize what’s beneath the surface—a theme submerged in the bass, say.
But in the end, the issue isn’t how a given instrument sounds or what its capabilities are. The harpsichord has its place. My deeper quarrel is with the historicist attitude toward music itself—the idea that performing classical music is fundamentally about being “authentic” by historical standards. This threatens to turn music, which should transcend its time and place, into a museum full of dried up fossils. We shouldn’t tie eternal beauty to the vagaries of keyboard development, the way we dress up the kids for Halloween using whatever is in the bottom drawer.
In one sense, period instruments are supposed to be authentic by letting us more accurately recreate an eighteenth-century performance. In another sense, historicists mean that instruments like the harpsichord better capture what the composer had in mind, and that substituting the piano disregards his artistic intent, like colorizing Citizen Kane or playing The Art of the Fugue on a keytar. (Full disclosure: I secretly love the keytar, in all its eighties glory.) The through-line is that period instruments are more authentic because they are truer to the past, and musical performance should be thought of as fundamentally backward-looking.
These are notions of authenticity, to be sure, but not very compelling ones. What, after all, do we want from a musical performance? A kind of Civil War reenactment that recreates the performance as the composer imagined it, given the resources at his disposal—complete with a poorly trained boys choir that sings off-key? Should conductors wear silly wigs? What if a composer (like Bach) was himself rather indifferent to instrumentation, and was eager to experiment with new technology?
The alternative is to conceive of music as a living, forward-looking enterprise. That may seem paradoxical when dealing with two-hundred-year-old composers, but it all depends on what we hear the music saying. If you imagine Bach’s Goldberg Variations to be merely a reflection of eighteenth-century styles and conventions, then it makes sense to take the historical approach. But when I listen to Bach, what I hear are voices that exist as individual melodies with their own personalities, and yet form harmonies when overlain, so that each moment in time can be read either in connection with those that follow, or in terms of the block of notes sounding at that moment—as if to express the mystical duality of music itself. And if that (or anything close) is what we are trying to convey, we should simply pick the best instrument for doing so, which will usually be the piano.
There is no need to scold the cembalists unduly. We all benefit from a historical performance now and then, as a ride in a covered wagon can be informative without substituting for a minivan. What we mustn’t do is turn music itself, in its most complex and profound form, into a museum, dedicated only to reenacting the past.
Dan Moller is the author of The Way of Bach: Three Years with the Man, the Music, and the Piano. He is professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland.
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