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Clavichord for Beginners

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Written by Joan Benson, one of the champions of clavichord performance in the 20th century, Clavichord for Beginners is an exceptional method book for both practitioners and enthusiasts. In addition to detailing the historical origins of the instrument and the evolution of keyboard technique, the book describes the proper method for practicing fingering and articulation and emphasizes the importance of touch and sensitivity at the keyboard. A CD featuring Benson in performance and a DVD of interviews and lessons accompany the book, illustrating important exercises for the beginner. The discs also include discussions on topics that range from 16th-century keyboard masters to the frontiers of electronic music research.

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Preface and Acknowledgements

ePub

Preface and Acknowledgments

Several summers ago Wendy Gillespie, the esteemed early music specialist, visited my home in Eugene, Oregon. As we strolled along a woodland path, she asked what I, in my eighties, still wished to accomplish with the clavichord. I responded that I hoped to find a way to encourage others to enjoy this exquisite instrument. Since clavichord teachers are rare today, we envisioned a book of exercises so simple that a beginner might start the clavichord without a personal instructor. Thus this manual, combined with a master class DVD, was born.

This book is for all clavichord beginners, including amateurs and professional keyboardists. It is for those who wish to experience the quieting effect of this delicate instrument. Special exercises and lessons are meant to stimulate sensitivity to touch and tone that can affect all keyboard playing. The intention is to show the way to express subtle feelings and perceptions on the clavichord, infusing the softest pianissimo with a vitality of its own.

 

1 — Clavichord for All Keyboardists

ePub

At least in the beginning, the clavichord is unquestionably best suited for learning, for on no other keyboard instrument is it possible to achieve finesse in playing as well as on this one.

Daniel Gottlob Türk, School of Clavier Playing (Klavierschule, 1789)

A good clavichord is the simplest, softest, and most sensitively responsive of all keyboard instruments. Its basic structure is as follows:

An oblong wooden frame contains a soundboard on the right. Attached to it are one to three bridges on which strings are stretched. These strings extend from tuning pins on the far right to hitch pins on the far left. Below and perpendicular to the strings are wooden key levers balanced on pins. When a finger presses down the key end of a lever, the opposite end of the lever automatically rises. Protruding upward from this far end is a metal tangent, which strikes and presses against a pair or triplet of strings. These strings vibrate from tangent to bridge, creating both tone and pitch. To the left of the tangents, cloth strips (listing) are woven among the strings. They block extraneous sound that might come from the left of each tangent and stop a tone when the key and its tangent are released.

 

2 — Preparing to Play

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In order to play the clavichord, make certain that your hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders remain flexible and at ease. The following relaxation exercises are helpful particularly before and after short practice periods.

1. Drop your arms loosely to your sides and shake them rapidly from the shoulders (like a cascading waterfall).

2. Raise your right forearm as high as your elbow. Let your hand go limp from the wrist and twirl it first clockwise and then counterclockwise.

• Twirl your left hand in the same way.

• Now twirl both hands in contrary motion.

• Drop your arms and shake them.

3. Raise your arms straight out in front of you. Rotate your forearms from the elbows in contrary motion, keeping your hands and wrists relaxed.

4. Now rotate both arms from the shoulders first in one direction and then in the other in an easy, open way.

If convenient, learn a form of Qigong. These Chinese exercises can energize your body and free it from tension.1

 

3 — Clavichord Lessons, Series I

ePub

Of all the major keyboard instruments, the clavichord is most like a violin. Both pitch and quality of tone are subject to your touch. The mechanism is so direct that you can actually feel your fingers, via the tangent, pressing against the strings.

Learning to play the clavichord requires focused attention. It is important to practice for short periods at first, advancing slowly. Linger for some time over each lesson, repeating it until you can apply it well. You may also consult the accompanying DVD.

1. Position yourself comfortably at the keyboard as described earlier, keeping your arms and wrists at ease.

2. Gently place all five fingertips of the right hand near the front edge of keys CDEFG an octave above middle C. (Note: You may use any five successive, natural keys for this exercise and for any suitable exercise that follows.)

3. Lower your index finger on D so slowly that you can feel the pliancy of the key’s descent.

4. Watch the tangent press up against a set of strings without making any sound.

 

4 — Clavichord Lessons, Series II

ePub

When you can play in time and in tune and begin to produce singing tones, other clavichord skills will open up for you. Gradually you will learn to make use of the subtle, expressive effects that are so natural to the clavichord.

Of all keyboard instruments, the clavichord is the most capable of delicate, dynamic shading down to the softest pianissimo. These fine shadings are heard best by the player and a few listeners positioned near the clavichord’s soundboard.

Shading on a clavichord involves many variables. Each key has its own shading possibilities. Likewise, each clavichord has its own range of dynamics. The breadth and subtleties of this range are interdependent on both your hands and your technique.

Variables include the soundboard’s resonance, the depth of each key dip, the key’s resistance to pressure, and the tautness or resilience of each set of strings from treble to bass.

With practice, you can take advantage of the dynamic spectrum of your clavichord. Eventually you will learn to adapt to various clavichords and their special needs. Basically, however, there is a special technique for achieving softer tones on the clavichord.

 

5 — Preparing for Pieces

ePub

Before you begin to play short pieces of the eighteenth century, it is important to have a repertoire of basic ornaments. At that time, beginners on the clavichord were first taught to play ornaments without music. You too may begin with individual ornaments, learning to make them clean and even. This is not simple on the clavichord, since its touch is so flexible. It is this touch, however, that will eventually free you to express the most delicate ornamental details. Like variations in dynamics and articulation (and affected by them both), ornaments can become a very subtle aspect of your playing.

In general, rapid ornaments are easier to play on the harpsichord. Plucking a string with a plectrum is more precise than striking and pressing it with a tangent. In fact, practicing ornaments on the harpsichord can help you think of them distinctly, keeping in mind that the sound point on the clavichord will be inexact unless controlled.

To prepare for playing ornaments on the clavichord, I have included an exercise (example 5.1). Play it from key level, slowly and attentively, making sure you use a clavichord touch. Then try short groups a little faster as you are able. You may relax after the last note of each group.

 

6 — Eleven Easy Pieces

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The following miniature pieces are included for your enjoyment as you advance from exercises to music. In order to apply and perfect what you have learned, proceed slowly and attentively.

1. Begin by playing a single voice, one phrase at a time, omitting the ornaments. Aim for clear, singing sounds that stay on pitch.

2. For pieces of two parts, play one voice and sing the other. Then play both parts, noting how they combine.

3. Later, you may add ornaments, first playing them alone and then listening to how they can enhance the music.

4. Feel free from the first to respond to the music’s mood.

You already know of Türk as a clavichord master and follower of Emanuel Bach. His delightful, much appreciated Little Pieces for Future Clavichordists (Kleine Handstücke für angehende Klavierspieler) appeared in two volumes in 1792.

EXAMPLE 6.1 Daniel Gottlob Türk, “Die beyden Siechen” (Two languishing ones)

EXAMPLE 6.2 Daniel Gottlob Türk, “Leise nur, wie Zephrs Hauch” (Gentle, like Zephyr’s breath)

 

7 — Exploring the Past: Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries

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The Clavichord has an amazingly rich heritage from the centuries before Johann Sebastian Bach. This chapter offers glimpses of that time, involving the instrument and its music, its patrons, composers, and performers. May they inspire you to explore on your own the wealth of early material so readily available today.1

Although the clavichord’s origins remain a mystery, by the fifteenth century it was popular among the educated throughout Europe. Young students began music lessons on the clavichord, and both nobility and monastics were enthusiasts. Artworks show angels and monks playing portable clavichords. Examples are in Bernard Brauchli’s The Clavichord, a book you may wish to read.

Henri Arnaut de Zwolle (c. 1400–1466)

The clavichord shown in figure 7.1 was built according to a diagram and description from the c. 1440 manuscript by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle.2 This astrologer, physician, and organist served Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. His court attracted and brought fame to some of the finest artists and musicians of the fifteenth century.

 

8 — Exploring Eighteenth-Century Germany

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Compared to France during the eighteenth century, Germany was fragmented, with no central church or central king to dictate musical tastes. Lutherans, abandoning the pope, preferred a more personal relationship with Jesus and God. Perhaps it was Johann Sebastian Bach himself who wrote in a 1738 thoroughbass primer: “The final purpose of all music … is nothing other than the praise of God and the re-creation of the soul. Where this is not taken into account, then there is no true music, only a devilish bawling and droning.”1

The following generation, affected by German Enlightenment and the sentimentality of Pietism, focused on expressing a wider range of human emotions. While François Couperin in France might strive to notate a precise portraiture of a feeling, it was essential for a German keyboardist to express a feeling freshly each time it was conveyed. This was accomplished mainly through delicate shading, for which the clavichord proved to be the ideal instrument. Thus it flourished in the period of Empfindsamkeit (expressiveness) and, along with the fortepiano, in the more dramatic period of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress).

 

9 — Exploring the Present and Future

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Although this century appears to revel in loud, amplified sound and endless stress, there is a growing need for quietness as a balance. A clavichord can fill this need. Already a century ago, Arnold Dolmetsch stimulated a clavichord revival among a few elite in England and America. He wrote on his Chickering clavichord lids the French proverb “Plus fait douceur que violence” (Sweetness achieves more than violence).

People have been playing the clavichord since the 1400s. In some countries it was fashionable until the late eighteenth century. Then, after a gap in the nineteenth century, when it was abandoned for the piano, it became an instrument for playing music of the past. It is my wish not only that we enjoy this marvelous music on the clavichord but that we widen our horizons to encourage music of our own age as well.

A good clavichord lends itself to improvisation. The tones of this instrument are so subtle and changeable that they can never be repeated exactly the same way. Thus I would encourage all clavichord players to experiment and express themselves with improvisations that are primarily spontaneous and free.

 

Appendix: Biographical Details

ePub

Appendix: Biographical Details

Joan Benson is one of the foremost clavichordists of modern times. She has been a leading pioneer in promoting the clavichord as a concert instrument, performing in concert halls, universities, and museums around the world. She has taught on the faculty at Stanford University, the University of Oregon, and the Aston Magna Academy in Massachusetts. Her international master classes have introduced many enthusiastic students to the clavichord.

As a child in New Orleans, Benson attended the first progressive school in the Deep South, which stimulated her talent for the arts. She heard Sergei Rachmaninoff and Ignace Paderewski perform and studied with the composer-pianist Percy Grainger.

In her early twenties, while an Indiana University student, Benson received the Kate Neal Kinley International Award for “outstanding powers of artistic communication.” She became a protégée of the great Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer, who also taught Alfred Brendel and Paul Badura-Skoda. As a concert pianist her affinity for highly nuanced, gentle, and delicate piano tones, for which she received critical praise, led naturally to her discovery of the clavichord.

 

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