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How to play harpsichord music on a piano


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#1 EllieD

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Posted 06 November 2017 - 08:38

I was wondering if there's any good information out there about interpreting music that was written for harpischord when playing it on the piano?

 

I don't know much about it, but I gather harpsichords had a limited dynamic range. However, we aren't playing harpsichords, so do we put dynamics in as if it were written for piano? And loads of other questions regarding articulation etc ... Each instrument has it's own qualities, but although they are both keyboard instruments, there is little else in common between them - the playing mechanism is totally different. So it wouldn't, I suspect, be right to play as if you were playing a harpsichord, since you're not, and that would just relegate the piano to being a poor substitute of the original instrument. But on the other hand, you surely don't want big Romantic swells of crescendo and diminuendo all over the place. My mum lent me her Easy Graded Bach book, from the 1950's, and that has a rather imaginative use of the pedal!! I suspect we wouldn't do that in modern interpretations of early music.

 

Any advice where to look?

 

 


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#2 Edwardo

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Posted 06 November 2017 - 16:48

My 02p, for what it's worth (1/50 of a pound), is that you should play it exactly how you want.  The people who wrote for the harpsichord were writing for what might be regarded as the pre-eminent keyboard instrument of the day, but I strongly suspect they would have thrown every harpsichord on Earth onto a gigantic bonfire had they access to a modern piano.  When I play Bach on a piano, I play with exactly as much crescendo, diminuendo, pedal etc. as I want.  Bach isn't around to critique me, and if I want it to sound like a harpsichord I'll either play it on a harpsichord (or on a keyboard with a harpsichord sample).

 

I realise that this doesn't answer your question!  If you wish to play the piano using the same articulation and other constraints of the harpsichord, then it seems to me that you have quite a good understanding of the requirements.  Maybe read the Wikipedia entry for the harpsichord to get an understanding of the mechanics?


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#3 GMc

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Posted 07 November 2017 - 05:52

Have a listen to the pre-eminent pianists famous for their Bach and see what you think.  Angela Hewitt is one many of us consider to be fantastic.  She uses pedal but the Baroque sense is there - certainly no Romantic rubato or dynamics.  How familiar with the era are you - improvisation, ornamentation (harpsichords were very light to the touch), figured bass,  Doctrine of Affectation, counterpoint, hierarchy of beats etc etc.   Have a listen to the first ever harpsichord "concerto"  Brandenburg No 5 and see what Bach did with one although that was written for the harpsichord "Steinway" of his time - a very pricey and large Mieke harpsichord he chose for Prince Leopold at Cothen.

 

As far as information goes - there is plenty with "HIP" being huge lately - historically informed performance.  But Edwardo is right - if Bach had had a modern grand I think he would have used it.  He liked organs and they are obviously a different kettle of fish.


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#4 EllieD

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Posted 08 November 2017 - 08:46

Thank you both! GMc - I need to remind myself of those terms - I think I knew what some of that was a quarter of a century ago but rather forgotten now! I will have a listen to Angela Hewitt - thanks for that!

 

I agree, Edwardo, that if the Pianoforte had been around in Bach's day, chances are he would have composed music for it instead ... but I doubt very much that music would have looked like what he actually did write for the harpsichord, so it is all down to taste I suppose.

 

I know my ideal solution would be to live in a big house with both a piano and a harpsichord sitting in my living room, but that sadly is highly unlikely!!!


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#5 _DaVid_

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Posted 14 November 2017 - 18:04

Very good question. Loving Bach music as I do, I wonder how should I play this or that piece with no performance directions at all. Why should I play it as if it's being played on harpsichord? I agree with Edwardo.
Glenn Gould rubbed some people up the wrong way not least Bernstein I think, but it's the artist's right to express themselves as they wish. I would imagine composers wouldn't want everyone playing the piece exactly as they do.
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#6 returning_to_piano

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Posted 16 November 2017 - 15:26

Howard Ferguson: Keyboard Interpretation from the 14th to the 19th Century has some great information. The chapters on phrasing and articulation help a lot. The book is not too thick and is surprisingly practical and concise! (I had been expecting it to be a tome on history.)


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#7 EllieD

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Posted 17 November 2017 - 15:06

Howard Ferguson: Keyboard Interpretation from the 14th to the 19th Century has some great information. The chapters on phrasing and articulation help a lot. The book is not too thick and is surprisingly practical and concise! (I had been expecting it to be a tome on history.)

 

Thank you!! I could get a second hand copy of this quite cheaply on Amazon, so it's on its way. The reviews were a bit mixed, as one person pointed out that the author has a habit of stating as fact things that are actually just his opinion, but I'm smart enough to be able to research anything like that that I am not sure about, so this should be a great starting point in my quest to work out what it is that I personally want to do with this music!


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#8 Hildegard

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Posted 19 November 2017 - 10:10

I agree, Edwardo, that if the Pianoforte had been around in Bach's day, chances are he would have composed music for it instead ...

 

Not only was the piano around in Bach's day, but we know that he tried out the early instruments produced by Gottfried Silbermann in the 1730s - he was critical of their thin tone and heavy touch. However, he praised Silbermann’s later pianos which he had played on his 1747 visit to Potsdam, and he helped promote their sale. Of course, these were very different to modern pianos, being much lighter in tone.


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#9 elemimele

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Posted 19 November 2017 - 11:39

... my impression the first time I was lucky enough to play a very old piano was that it was a bit like a struck harpsichord, both in tone and in what it felt like (the touch had a definite initial resistance and then lower force needed to depress the key, slightly like a tracker-action organ; the tone was thinner, stringier, and more harpsichord-sounding). Then, in contrast, there are the harpsichords used in the era of Wanda Landowska, which to my ears are heavy, growly, more like plucked pianos than harpsichords; I was very disappointed the first time I heard a recording of her work, having read so much about her as a pioneer. I forgot that even a great pioneer can sound dated and strange once their pioneering work has taken off, and begun to fruit in the work of others..

It's all too easy to confuse two instruments that have roughly the same shape and the same keyboard on the front, and forget that they are two totally different instruments. Bach's music has tended to work on almost any instrument: passacaglia for organ played on carillon, and the famous Moog synthesiser recordings. Perhaps by its nature it doesn't depend too much on instrumental timbre (in contrast, say, to French classical organ music, where a Basse de Cromorne really needs a cromorne/similar-set-of-reeds-reminiscent-of-a-row-of-unashamed-motor-horns, or it won't sound right). 

So, I agree with those who think that musical technique can (and often should) be adapted to suit a different instrument, or even different tastes; I would be very cautious, though, about putting thoughts into Bach's head. Who knows what he would or wouldn't have done? Perhaps we should just enjoy each instrument for its strengths, and accept its weaknesses. Perfection doesn't exist in this world.

There are, incidentally, many harpsichordists who consider their instrument expressive.


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#10 PianoMike

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Posted 24 November 2017 - 11:22

The ABRSM publications "Baroque Keyboard Pieces" are good. I think there are about 5 editions and have a lenghty intriduction on how to play baroque with the piano in mind.
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#11 EllieD

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Posted 30 November 2017 - 08:37

Started reading the Howard Fergusson book suggetsed by returning-to-piano - very detailed, but asks as many questions as it answers (I suppose inevitably) and I actually am beginning to wonder if many of the composers would have got so concerned about this anyway. Seems there is quite a lot of music written for "keyboard" which could have been organ, harpsichord, clavichord (on which not only could you sustain a note, you could also play a mild vibrato) and even in later years fortepiano. I don't suppose anyone would expect someone to approach the same piece in exactly the same way when you have different instruments, all with their strengths and weaknesses, so to write something with the vague instrument of "keyboard" in mind must imply that they are leaving certain elements of performance to the instrumentalist.

 

So yes, probably just play it as you want and if someone else likes it, great, and if they don't, they don't have to bother listening to you again, right?? !! smile.png 

 

Though a question for those who do maybe know something about this...

 

On the grade 6 syllabus is Bach's Invention 13. Most YouTube exam performance of this (that I've listened to) plays the quavers detached, although there are tied quavers in places which the pianists obviously hold. Why are they detaching the single quavers? To mimic a harpsichord or is there some genuine musical reason? I actually think it's better to be consistent with the quavers and tied quavers, and play most of the quavers legato (there's a few places where I could argue you could change it up a bit for variety). Any thoughts appreciated!


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#12 mel2

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Posted 30 November 2017 - 09:43

Some keyboard music in the Baroque era is inspired by violin music and so you could think of how the player would bow a passage of notes. In Invention 13 you can use your own imagination to decide whether the rising quaver motif is less detached than the preceding s/quavers or vice versa. JSB rarely left instructions to help so unless you plough through CPE Bach's famous Treatise (who got it from the horse's mouth, so to speak) you may have to rely on listening to the most informed prrformances available e.g Andras Schiff or Rosalyn Tureck.
Enjoy the investigation :)
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#13 EllieD

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Posted 01 December 2017 - 08:47

Thank you Mel2! Unfortunately what I know about the playing of stringed instruments can be written on the back of a postage stamp ... however, my sister was a viola player so I can ask what she thinks!!!

 

 

EDIT - I had some more thoughts about this - Mel2 (or anyone) do we know where the idea of articulating the piano as if it were a violin came from? Did anyone in the Baroque era state this, or is it just something that's come about later? I can see the argument for doing so - a Baroque ear would be comfortable with what was coming out of the £50,000 Steinway that they could never have dreamed of existing - but on the other hand, I don't want to play the piano as if it were an inferior violin any more than if it were an inferior harpsichord. All these instruments have their strengths and weaknesses (no acoustic piano is ever going to crescendo through a single note for example) but do I really need to restrict the piano's limitations further by pretending that I've run out of bow????

 

#puzzled


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#14 LoneM

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Posted 01 December 2017 - 10:37

It's not a question of running out of bow but of varying the articulation to give variety and maintain interest. The Baroque era was very hot on holding the listener's attention. This book by Judy Tarling is very good: The Weapons of Rhetoric: a Guide for Musicians and Audiences, and its ideas can be applied to all music, not just baroque.

 
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#15 mel2

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Posted 01 December 2017 - 12:44

Thank you Mel2! Unfortunately what I know about the playing of stringed instruments can be written on the back of a postage stamp ... however, my sister was a viola player so I can ask what she thinks!!!
 
 
EDIT - I had some more thoughts about this - Mel2 (or anyone) do we know where the idea of articulating the piano as if it were a violin came from? Did anyone in the Baroque era state this, or is it just something that's come about later? I can see the argument for doing so - a Baroque ear would be comfortable with what was coming out of the £50,000 Steinway that they could never have dreamed of existing - but on the other hand, I don't want to play the piano as if it were an inferior violin any more than if it were an inferior harpsichord. All these instruments have their strengths and weaknesses (no acoustic piano is ever going to crescendo through a single note for example) but do I really need to restrict the piano's limitations further by pretending that I've run out of bow????
 
#puzzled

The best advice I can give is for you to listen to some of the violin paritas and flute sonatas of the era - that will give you a better idea of how to shape phrases and decide on articulation.
Historically-informed performance practice is a huge subject and too big to cover adequately in a forum such as this. Do some goole scholar-ing and see if you can dredge up some articles on the topic as well as listening to how music of the period is performed on a variety of instruments.
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