Friday, February 12, 2016

Harp and the Harpsichord

Bach: Johann Sebastian Bach. German Composer. Among the bosses of Western Classical Music.

Harpsichord: A harpsichord is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It produces sound by plucking a string when a key is pressed. The harpsichord had fallen out of popularity during the mid 18th century in favour of the fortepiano and keyboard. This is what it looks like:

Harp: The harp is a hand-plucked string instrument, usually triangular in shape, in which the plane of the strings is perpendicular to the soundboard. This is how it appears:

There are several compositions by Bach that I feel would do better without the use of the Harpsichord. Let us see
what wikipedia tells us about this instrument.
During the late 18th century it gradually disappeared from the musical scene with the rise of the fortepiano. But in the 20th century it made a resurgence, used in historically informed performance of older music, in new (contemporary) compositions, and in popular culture. In the late 18th century the harpsichord was supplanted by the piano and almost disappeared from view for most of the 19th century: an exception was its continued use in opera for accompanying recitative, but the piano sometimes displaced it even there. Perhaps the most celebrated composer who wrote for the harpsichord was J. S. Bach (1685–1750), whose solo works (for instance, the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations), continue to be performed very widely, often on the piano. Bach was also a pioneer of the harpsichord concerto. [emphasis mine]
And talking about Joseph Haydn and Mozart (both famed composers like Bach), who are considered as pioneers in style and introductions of musical nuances, this is what we learn:
For both, the instrument featured in the earlier period of their careers and was abandoned once they had shifted their efforts to the piano.
Why did they do that? The use of the Harpsichord... doth it seem like an attempt to give a base to the orchestra, with the plucking sound (not by the fingers as in the harp) moving to the tune of the string section? (And my estimation of Harpsichord as a base comes from the modern day musical trend of basing the songs with drums and ‘beat’.) This is untrue because we are dealing with men, who, even if they wrote to make the people happy, to cater to their tastes, would not tamper with the sanctity of melody and reduce an instrument to just an appendage. We must, immediately discount comparisons with the modern trend of using an instrument just so that people can clap and dance to its... beat. The Harpsichord can add emotion to the movement if it is defined by another instrument, say, violin. To see what the Harpsichord adds or subtracts from music, let’s listen to this piece by Bach that does not use the Harpsichord.

Now hear the same composition by Bach where the Harpsichord assumes prominence.

If you don’t have the patience, then hear at least till 1:30 mark of either movements. They serve as practicals. Else you’ll be depending solely on theory. Do you think that the Harpsichord plays a better role in this concert of taking the movement forward, depending many-a-time on its solo recital. Or is the emotion that we attribute to the Harpsichord actually derived from the violin and other instruments. I prefer the first version, without the Harpsichord. ... how pleasing the Harp sounds here (reminder: harp is not harpsichord), in Mozart’s concerto: 

Did the piano replace the Harpsichord (in 18th-19th century) as it sounded better, in terms of its ability to transfer the emotive content of the movement? While in a mix, with the other instruments, the Harp fits very well. But is it able, in an orchestra, to emote as other instruments do? Yes. In the interview below, we hear that the Harpischord has no nuance or dynamic. And the Harp is praised as an impressionist instrument and very evocative in sonatas. The story is titled, 'Harp, Not Harpsichord, in Bach's Sonatas'. It is recommended listening for music lovers who’d like to see the difference.

[Click here for the podcast, audio only]

In the Mozart piece above (the video above the radio link above), hear 5:00 onwards to see how good the Harp sounds, how well it is mixed with the flute, and when it’s time for its solo, it carries forward, and works as a great intermediary in taking the movement ahead. In Bach’s concertos, I think the Harp would have done better. It is time I found out if there are Bach recordings available that replace the Harpsichord with the Harp. In Bach, I often found the Harpsichord to be a distraction, and ‘like a man who must have his chance in the orchestra because he pays for everyone's food’. I feel that I would have enjoyed the Bach concertos more if the Harpsichord played a lesser role in the orchestra.

Here’s where the Harp strings you

While using ‘short notes’ (note value), the Harp is similar to the piano in its effectiveness. The notes can tell a story on their own, or they can do a group session with the other instruments. Argue that the Harpsichord can not play ‘long notes’ and sustain like the violin, or be dynamic like the Harp (and piano). And if emotion requires sustenance, then you may say that in an orchestra, the Harpsichord draws emotion from the other instruments. Harp has dynamism and would fit the orchestral setting of the Bach concertos. Here’s how one of the most popular compositions by Beethoven sounds on the Harp. I say that the Harpsichord does not carry the emotion for this.

Listen to this piece of Ave Maria, composed by Bach, and played on Harp-Violin.

Like pebbles falling in a stream, that’s how I describe the sound of the Harp, as the violin takes a walk alongside, oblivious to what the Harp is saying. Parallel poetry. Now listen to the same composition employing Violin-Piano:

Ignoring the seemingly lesser sound quality of the video, and without the need to compare, we can say that both interpretations work to bring out the emotive content of the composition. What Harp has Piano doesn’t, and what Piano has, Harp doesn’t. But both play their role in ‘Hailing Mary’ (Ave Maria = Hail Mary). Here’s the same composition, piano solo:

And finally, Ave Maria, Harp solo:

Listen to them repeatedly if you are a lover of music. (It’s better than listening to your human lover).

Now I come back to the point I made earlier, that in the Orchestral works of Bach, the Harpsichord sounds distracting and overused in some places. I say this with slight trepidation, as I don’t want to discard the value of the instrument. That which makes an attempt at sincere pleasure, you don’t want to hurt. You may listen to and see for yourself if the Harpsichord works in an orchestra as an effective instrument. Unless mixed in with the others, and provided the padding, does it function as carrier of the message/emotion of the composition. If it does, or not, here are a few Bach pieces I feel overused the instrument or depended on it to convey more than it could.

Originally published here

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