Contemporary Spotlight: Solo Harpsichord Repertoire

It’s easy for pianists to forget the modest ancestor of the modern piano. How easy to forget? So easy that I ended up learning to play organ before I even touched a harpsichord. And the organ requires far more adaptation and training (it’s the most multitasking-heavy instrument I’ve ever encountered).

But then in the fall of 2018, a friend asked me to play harpsichord in his Baroque chamber ensemble for an upcoming Christmas concert. I had to ease into it for the first couple rehearsals, but then I really enjoyed it. The light touch, the twangy shimmer of the low range, and the white-on-black layout were wonderful diversions from the piano. The instrument also presented some new obstacles: occasional stubborn keys that required me to finesse my attack, and the issue of very quickly falling out of tune. Oh, and the range! Most harpsichords have a range of about five octaves, and some only have four. One of the pieces we played, a Torelli Christmas concerto, had a keyboard part for “organ or cembalo,” and I had to cross out certain bass notes that were simply out of range.

Playing with the Baroque group was one of the most satisfying musical activities I can recall, and toward the end of the time I remember having a conversation about interesting future collaborations. My friend mentioned Gorecki’s Harpsichord Concerto, and I followed with Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1. But those were the only two contemporary harpsichord-featuring pieces I could think of at the time. After that discussion, I remember thinking: Why can’t I think of any contemporary solo harpsichord rep I’d want to play?

It’s understandable why modern harpsichord music would be relatively unknown. The instrument has a strong association with a particular time and repertoire, and perhaps many harpsichord specialists are perfectly content to stay in that world. Meanwhile, harpsichord appearances in pop culture have only served to highlight its ancient strangeness. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, and other groups of the Baroque pop era employed the harpsichord for twee, winking effect. Film scores like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (not to mention countless horror films) feature little harpsichord gestures to underline creepy moments.

I wasn’t expecting to find much literature for this post, but even just a quick search of the Hal Leonard catalog brought dozens of results. This is a category that needs attention! When I began listening through some of the pieces, I was astonished at the effects that some composers achieved. Since the instrument is so connected with a particular period, when you hear it pushed to its absolute limits or using a super contemporary technique, it can be humorous in a way that’s different from extended piano techniques. Some composers treated the harpsichord in a winking, nostalgic way (Bolcom, Dello Joio) but others made serious advances in technique (Ligeti, Thorvaldsdottir). When a composer approaches this task sincerely and convincingly, they liberate the harpsichord, welcoming it into the present day and saying “there’s still more to discover with you.”

Here’s a selection of music:

William Bolcom: Le Fantôme du Clavecin (2005)

This is a substantial, appealing piece, and my few minutes of noodling on an electronic keyboard were not enough to get a full impression. It’s a suite modeled after one of Couperin’s ordres, complete with trills, turns, and mordents, and movement headings in French. What a treat! The first movement is sort of a free arpeggiated fantasy that ends on a B minor chord, and most of the subsequent movements are in B minor or B major. Within these constraints, Bolcom writes charming, touching music (with some flashes of Couperin-esque humor in “Danse des Critiques”). I wish I could find a recording, but this article from The Diapason gives some information.

William Bolcom: The Vicarage Garden (2015)

I played through this one. Short, cute, and full of very idiomatic Baroque and classical textures. Some “wrong” notes cleverly subvert the benign atmosphere.

Gavin Bryars: After Handel’s Vesper (1995)

Traverses many pensive moods, using several different ostinato figures. The musical language is consonant and repetitive. The combination of ambient music and occasional Baroque-inflected ornaments is oddly hypnotic, despite some weaknesses in the form.
Click here to buy score.

Henry Cowell: Set of 4 (1960)

This is my favorite out of the bunch. I’ll probably start learning at least one of the movements.

1. Rondo. Grand and sonorous. Nice synthetic scales and memorable themes.
2. Ostinato. Anxious, intense atmosphere and perpetual-motion Alberti figures.
3. Chorale. Blinding cluster chords. A bit tedious.
4. Fugue and Resume. Thorny and difficult, recaps material from other movements and leads to a powerful climax.
Click here to buy the score.

Norman Dello Joio: Salute to Scarlatti (1981)

I. Allegretto deciso
II. Andante amabile
III. Allegro moderato e grazioso
IV. Allegro scherzando

If you read my post on Scarlatti and listen to sonata K. 380 you’ll enjoy listening to the first movement of this piece. I can’t tell if Dello Joio riffs on different particular Scarlatti sonatas in the other movements, but…you know. I haven’t heard all 555. The only recording I found for this was on piano, but try to imagine how bouncy it would sound on harpsichord. The music doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s approachable and full of conventional technique.
Click here to buy the score.

Naji Hakim: Shasta (1986)

The opening Rondo is full of awesome sounds and energy. The opening drone section sounds like a Middle Eastern oud. The inner movements are less memorable, but the Toccata is another great rush of color and blazing technique.
Click here to buy the score.

György Ligeti: Continuum (1968)

Typical Ligeti, pushing us toward infinity. What an overwhelming wash of sound. At one point the music unmistakably evokes a phone ringing before plunging back into chaos. This is surely one of the most technically demanding pieces ever written for the instrument.
Click here to buy the score.

Vincent Persichetti: Harpsichord Sonatas Nos. 1-9 (1951-1985)

Well these nine sonatas should be enough to keep anyone occupied. I listened to chunks of them, and everything sounded idiomatic, accessible, and impeccably composed.

Ned Rorem: Spiders (1968)

Unabashedly virtuosic. Sounds like no other Rorem piece I’ve heard. Dizzying contrary-motion scales and arpeggios travel all over the keyboard.
Click here to buy the score.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Impressions (2015)

This Icelandic composer takes us inside the instrument for extended techniques and preparations including plucking strings, using an ebow to make the strings hum, and…dropping superballs on the strings.
Click here to buy the score.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Fantasy for Harpsichord (1983)

A solid, attractive piece of music. This might only be playable on a two-manual harpsichord, as in the beautifully produced video. Zwilich takes advantage of the ability of two-manual format to rapidly alternate chords. The middle section is action-packed.
Click here to buy the score.

P.S. That Lego harpischord at the top was built by Henry Lim, who also built a full-size playable one.

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