As we all know, it's been a weird time in the world lately. With (hopefully) all of us practicing social distancing and staying home as much as possible, I haven't been able to go to my university and practice harpsichord at all this past month. Thankfully, my teacher Arthur Haas allowed me to borrow the studio's clavichord so that I could continue practicing while I stay home.
Our ensemble began utilizing the clavichord this past year, performing in the 3VCP's Jane Austen Festival, and have since continued to pepper in performances on the soft spoken instrument whenever possible. The instrument is so unique in its challenges for keyboardists, and I've grown to love the clavichord very much. Now with some experience of harpsichord vs. clavichord in a concert setting, I've found a few reasons why the clavichord is perfect for musicians, specifically those performing in smaller spaces.
1. The clavichord is very small and portable.
Depending on your vehicle situation, this may not matter as much. For us in Amaranti, using a harpsichord often means we need to rent large enough vehicle to transport the instrument, which can be costly at times. With the clavichord, I've always been able to fit the instrument comfortably into my very small car, while still having room for our other equipment. As someone with limited resources depending on where our next concert series will be, it's nice to have an instrument that is more flexible with transportation.
2. The clavichord forces unique musical challenges.
There are a couple issues that come up with the touch of a clavichord. Pressing a key too harshly will cause the pitch to bend upwards. This effect can be really nice if intended, but also very awkward for you and the audience if not. However, pressing the key too softly will barely register a sound. The clavichord requires performers to give a firm and steady touch, holding onto the keys without gripping them. A balance has to be struck when playing the clavichord, which doesn't come up as often on the harpsichord (at least to my current experience).
For me, these challenges have been rewarding. I've spent a lot of time on the clavichord barely making sounds because I couldn't make the keys play properly, which really helped fine-tune my finger technique in general. Having more control over each note, adjusting their individual dynamics, and introducing bebung on emotional notes are all so satisfying to play. Almost everything I've learned on the clavichord I can apply to my harpsichord performances, which I think makes the clavichord a fascinating instrument.
Plus, the clavichord is so quiet, so the chances of bothering anyone with your practice is slim.
3. The clavichord has a beautiful sound.
Now this is all very subjective, but I think the clavichord has a beautiful sound that is unique from other keyboards. In practice sessions, I've sometimes stopped just to enjoy how pleasing the instrument sounds. This isn't because I'm playing well per se, just that the clavichord has a nice and (for lack of a better word) "honest" sound that I personally love. In 1786, Schubart writes that the clavichord is the connection to our heart's soundboard, which is a poetic and sentimental way to think of the instrument.
I've had audience members come up and absolutely love the clavichord and thank us for introducing this somewhat neglected instrument. I've also had audience members come up and tell me that they're not surprised no one plays the clavichord anymore if it sounds like how I played it. So, it goes both ways.
Overall, the clavichord is unique as a keyboard instrument for early music keyboardists. I always have had a hard time explaining to people why I love the clavichord so much, to the point that I'd almost prefer to buy a clavichord instead of a harpsichord if I could afford it. The instrument is quiet, somewhat harder to tune, and technically less effective than the harpsichord for the repertoire. But even with all that, the clavichord has a special place in my heart.
With that sappy tone, below is a short performance I recorded from the video game Dragon Age: Inquisition, based on the 18th-century traditional Irish waltz "South Wind".