The harpsichord in ensemble

some thoughts from the point of view of the audience.

I have never made a secret of the fact that the instruments I prefer are the organ, for performances in public, and the clavichord, for practice and individual pleasure. With the full organ one can make the audience feel the flames of hell under their feet and at the same time with soft registers one can remember of angels. The clavichord, on the other hand, with its melancholy and weakness is the instrument that best depicts human experience.

For someone like me, who is used to look at music’s history from the organ loft, the context in which the harpsichord is absolutely unreplaceable is ensemble music. The clavichord is in fact too delicate and the organ, although capable of wonderful effects, is little used in ensemble. As if that weren’t enough, today’s practice is to only use insipid “chest organs” even in big sacred works; in any case the large organ, with its almost infinite possibilities, is today better left to collect dust than used to accompany. The only ray of light that can make the continuo shine in modern performances is the harpsichord.

Some harpsichordists neglect the accompaniment and consider it a secondary skill. I, who have spent most of my musical career playing alone, do not understand this attitude, because there is nothing more beautiful and fun than ensemble music. If one then claims that the figured bass of a trio is less stimulating than a suite by Couperin, I answer that the effect of listening to the Triosonata as a whole, can be just as valid. And if technical difficulties are limited, then one should just focus more on other important aspects of the execution.

Unfortunately during my education at the Conservatory, especially for organists, little or no importance was given to the study of thorough bass. As an adult it is certainly more difficult to find time to learn the proper realization of figured bass. In addition, unfortunately, opportunities to have practice are also scarce, because the level expected from graduated is already too high for one to reach it without much experience with numbers. So many people today, out of fear or convenience, still play from written realizations, not always of great musical value. I hope this situation will change, so that in the future, instead of wasting time with useless subjects, organists and harpsichordists will be taught from the beginning on, how play figured bass in ensemble.

If someone at this point would object that somebody more qualified than me should talk about continuo’s performance practice, historical sources, stylistic aspects and so on, I honestly would not have much to protest.
If I allow myself to write on the subject, however, is because of my extensive experience of attending concerts, during which I have largely heard what works and what does not. Moreover, my work as a builder has naturally led me to link the success of the accompaniment to certain characteristics of the instrument. Last reason for writing this is that I am sick of hearing the same problems over and over,  so I hope in the future more care will be taken by whomever reads this article. I still value thorough bass as one of the most important functions of the harpsichord and I take particular care that my own instruments are successful in ensemble.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to perform the same composition within short time with the very same choir and orchestra: once only with the harpsichord, the second time only with the organ. I begin by saying that in both performances something was missing; but on that occasion, seeing what worked and what was missing, I was able to identify very clearly the different functions of continuo: with the harpsichord the orchestra played well together and there were no rhythmic imbalances; on the other hand the choir was a bit disunited and the singers a little uncertain. The second time, with the organ, despite playing in the same position, the orchestra was slightly disoriented with the rhythm, but both choir and singers, in recitatives and arias, had much better intonation.

From this experience, it was clear to me that the main contributions of thorough bass on keyboard instruments are to define rhythm and harmony, in which the harpsichord excels, while instead the organ is more crucial for intonation and filling (and in large productions it helps the general blending). This fact depends on the different sound production, so only in small groups, in my opinion, you can do without one of the two instruments; but a big ensemble really requires both. However, when one of the two is missing or not asked for, the other must take on as far as possible of all four tasks: rhythm, harmony, intonation and filling. And this is by no means simple for the possibilities of the instrument: in fact one sees that in practice only a good organ or a good harpsichord can provide really delightful results.

As listener, the first and most frequent issue that I have ever encountered, is a too weak and insignificant accompaniment (I met the opposite so rarely that it is not really worth discussing) and this can have different reasons. The first cause is the preconception that accompaniment is a marginal or even dispensable part of the composition. Translated into the aesthetic of the neo-baroque this lends to a sickish continuo with  2 or 3-voices that leaves the instrumentalists at the mercy of themselves. I leave to experts a discussion on the finesses of performance practice, but I feel that leaving the soloists usupported, can sometimes be used effectively as an effect, but on the long run it just becomes tiresome. Often are even the instrumentalists themselves who note how it feels easier and natural to play supported by a solid accompaniment.
The second cause of insignificant accompaniment is a mediocre instrument. And as much as a clever harpsichordist can try to make up for it, unfortunately, he won’t manage completely. Let’s then see together which traits needs a harpsichord to be successful in ensemble performances.

We’ll start by considering the functions mentioned above: rhythmic and harmonic support, intonation and filling. What typically creates the least problems is giving the rhythm, because in an instrument with plucked metal string the pluck (ictus) with its high frequencies is easily audible even on poor instruments. From this comes perhaps the myth that instruments which sound very dry and “rattle” are particularly good for continuo playing. I am afraid, I cannot agree with this opinion: perhaps these harpsichords might be tolerable in tutti sections, but in recitatives, arias and sonatas, where the harpsichord takes a more complex function, their limits soon come to light.
In any case, the only reason why the ictus noise in a harpsichord might be insufficient is due to an extremely faint intonation, in which plectra tickle the strings rather than plucking them.
There is no reason on earth to castrate an instrument in this way, since any self-respecting soloist can easily make himself heard over a harpsichord. Since in music what you don’t hear, doesn’t exist, if you get hired to play continuo, it also means, among others, that you have to be heard: a good harpsichord must be built and voiced with this purpose in mind.

The second function is the definition of harmony and this already requires something more from the instrument. In order for the harmonies to be heard instantly and for the ensemble to accommodate, the instrument must have enough volume, intensity and projection. The tone should be clear, solid, intense and resonant; if all you can hear is nothing but a dry, metallic and substanceless sound, other musicians will really have a hard life. If, on the other hand, the instrument seems to activate completely while playing, it will support the ensemble in the best way, defining harmony clearly.

The function of supporting intonation is closely related to the definition of harmony, but it’s a little different. In fact, even average instruments can sometimes offer adequate harmonic support and are passable in the whole, but to support the clean intonation of the single musician you need a really good harpsichord. This has to do with richness, durability and sound structure. It might have occurred to everybody to play on the fly with a soloist whose instrument was not really in tune. The simplest trick is to play so short, that the audience doesn’t notice intonation flaws. Here the principle is reversed: an instrument with a rich and sustaining sound can serve as a valid support to the intonation of other musicians; in this regard I consider important not only the simple decay in seconds, but also the sympathetic vibrations that are established inside the instrument and act as a kind of reverb. Instruments that only have a long sustain because the energy cannot transfer from the strings to the soundboard, will still have a long sound, but so thin and metallic that won’t support intonation at all; instead those harpsichords that seem to come to life and fill the room with sound, will be a fundamental help for clever instrumentalists.
Another important element is the structure of sound: if a sound is intense and well structured, its harmonic components will naturally suggest the correct pitch. On the other hand sounds that are impure, mushy, thin or without fundamental offer no real help.
It’s something I noticed singing in choirs: when singers don’t try to produce a good sound, intonation suffers immediately. On the contrary, the more beautiful, intense and structured the tone, the more intonation will improve.

The last function is about filling. This is also linked to harmony and intonation; but it is yet different because you can fill effectively even by enriching chords, playing arpeggios or repeating notes: in some cases you can even fill by diminishing and adding figures.
The effect, however, is very different: if one fills to desperately escape vacuum, because the instrument has not enough sound or sustain, he can never stop and he constantly risks overloading music. On the other hand, when the instrument resonates and sustains well by itself, you can have real fun, because both by filling and leaving empty, the accompaniment will never be insipid.

At the end of the discussion, “incredibly”, it seems that the best instrument to play in ensemble shows all the good traits of an excellent harpsichord. Since ultimately many fundamental aspects of the ensemble performance, such as rhythm, harmony, intonation and filling depend, among other things, on the characteristics of your instrument, I suggest you choose it very carefully.
If you can get or rent a really good harpsichord, don’t think twice about it: it’s amazing how much an ensemble performance can improve through a good accompaning instrument. It will be the best option for you, for other musicians and for the audience.
But in any case, if you want to do a favor to yourself, to your audience and to those who play with you, strictly avoid mediocre instruments, especially those with a dry, metallic, impure, thin or substanceless sound (all bad features). In fact, they only can provide an insipid and bland accompaniment, which will be totally useless for the ensemble and will dump all problems on other musicians.

If this article disappointed you because it did not solve the great existential doubt between “Valotti or Werkmeister”, which haunts many modern continuo-players, I humbly apologize. But at the same time I guarantee that an instrument that has the features listed above will ensure a musical result that overshadows any further discussion on cents and commas.