I have a lovely little clavichord.
It is so quiet that you can only play really quietly or even really really really quietly. In other words, the louds are soft so that the softs are almost inaudible.
It is one of the most expressive instruments imaginable which is why CPE Bach loved it so much.
A few weeks ago just before my teaching afternoon started I had been pacing up and down in a flurry of anticipation because I was convinced that next door a baby was about to make her first entry into the world…. In fact I heard her first dainty cry.
How could I possibly teach on my whopping great piano, thundering away with such new life just the other side of my wall?
So I brought my clavichord down from the loft and enchanted my pupils with its whispering and twanging and I’m sure nobody heard a thing next door!
The clavichord is a strange species of keyboard instrument that is part of the evolution between a harpsichord (which has little plucking jacks) and a piano (which has felt hammers). The former has no possibility of volume control, so instead of getting loud or soft, emphasis and expression must be achieved by manipulating or stretching the rhythm with infinitesimal . . . . . pauses. . . . Fast forward to the late 18th century. Imagine how exciting it was with the advent of the piano. The notes were now struck instead of plucked, hence the name piano-forte ….. literally ‘soft-loud’ . Composers could now startle their audiences with sudden loud passages, or tease them with sneaky quiet moments. Hilarious! However, in the clavichord the hammers are not made of felt and neither do they drop away from the string as soon as they strike. Instead, there are minute brass blades that remain in contact with the string until the finger releases the key. My knowledge of the physics of sound is slender, but it has something to do with nodes.
The other fascinating thing, is that because the stringing is so light, a little extra squeeze of pressure from the finger will lift the string and so bend the note …. similarly, a vertical tremolo produces a vibrato.
At its best, it has the most exquisite, warm singing tone and a crystalline clarity.
Played badly ( it is a tricky animal to control) by me, I can produce hysterical effects of going very sharp in exciting passages and c ludicrous moments of ‘boy-yoy-yoing ‘ whenever there is a silly wobbly bottom-note moment.
Haydn takes on a totally new meaning.. he is the lad who got sacked from the choir for snipping off the pigtail of the chorister in the pew in front… His sense of humour is legend. You have only to listen to Alfred Brendel playing Haydn sonatas for keyboard to get the joke.
The greatest advantage is that I can play late into the night without disturbing a soul and for the last few nights, while my hot water bottle waits patiently to be filled, I have been playing the 48. (Bach ‘s Preludes and Fugues) Very Slowly, as the ones I used to know are very rusty, and the others are varying degrees of very difficult.
There is something brilliant about playing when I am tired. Somehow, sight reading and relaxation and the groping around for the notes fuse into a mellow zone of ease and flow and then the music just seems to arise with almost no effort at all.
( well, it’s good enough to enjoy in private!)
So many great pianists speak of returning to Bach again and again to restore their equilibrium, let alone hone their technique.
With infinite variation and imagination the counterpoint and riches of harmony, direction, and drive bring the deepest nourishment and wonder. Sometimes I think I could go on all night.
I nearly let the kettle dry up tonight. Only because the sound is so teeny from the keyboard could I hear the soft wheezing of the last dregs of water as they hissed to extinction. Probably time to join the slumbering music angels.