I once had the pleasure of attending a concert of P. D. Q. Bach’s music, put on by the inimitable Peter Schickele. (For those of you who have never heard P. D. Q. Bach’s work, I envy you your next few hours of joyful listening.) At one point that evening, Schickele needed a harpsichord—but, as he explained, he just didn’t have the money to tour with one. So he took some knives and forks and sheets of A4 paper out of his tuxedo jacket, placed them on the strings of the grand piano, and—remarkably enough—when he played, it sounded like a harpsichord.
Or close enough, to my ears. But as I later learned, the sound of an actual harpsichord is nothing like that. The grand piano was built for the stage, and owes its reverberation to the concert hall in which it is placed (or, in modern classical music recordings, to digital plug-ins through which its sound is processed). The harpsichord's reverberation, on the other hand, comes from within its own wooden walls. As a result, a real harpsichord simply isn't very loud.
I find this intimate music compelling. The sound swims; every note touched lingers long after your finger is gone. It is a warm and rich sound, the musical equivalent of enjoying a fire on an icy day. You would be justified in scratching your head at the irreconcilable difference between my description and Dan Moller’s, who recently called the cembalo's sound “desiccated and thin.” I suspect that is because its warmth is something that you are unlikely to notice or experience unless you are right beside a well-made harpsichord. A microphone probably wouldn’t pick up this subtle reverberation. It is an instrument that sounds best to the person playing it.
By almost any modern reckoning, this would make the harpsichord inferior to the piano, at least on a practical level—perhaps even on an aesthetic level, too. After all, doesn't this mean the harpsichord runs the risk of being an individualistic instrument, purely for the delectation of the player? The audience is left out of the musical experience.
I would argue the opposite: The piano is the instrument of expressive individualism; the harpsichord is the instrument of a vibrant, discursive life of the mind. It is the glorious vestige of an era when music was free from the impossible burdens that Romantics placed upon it, deprived as they were of any other reliable source of the noumenal. The harpsichord belongs to a time when music was an activity to be done, not heard. When Bach described his Goldberg Variations as being “for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits,” one might assume he meant that just listening to the Variations would refresh our spirits. Not at all: These connoisseurs were presented with “keyboard exercise,” as he put it. The refreshment came via playing the Variations, not by passively hearing them. People were not, after all, buying a recording of the score, but purchasing the sheet music.
This makes the harpsichord not solipsistic, but “discursive.” In the Middle Ages, the word used for “rhetoric” was often the Latin word dictamen, which means “letter-writing.” For centuries, this was the primary metaphor for understanding communication. Bach addresses his works quite frequently to readers as if he were writing them a musical letter. When I sight-read the Goldberg Variations at my harpsichord, I am receiving a communication from Bach and joining a conversation.
So although the harpsichord is meant to be enjoyed in one’s living room, it is not a radically individualistic activity at all. When we understand the musical work as a form of communication between the composer and the reader—just as we understand reading a book as a form of communication between the author and the reader—it becomes alive to interpretive possibility. I engage with the composer’s music as a peer, even while I acknowledge its surpassing excellence.
The nineteenth century saw a steady decline in this participatory form of music. The playing of music in one’s parlor after dinner was no longer considered the real thing, but a shadow of the real thing—the concert hall. When sound reproduction technology came along, it ensured this shift. For most people, music is now no longer a discursive activity, but an “experience.”
The piano excels in the concert hall. And of course, in such a context, if the piano were pitted against the harpsichord, the piano undoubtedly would win. But the piano concert is an experience, not a discourse. In the concert hall, there is an impregnable barrier between the composer and the audience, and it is not discourse that results, but a one-way awe from the audience toward the composer and the performer. When Bach is performed in a concert on a piano, it is more Schopenhauer or Adorno we hear than it is Bach.
The harpsichord’s music is best heard in my living room, being enjoyed by me and perhaps my friends, and there it has no need to be loud. Its chatty friendliness is just the thing.
John Ahern is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Princeton University.
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