Harpsichord Diary

hp2It arrived on Friday, and I have spent quality time over the weekend getting acquainted.

It is a 2007 Bennett harpsichord, a 1×8 Italian in a simple, elegant case. (If you know Italian harpsichord design, it almost looks like an inner away from its outer.)

Forty-nine notes and fifty courses, C to C. It transposes 415/440, and has two unusual devices: a buff stop (rare for an Italian), and a device called controtasti— the second octave couples to the first, and the third to the fourth. This offers a timely “splash” of 16-8 and 8-4 if needed.

Its only ornamentation, besides fine and understated wood work, is a parchment rose.

hp1While the instrument has been widely lauded for its continuo skills, and has been in use at Yale, Harvard, the Amherst Early Music Festival, and all over Manhattan and southern New England (including Salve Regina University–hello, Cousin Esther Ann!), it is also great for solo work. While it lacks the extremes of register that so much of the French literature requires, it contains all the notes needed to do elegant justice to the Italian and southern German literature. Its range matches that of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and of course suits the earlier rep.

hp3This is the music that most interests me –the music of the Catholic South as well as England, and much Bach and Händel– so I’m very happy. (Yes, I do miss the low notes sometimes. BWV 989 is out. Or is it?)

Overall, it’s a perfect home instrument for a professional, as well as a “runabout” for concerts.

I found the instrument via the Harpsichord Clearing House, and Mr. and Mrs. Bennett themselves delivered it from Rhode Island. It was a most pleasant meeting, culminating in Mexican food.

The maker has been wonderful with followup, including talking me through fixing a recalcitrant jack.

IMG_3899The harpsichord was invented in Italy in the 15th century, and in its birthplace it changed little over the succeeding centuries. While the French and Germans expanded the instrument to two manuals and gave it more depth and resonance, the Italian instrument remained simple, bright, extroverted, immediate, and responsive. I’ve loved these instruments since my harpsichord studies in grad school.

hp4I have played some Italian-style instruments that pleased me more than others. In a few cases, the tone bordered on the aggressive.  This one is not, nor is it monochromatic. Bright, even brilliant, yes; but it doesn’t assault my ears or make me anxious. It’s endlessly lovely to practice on.

It is a no-nonsense proposition to play: every note is a small, gentle, but decisive act. It’s been a pleasure getting acquainted with this fine musical instrument.

IMG_3900The tone is very bright, clear, and above all musical and pleasing. (Revoicing is not out of the question, though.) A few test recordings reveal rich and very listenable harmonic development. I’ve practiced Händel, Zipoli, Fischer, Pachelbel, Frescobaldi, and of course C. H. Dretzel, whose Divertimento settled right in.

I wish I had done this years ago. I’m glad I’m doing it now.

The instrument’s début “under new management” will be Christmas Eve at my church. In the new year, I will be available for continuo work, recitals, workshops, and lessons. I have no immediate plans to offer it for rent–I just can’t work that into my schedule right now. However, we can talk about hiring me, with or without the harpsichord, if you like.

About Jon

Keyboard artist, sacred musician, teacher, writer, working in New York City and State. Many interests include music theory and history, literature, astronomy, genealogy, philosophy and theology, gardening, and good food.

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