2018 December 9: Comfort Ye My People
Variations on "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" P. Kedezichlem (1715-1780) [HARPSICHORD]
"Comfort, Comfort Ye My People"
The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument that goes back to at least the 14th century. It works by plucking the strings — unlike the piano which strikes the strings with hammers.
That simple difference in the physics of how they produce sound has had enormous consequence on the mature character of the instrument (after the initial century or so of figuring out how best to make it work). In the case of ‘plucking’, there is only so far you can go before it sounds strained and unpleasant. (Think of pulling a harp or guitar string too far.) Consequently the evolution of the harpsichord was about figuring out that ‘maximum pluck’ and designing the rest of the instrument to make the most of that. As a result, harpsichords are about low string tension (20 lbs per string plus/minus) and thin soundboards (1/8" or so) – there’s maybe a ton or two of tension across the entirely wooden frame of a harpsichord.
Piano makers, however, soon discovered that strings struck with hammers sounded better if you increase the string tension significantly. The optimum turned out to be around 200 lbs per string — meaning you need a soundboard more like 1/4" thick, and a total tension across the cast-iron frame of about 15-20 tons! (That’s several Buicks!)
The harpsichord was the workhorse keyboard instrument from say the 14th century until about 1750. The piano was invented 1711 but it took a few decades to get the kinks out and for it to disseminate. All the Mozart sonatas and even the early Beethoven piano sonatas were written to be playable on both the harpsichord and the piano in that transition period. (In January, after Advent/Christmas, I’ll play Beethoven’s first [piano] sonata on the harpsichord. It works!) And the earliest pianos also had low string tension, so the harpsichord and the earliest pianos had a certain affinity of sound.
But as music moved from the relatively small aristocratic halls of the 18th century into the large public concert halls of the 19th, in an era before amplification the louder piano was simply more practical. And – importantly – the piano is ’touch sensitive’ – the player can control the loudness of each note by striking the key harder for louder and and more gently for quieter. Hence the name, originally ’piano-forte’ — Italian for ’soft-loud’. The harpsichord, alas, is essentially one loudness regardless of how vigorously/gently you press the keys. Nevertheless, regardless of the merits of the piano, the harpsichord served Western music well as its workhorse keyboard instrument for some four centuries – longer than the piano has even been in existence.
Our ’harpsichord in residence’ is a ‘rescue harpsichord’ I found on Craigslist. Structurally it was sound – no framework coming unglued or cracks in the soundboard. But it was otherwise unplayable. It’s no museum piece – with delrin jacks and aluminum jack guides I’d guess it’s about 20 years old or so. But it has a good sound, and I was confident that with lovingkindness in my shop I could turn it into a serviceable instrument for our sanctuary.
My most fun challenge was what to do about the soundboard rose. Harpsichord makers of yesteryear would install a ‘rose’ – a decorative circular emblem in the soundboard. It serves no acoustic purpose – it’s purely decorative. But someone pried out the rose (and broke a lot of strings in the process). The empty hole was too ugly – it needed SOMETHING! Can you believe I couldn’t find one on Google/eBay/Amazon? <grin!> And although I put myself through college in part by building harpsichords, I’ve never had the necessity to make a harpsichord rose before. I ended up printing one with a 3D printer! (Looks good, methinks! Check it out!)
I have no idea of the maker. There’s no name on the nameboard (just over the keyboard like on pianos). Generally, in addition to their name on the nameboard, harpsichord makers signed their instruments on the side of the lowest key. I’ve had this harpsichord action completely apart and found no signature — highest key, lowest key, anywhere. There might have been some clue on the rose but that’s gone. So this instrument is completely anonymous.
But, then, The Church is about welcoming the unwanted, is it not?