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It was through listening to the music of Bach, Couperin, Rameau and Scarlatti that I developed my love and fascination for the harpsichord. For several years now, I have harboured the idea of bringing together a collection of those works which touched me most particularly or which played an important part in my career as a musician.

The numerous recitals I have given have also made me realize that the harpsichord is not as well known as I thought, despite the efforts of the great pioneers and of the ever-growing number of excellent professional harpsichordists. So, I decided to gather together pieces which have either moved, impressed or amused me, as well as those which have generated strong interest among my students or the public. Here, then, are some of the most beautiful gems from the harpsichord repertoire.

The Harpsichord

The harpsichord’s mechanism differs from that of the piano in that the strings are plucked instead of being struck. In this, it resembles the guitar or the harp. Its mechanism is quite simple. When a harpsichord key is depressed, it acts as a lever and raises a thin piece of wood, the jack, which has a feather quill on its upper part, which “grabs” a tight metal string. When the key is released, a felt damper attached to the jack then rests on the string which ceases to vibrate. A mechanism allows the quill to move backwards in order to keep the string from being hit a second time when the jack drops back into place. Nowadays, feather quills are often replaced by flexible plastic quills. In François Couperin’s L’Art de toucher le clavecin, the composer urges young students to use “lightly-feathered” harpsichords, as feathers quills which have been cut delicately offer less resistance to the player’s fingers. Thus, writes Couperin, the child avoids “mistreating his little hands in making the keys talk.” The harpsichord compensates for its lack of nuance by such means as a variety of timbres. It features two or three stops with different timbral qualities. In the manner of certain stops on the organ, they are usually called eight-foot (8′) stops and four-foot (4′) stops in reference to the pitch. A full-size, French-style harpsichord with two manuals, such as the one used on this recording, has three stops. The strings of the main stop, which correspond to the lower manual, have a full round timbre because they are plucked farther from the bridge than those of the other stops. The strings of the upper manual have a slightly more nasal quality, their plucking point being closer to the bridge. To illustrate the difference in timbre between the two eight-foot stops, listen to Bach’s Minuet in G major [2], where both stops are used alternately, beginning with the lower manual. Stops may be used individually or be combined through coupling of the manuals, which is achieved by pushing the upper manual. When keys from the lower keyboard are depressed, they simultaneously depress the keys from the upper manual as well, producing the sound of two plucked strings, and hence a fuller timbre, for each note played. The tension under the musician’s hand is then slightly greater. Bach’s Prelude in C major [11] makes use of both eight-foot stops brought together on the lower manual. The four-foot stop adds yet another colour of sound to the harpsichord. The shorter and thinner strings produce higher pitches, actually an octave higher than those of the eight-foot stop. Seldom used by itself, the four-foot stop adds sparkle and lightness when combined with the lower eight-foot stop. To appreciate the tone resulting from the combination of these two pitches, I recommend listening to Louis-Claude Daquin’s Coucou [4]. The combination of three stops, that is the simultaneous use of the two eight-foot and the four-foot stops, produces a broad, luscious timbre on the instrument. The different stops may only be combined using the lower keyboard. The upper keyboard always features the same eight-foot stop and may then be used, in alternation with the lower keyboard, for a contrast in colour and volume. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Tambourin [9] features a full and sparkling harpsichord. Only the very end of the piece is played on the upper keyboard. Finally, it is possible to alter the timbre of an eight-foot. A lever permits small pieces of buffalo hide to rest against the strings. In doing so, they mute the better part of the string’s resonance, which results in a sound resembling that of the lute. This is what we refer to as the ‘lute stop’. It is featured, among others, in Bach’s Prelude in C minor [7]. About the Composers and Works The Germans: Fischer, Bach and Handel Little is known about the origins, life and career of Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (c1670-1746). According to the title page of his Opus 1, Le Journal du printems (the Diary of Spring), Fischer was Kapellmeister at the home of the Margrave Ludwig of Baden, in Schlackenwerth (Bohemia), as of no later than 1695. His composition for organ Ariadne musica dates from 1702 and contains twenty preludes and fugues written in as many different keys, thus anticipating Johann Sebastian Bach’s 24 preludes and fugues in The Well-Tempered Clavier. Both Bach and Handel were familiar with Fischer’s instrumental music. In a collection of works entitled Musicalischer Parnassus (The Musical Parnassus), published in 1738, in which Fischer drew his inspiration from the French style of Lully, each one of the nine suites is given the name of a Muse. The Chaconne in F major [19] concludes the suite entitled Euterpe, the Muse of music. Countless generations of young pianists have practised pieces from Anna Magdalena Bach’s Little Notebook. The second wife of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), and sixteen years younger than he, singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke was born into a family of musicians. Her father was Court Trumpeter and she herself is said to have had a beautiful soprano voice. Anna Magdalena’s Little Notebook (Clavierbüchlein), dated 1725, contains mostly works by Bach, but also a few pieces by other composers such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (the second son of Johann-Sebastian), Böhm, Stölzel and Couperin. The Minuet in G major [2], from the Little Notebook, was actually composed by Christian Petzold, an organist and German composer who was well esteemed in his own time. The Prelude in C major [11] also appear in the same musical album by the Bach family. This last composition was also used by Bach to begin the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier, an impressive monument produced by Bach in 1722 which brought together 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys. The Gavotte in G major [3] belongs to the French Suite no. 5. According to the German composer and lexicographer Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748), the gavotte is often fast but occasionally slow, whereas for the German composer and theoretician Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), it is an exceptionally joyous dance. The collection of 15 two-part inventions and 15 three-part sinfonias (1723), from which the F major Invention No. 8 [16] and the B flat major Invention No. 13 [17] are taken, features a preface in which Bach outlines his intentions. The composer wishes to “show the pupil how to play correctly in two or three parts and above all, to obtain a cantabile style of playing.” The master is also intent on “developing solid compositional taste from the beginning.” The Prelude in C minor [7], treasured by a great number of guitarists, is taken from a suite for lute. Its transparent texture, less complex than the works written specifically for the keyboard, agrees with the deep resounding tone of the baroque lute. On a harpsichord, the lute stop is obviously well suited to this piece.

An exact contemporary of Bach, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) left Germany, spent a long time in Italy, and then settled in London to pursue his career. The author of the famous Messiah enjoyed a great deal of fame in his own time. His enormous output, comprised mostly of operas and oratorios, also includes several works for harpsichord. In order to correct faulty manuscript copies of his suites then in circulation, Handel felt compelled to publish his own edition. This enabled him to add new suites to complete his 1720 collection entitled Suites de Pièces pour le Clavecin (Suites for Harpsichord). This volume is also known today as The Eight Great Suites. The nineteenth century baptized the Variations from the Fifth Suite in E major The Harmonious Blacksmith [10]. Tradition has it that Handel, after being surprised by a rainstorm in the country, took refuge under the sloping roof of a joyful blacksmith who heartily whistled or sang this sublime air as he merrily hammered on his anvil! Whether this is true or not, the irresistible charm of the piece has made it one of the most famous in the entire harpsichord repertoire.

The Italians: Scarlatti and Paradies Neapolitan

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) began his musical studies with his father. He is remembered chiefly for his 555 harpsichord sonatas. The turning point in Scarlatti’s career took place in 1719 when he moved to Lisbon to become the King’s kapellmeister. He was responsible for the musical education of the King’s brother and especially of Princess Maria Barbara, for whom he wrote these famous sonatas. In 1729, Maria Barbara married the Spanish infante, the future Ferdinand IV. Scarlatti accompanied her to Madrid. Impassioned as he was by Iberian folk music, Scarlatti incorporated into his own works various elements of Spanish and Portuguese origin recalling Andalusian flamenco and guitar technique. Overall, his sonatas feature the same compositional pattern: a single movement divided in two parts, each of which is meant to be played twice. One of Scarlatti’s favourite musical techniques, which he incorporated in several sonatas, notably in the Sonata in D minor (K. 141) [15] with repeated notes, as well as in the luminous Sonata in A major (K. 208) [21], is the use of acciaccatura or “crushing”. This ornamentation consists in striking a chord that includes harshly dissonant notes that may surprise the listener. The brilliant Sonata in D major (K. 492) [20], for its part, combines a number of technical challenges: trills, quick scales, leaps and arpeggios. Decidedly joyful, this sonata has occasional spells of sorrow which momentarily obscure the musical fireworks display.

The Italian composer

Paradies (1707-1791) was also born in Naples. It is believed he studied with Porpora. After presenting several operas in Italy, he decided to settle in London in 1747, where he was known primarily as an excellent voice and harpsichord teacher. The exact year of his return to Italy is unknown, but it appears that Paradies spent the last fifteen or twenty years in his native country. His twelve harpsichord sonatas, Sonate di Gravicembalo, published in 1754 and re-issued several times over the course of the next decades, have ensured him a place in history. The Allegro from the Sixth Sonata in A major [22] is famous and is better known under the title Toccata. The liveliness and typically Italian volubility of this brilliant piece, with its perpetual motion and harmonic sequences, proves most uplifting.

The French: Couperin, Rameau, Daquin and Duphly

A member of a renowned musical family, François Couperin (1668-1733) is famous, among other accomplishments, for his four books of harpsichord works containing 27 Ordres (another term for “suites”), which bring together a total of 220-odd pieces. He also wrote L’Art de toucher le clavecin, a treatise giving valuable advice on musical interpretation. Several of Couperin’s works, including the three pieces recorded here, were written in the form of a rondeau in which a refrain alternates with changing verses. Couperin’s pieces often bear a poetic title or the name of a character he depicts musically. Les Barricades mystérieuses [1] (The Mysterious Barricades)—Les Baricades mistérieuses in the original French spelling—are part of the second book and belong to the Sixth Ordre; they make use of the harpsichord’s bass register. The “lute” style adopted here by Couperin brings out the harpsichord’s full resounding tone wonderfully. Les Bergeries [18] (The Sheepfolds), also excerpted from the Sixth Ordre, can be found in Anna Magdalena Bach’s Little Notebook in a simpler version. Sœur Monique [13] (Sister Monique) is a charming piece from the Eighteenth Ordre, included in the third book. Its lyrical, memorable melody is set to a soothing rhythm.

Louis-Claude Daquin (1694-1772) made a strong impression as a child. At six, he performed for the court and for Louis XIV himself. At 12, he became Marin de La Guerre’s assistant organist at the Sainte-Chapelle. In 1727, he won a contest for the position as organist at Saint Paul’s which pitted him against Jean-Philippe Rameau and a few other candidates. In 1732, he succeeded Marchand, with whom he had studied, as organist at the Cordeliers and, in 1739, was granted the supreme honour of replacing Dandrieu as the King’s organist. His known compositions consist mainly of a collection of noëls (Christmas music) and his First Book of works for harpsichord (1735), which is comprised of several descriptive pieces such as Le Coucou [4] and Les Vents en couroux [sic]. His contemporaries have said that audiences would flock to hear him play. His qualities were manifold: “beautiful genius, brilliant hands, pure harmony, strength, precision, emotion, virtuosity,” in the words of his son Pierre-Louis.

A native of Dijon, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was the son of an organist. At 18, he pursued his studies in Italy. After returning to France, he held a string of positions as organist in a number of cities such as Avignon, Clermont, Paris and Dijon. Rameau was also a theoretician. Beginning with his Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels (“Treatise on Harmony Reduced to Its Natural Principles”) (1722) until his death, Rameau never kept his theoretical efforts apart from his creative endeavours. At the end of 1722, he returned to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life. If Rameau’s harpsichord works are first-rate, one should not forget that his 29 operas form the better part of his catalogue. Furthermore, a good number of his works for the harpsichord were orchestrated and used in his operas. His compositions for harpsichord are contained in three volumes, along with his Pièces de clavecin en concert. Tambourin [9] and Les Niais de Sologne [5] are taken from the second volume, dated 1724. Should one understand the word niais in the first sense of the word, meaning “that which has not yet left the nest?” In addressing this question, the harpsichordist and musicologist Kenneth Gilbert points out that the expression established by usage niais de Sologne is found in the first edition (1694) of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. According to this dictionary, a niais is a shrewd and clever man who pretends to be simple-minded. It also adds that the proverbial expression C’est un niais de Sologne (“He is a niais de Sologne”) is said of a man who is sharp and shrewd as to what best serves his interest, but acts as if he is simple-minded. Kenneth Gilbert noticed technical similarities between the first three variations in the Gavotte et six doubles [23] and the first three variations in Handel’s Third Suite of 1720. More than a mere copy, the Canadian musicologist interprets this as a tribute to the great German musician. Rameau substantially enriched the keyboard technique with “batteries,” wide leaps, hand-crossings, etc. The result of independent exploration, the equivalent of these innovations is found only in Scarlatti’s sonatas, where they are put to different use.

Jacques Duphly (1715-1789) was born in Rouen where he was a pupil of Dagincour. He decided to try his luck in Paris, playing the harpsichord in musical soirées. Settling in the capital in 1742, with no official duties, he most likely supported himself with harpsichord lessons. He was deemed one of the great masters of Paris and represents the last generation of French harpsichordist-composers, with the likes of Armand-Louis Couperin, and Balbastre. Duphly composed four volumes of works for harpsichord: almost twenty-five years separate the first (1744) from the last (1768). His music reveals the influence Rameau had upon him. Several pieces bear the names of friends or pupils: La Boucon (the niece of J.B. Forqueray’s first wife), La de La Tour (a painter), La Félix (a musician), La Madin (an abbot), La Victoire (the second daughter of Louis XV), etc. La Forqueray [14], a doleful piece from his third book, draws on the bass and middle registers of the instrument and calls to mind the harpsichord transcriptions of Antoine Forqueray’s works for viol.

The English: Byrd, Gibbons and Purcell

William Byrd (1543-1623) was the foremost composer under the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. His reputation was far-reaching in his own time and he has been referred to as the “Father of British Music.” In 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted Byrd, along with Thomas Tallis (who most likely taught him), a twenty-one year monopoly on printed music in England. Raised as a Catholic, Byrd managed to keep both his faith and his position at court despite the hardships imposed on him by the new Anglican liturgy. His compositions for the keyboard, numbering 125 pieces, mainly appear in three different collections: Parthenia (1611), Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, which includes La Volta [8], and My Ladye Nevell’s Booke. Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was named organist for the Chapel Royal around the age of twenty-two, and held the position for the rest of his life. He was essentially known in his day as an organist and virginalist. The popularity of the melody from the Italian Ground in C major [12] was long-lived: Bull, Sweelinck, Frescobaldi and Buxtehude all wrote variations on this theme.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is one of the greatest English composers, along with Byrd. His repertoire for the keyboard, however, is far less abundant than his predecessor’s. Further, we are not absolutely certain he is the author of the Ground in C minor [6], a melancholic piece sometimes attributed to English composer William Croft (1678-1727).

©Luc Beauséjour
Translation: Marc Hyland

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Luc Beauséjour
AN 2 9879 Bach Krebs Abel – Peres et Fils: Musique du Cercle
AN 2 9879 Bach Krebs Abel – Peres et Fils: Musique du Cercle

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