Judging a harpsichord

“When all the parts of a musical instrument are tuned relative to each other, the whole is indescribably delicious and vital
K. R. Hill

After writing an article on how to evaluate a clavichord, I offer one focused on the harpsichord. As the latter is much more widespread, one would be led to think that there is no need for it. Unfortunately I very often have witnessed how visual criteria take a predominant role in the judgement of musical instruments. Being that sight is the most important sense for human beings, this is to some extent to be expected and if everyone would be just content of petting his wonderful-looking instrument in his living room, there would be nothing to object to.
Since, however, harpsichords are often played in public and music is only based on sound, when in concerts I have to listen to instruments appealing more to the eye than to the ear, I always become quite annoyed. If this occurred to you and you basically think like me, take your audience to heart and choose to play only on instruments that are worth listening to. That is why I want to give at least some rudiments to begin judging the instruments in a different way. It will not be enough to get to the end of this article to make an expert of you, but everybody has to start somewhere.

The most comprehensive (and essentially the only) writing I have ever found on the subject is contained in the second chapter of “Treatise on the True Art of Making Musical Instruments” by my dear master Keith Hill. Perhaps for the belief that the sound of an instrument is a totally subjective topic; perhaps for the ease with which you attract criticism; perhaps for the difficulty of accurately describing sound, no one else has dedicated so much space to the description of the traits of a good instrument: he deserves credit for this. I want to provide here a short text within everyone’s reach, but I suggest whomever wants to know more, to read his treatise.

In order to educate your ear, I believe that listening to good recordings on original instruments is of vital importance. Fortunately, for the harpsichords, there are several CDs on originals and their level is generally good. It’s just a shame that the recordings don’t happen more often on antique harpsichords, but the explanation is rather simple: recording in a museum, between schedules, opening hours, traffic and various limitations is far from comfortable for musicians.
In any case, if you bother to listen with care, you will notice how intense, clear, solid, brilliant, resonant, free, deep-breathed and vocal the sound is. One interesting thing is that these traits, in spite of the tonal differences, are present in all the good instruments of the various building schools.

As I recommended for the clavichord, here too my first and fundamental advice is to focus on the sound and touch of the instrument and not to fall into the temptation of judging a harpsichord by its appearance.
If there is no reason to expect the beer with the coolest label to be the most delicious, then why the finest decorated harpsichord should then be the best? In truth it is often not.
Also do not pretend to be an instrument builder by trying to extrapolate an infallible overall assessment on a harpsichord from this or that constructive detail, following theories you heard around. Do instead what musicians can do really well: play and listen to yourself. Train yourself to close your eyes and trust only your fingers and ears: for some it will be a natural approach, while for others it will at first feel unfamiliar. But don’t fear: if you accustom yourself to listen carefully, you simply cannot fail; over time you will become more and more competent in judging the sound of the instruments in front of you.

A primary difference between harpsichord and clavichord or organ is that in harpsichords the touch is determined predominantly by voicing and only rarely an inappropriate touch depends on constructional issues. Since voicing is easy to change, although it is one of the first elements that you notice when playing, I suggest you consider it mainly in relation to the rest. If you evaluate an instrument to buy, notice the relationship between the effort required by the pluck and the sound produced, because good instruments fill the ear and produce enough volume even with light voicing. Poor instruments, on the other hand, usually sound soft and if you voice them loud to increase the volume they end up producing a dirty and coarse sound. In general remember that a strong voicing increases both volume and noise, while a weak one makes the sound cleaner, but also softer and less energetic. The best voicing, in my opinion, is one that is caressing and sweet enough for a Cantabile, but has enough energy and character for an Allegro.
To evaluate an instrument for a single concert is more delicate, because you can’t change its voicing on the fly and to some extent you need the touch to be pleasant enough to get accustomed to quickly.

As for the sound, first of all a good harpsichord must have a good sound presence and there is no reason to expect otherwise. Even with a single stop the volume must be good: if you have to always add everything to let you hear, then it’s nothing special.
The sound of a good instrument is also well structured and therefore even at a distance is perceived loud and clear, as if it were closer than it is; instead in mediocre instruments, a few steps away, it gets lost and confused.

Although the sound can sustain long, in a good instrument the clarity and distinction of each note is guaranteed, no matter how much legato you are playing. This keeps the musical content intelligible, but if this clarity is lacking, everything overlaps indistinctly: you end up compensating by playing fast movements detached like on a typewriter and this is musically unbearable.

The sound of a good instrument is well balanced between brilliance and resonance; but since it’s easy enough to get brightness on an instrument with metal strings, the builder has to do everything in his power to get the right resonance.
The most pleasant brilliance is the one in which the first harmonics play a dominant role, thus also reinforcing the feeling of the fundamental. On the other hand, if the highest frequencies dominate, the result is a sound without substance and a brightness that tires pretty soon; this kind of sound is unfortunately encountered in many instruments.

A good harpsichord therefore has a solid and intense sound with a good harmonic structure that our ear perceives without any effort; On the other hand, in mediocre instruments, the lack of fundamental and the high component of noise and inharmonicity makes the perception of pitch more difficult. This ends up making it harder for the harpsichordist to tune the instrument and for the soloists to play together in tune.

These are basic features of a good instrument, which are lacking in mediocre ones. What divides really great harpsichords from others is the impression that the instrument activates completely. The impression in this case is not merely that of a piece of furniture from which sound comes out, but really that every element of the instrument takes part to the sound by resonating. Moreover, the sound of the best harpsichords is by no means static: it gives the feeling of expanding as in a kind of “messa di voce”. After the attack in fact, noise and high frequencies decay quickly, while the fundamental and the lower harmonics reach their maximum about half a second after the pluck, giving the marked feeling that the sound is “blooming”. In the best instruments you can also identify other successive peaks of the fundamental during decay, which all together create a perception of life in sound.
Finally, those who had experience with great instruments, know that you never can get enough of playing, even after hours, because of charm, delicious sound and liveliness.

As for improvisation, I simply refer to the text on the clavichord: a good instrument suggests musical ideas and seems to make everything possible and within our reach, while a mediocre harpsichord seems willing to expose all of your shortcomings. In the first case the instrument becomes an extension of your body and everything seems to happen in a natural way, in the second case we have to fight even to breathe a little expression into music.

These are some of the basic elements for judging a harpsichord. For those who like to have a complete overview I add, by courtesy of the author, a summary table which compares traits of good and mediocre instrument:

Superior carrying power No carrying power
Great clarity Mushy, indistinct sound
Strong resonance No real resonance, although possibly boomy
Refreshing shines Tiring brightness
Intense, but without being overbearing Unintense and indifferent sounding
Responsive to changes in color Unvarying sound color
Singing, ringing, yet dry tone Flat, energyless sound
Even resonance in each register Uneven sound across registers
Easy articulation Difficult to play articulately
Paradoxical character No character
Strong, pronounced bloom No bloom
Refined, beautiful sound Nice sound at best; usually coarse
Solid, focused core to the sound A diffuse, unfocused sound
A strong impression of being alive Dead, like a piece of ordinary furniture
Stimulates and endless source of ideas Stimulates a dearth of ideas
Easy to play A struggle to play
Highly dimensional Just a pitch with a timbre
playing musical encourages Masks musical playing
Easy to tune because the sound is well structured Difficult to tune because the sound is poorly structured
A sound that is easily shaped A sound that resists being treated
Has a vocal or “speaking” quality Merely a sound

K. R. Hill, Treatise on the True Art of Making Musical Instruments, 2018, p. 9

At the end of this article, I know that some readers will think that some traits are deliberately exaggerated. On the contrary, the problem is more that such quality is hardly ever encountered, because really excellent instruments are extremely rare. If one were to take the trouble to describe the sound of Schnitger organs, the text would sound equally weird to us: on one hand some features do not get immediately noticed, on the other hand many keyboardists are today simply not educated to listen very carefully.
This, however, does not simply mean that a sound quality to which we are not accustomed does not exist at all: ancient harpsichords that have been restored and maintained by competent people, generally have some or all of these traits. This gives them the strong personality we enjoy while playing them. Modern instruments, on the other hand, although technically faultless, reveal sound qualities described above only rarely. And the more technically perfect they try to be, the less charm and personality they show. I know this sounds weird and I don’t expect you now to take this judgment for true: all I want is you to continue judging instruments with ears and fingers and with time you’ll get your own opinion on this last point.

There is no reason to be pessimistic and in fact the situation has slowly improved over the years. For this reason, among other, I wrote this text and I now turn to you: play and listen to as many original instruments as possible; learn to recognize the traits of good harpsichords and then demand only the best for you and your audience. In this way, the overall quality of the instruments can only improve continuously.