Harpsichord performances (Bach and Scarlatti)


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Here’s a well-known minuet in G from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook. Old printed editions of this piece attribute it to either ‘J.S. Bach’ or ‘Anon.’, but it is now believed to be by Johann Christian Petzold. It’s played here on a single-manual harpsichord.

Next, a performance of a sonata by Scarlatti. A 2-manual harpsichord is used to great effect here. Notice how the upper manual can be ‘coupled’ to the lower one. The upper keys can be seen going down as the lower ones are played. And in this video, you can see the notation as well!

Although the harpsichord has limited dynamics, it can still sound very expressive if played beautifully. Here’s a lovely performance of a Bach prelude, played on a 2-manual harpsichord, but using only the lower manual.

If you enjoy the sound of the harpsichord, you may feel that one is not enough. OK, how about 4 harpsichords! Here’s J.S. Bach’s concerto in A minor for 4 harpsichords and strings. It’s actually an arrangement by Bach of a concerto for 4 violins by Vivaldi (op.3 no.10).

Keyboard instruments before the piano, part 1: Harpsichord

The first pianos were developed in the early 1700s by an Italian instrument maker called Bartolomeo Cristofori. We’ll take a look at some early pianos in another post. But first we’ll explore two important types of keyboard instruments which existed before the piano. Let’s start with the harpsichord.

The harpsichord has a brilliant sound which could be described as ‘fizzy’. This is because the strings are plucked, rather than being struck with hammers. A harpsichord mechanism consists of a wooden structure called a jack, which contains a quill or a small piece of hard leather (or plastic, as in many modern harpsichords). If you have a chance to play a harpsichord you will notice a slight resistance on the keys just before the quills ‘ping’ the strings.

Following the boom in historical instrument performance from the 1970s, the harpsichord has enjoyed a great revival of interest. However, its main drawback is its limited dynamics. Key pressure doesn’t make any difference between soft and loud, as it does on the piano. So, to give the performer more variety of sound, harpsichords often have two sets of strings, and many have two keyboards (or manuals).

In the following video, Steven Devine, keyboardist with the Orchestra of the Enlightenment, demonstrates a 2-manual harpsichord.

Here are some videos which show harpsichord jacks in action:

Percussion, and others

The UK’s Philharmonia Orchestra has produced a series of videos to help people learn about instruments.

Here is the percussion section. The ‘Percussion’ video includes a variety of instruments: vibraphone (at the beginning), xylophone (2:28), marimba (3:32), glockenspiel (4:53), drums, cymbals etc. (from 5:54). The timpani (or kettledrums) are covered in a separate video.

Not sure what a celeste (or celesta) is? You will almost certainly have heard this instrument in the Harry Potter movie soundtracks, as well as in Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Finally, there are also some videos about instruments which are rarely found in an orchestra, such as the banjo.

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s instrument videos: introduction

Whatever instrument(s) you play, it’s always useful (and fascinating) to know as much as you can about other instruments. If you play the piano, thinking about the sounds of orchestral instruments can sometimes be very helpful. For example, if you have a very smooth (legato) melody in the right hand, imagine it being played by a clarinet. Or, for a detached (staccato) left hand passage, think about how it might sound on a bassoon.

The UK’s Philharmonia Orchestra has produced a series of videos to help people learn about instruments. The players talk about and demonstrate their instruments, and explain how they interact with the rest of the orchestra. A few technical terms are used, but don’t worry if you don’t understand them all. The musical demonstrations will usually make it clear what the players are talking about. Some of the videos may seem a bit long, but you may well find yourself watching many of them all the way through.

The videos will be grouped into orchestral sections, starting with Strings and Harp (and The Conductor), coming up in the next post.

Chopin and Debussy (Peter Jablonski in performance)

A couple of performance videos featuring pianist Peter Jablonski. The music is by two of the greatest composers for the piano: Chopin and Debussy.

For the best sound quality, view these videos in HD if you can.

Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 17 No. 4

The mazurka is a traditional dance in triple time (3 beats in a bar) from Poland. This type of dance was very important to Chopin as a way of expressing his Polish heritage. He wrote more than 50 of them, and they cover a wide variety of moods. Chopin’s mazurkas include some of his most thoughtful and inventive music. This mazurka is a very fine example.

Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water)

The French composer Debussy was a master of ‘sound pictures’ for the piano or orchestra. His style reminds some listeners of the Impressionist school of painters (Monet, for example). For that reason, Debussy is often called an ‘Impressionist’ composer. However, Debussy did not like having the term ‘Impressionist’ applied to his music.

Good playing position

A good playing position (or posture) is essential if you want to play the piano really well. Piano teachers are always saying that. If you’ve been learning the piano for a while, you may have heard it quite a few times. But posture is very important. When you are sitting at a sensible height, and not too close to the piano, with ‘L-shape’ arms and curved fingers, you should have much more control over the piano. It will be a lot easier to tackle those tricky phrasings, thumb-unders, and so on. And you’ll also avoid building up a lot of tension. Tension is definitely not what you want when you’re trying to play the piano!

Here is an 1885 painting called The Recital, by a Czech artist, Skuteczky. In this single image, a believable playing posture and a sense of performance have been beautifully captured. It really looks as if the girl is playing the piano.

(source: Wikimedia Commons)

Watching a fine pianist in performance is perhaps the best way to remind yourself of good playing posture, and get some inspiration at the same time. Live performances are great, but in a large concert hall, you might not be lucky enough to get a good view of the pianist. In some videos you might not get a very good view either, or the recorded sound might be poor.

So, where do you go to find piano performance videos which are well filmed, with good sound quality? Well, some will be appearing right here on animatedpiano.com, like the two that feature in the next post.

In the video below, Melanie Spanswick explains the importance of good posture.