The Clavichord

Cecily Lock, March 2005

Interview with Francis Knights (Editor of the journal 'Clavichord International' and Archivist of The British Clavichord Society)

Cecily Lock: You are the editor of Clavichord International, work with the British Clavichord Society, teach, and regularly perform on the clavichord. How did you become so interested in this rather unusual instrument?

Francis Knights: I first discovered the clavichord at school, where my music teacher, the Cambridge-trained organist John Parry, owned both a fine virginals (copied after the ‘A.H.’ original) and a clavichord (a four-octave design by Richard Taylor). At the time I still had not developed much of a liking of modern piano sound, and was very interested to try the other keyboard alternatives. I remember once John playing the C minor and B flat minor preludes from Book 1 of the Well-tempered Clavier for a group of students on his clavichord, and being quite captivated by the result. I subsequently had harpsichord lessons from John Herriot, Robert Woolley and David Roblou, but never had clavichord lessons as such. Nowadays I play harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano and organ, but not modern piano (which I’ve never learned, and indeed only played once in concert, ever).

Lock: How old is the clavichord as an instrument, and how does it differ from roughly contemporary instruments, such as the harpsichord and fortepiano?

Knights: It seems that the clavichord has been around since the late 14th century at least, although it wasn’t until the late 16th century that it reached the four-octave, metre-long form that persisted though the 17th century and into the 18th. The mechanism is unbelievably simple: each key is a lever, pressed down by the finger and one end, causing a tangent (small metal strip) to strike a pair of strings and at the same time become a bridge; the note will sound while the key is depressed, and is then damped at the left-hand end when released. As the tangent performs a dual function of striker and bridge, the laws of physics mean that the sound can never be loud, as this is a very inefficient way of exciting a stretched string. Nonetheless, the beauty of the sound and the complete control the player has over touch results in a uniquely expressive playing experience. The very earliest instruments have very small soundboards, and thus little sustain, while the very latest (with a compass of more than five octaves) have such long key levers that control becomes more difficult. I find the four-octave 17th century models, and both the fretted and unfretted designs of the 18th, best able to balance the elements of sustain, control, clarity and dynamic range. Indeed, some types, like the 4½-octave double fretted clavichords Hubert built in the 1770s, seem capable of playing almost all the repertoire successfully.

Lock: Does it feel very different to play on the clavichord as compared with the modern piano? How easily can pianists adapt to the demands of the clavichord? Do they have to learn and develop a new technique of playing?

Knights: It depends on the player. Some pianists and organists are very gifted at understanding the clavichord’s nature almost at first acquaintance, while others can take months to appreciate its special qualities. Some instruments are also particularly good in this respect: most people can make a Hubert sound well quite quickly, whereas a Hass is very much more of a challenge! I’d say that a musician with well controlled hand movements, a good ear and sensitivity to musical styles is likely to make fairly quick progress. The instrument is certainly not as difficult as some people have claimed – it has the real advantage of offering unparalleled feedback. You can hear exactly when it is working, and when it isn’t.

Lock: Apart from these technical aspects, what are the main differences in the musical presentations of clavichordists and pianists? Are there other reasons why the performances of clavichordists (and other early keyboard instrumentalists) are regarded as more ‘authentic’? Furthermore, does the performer’s and audience’s conception of a piece of music depend very much on the instrument on which it is performed?

Knights: The whole philosophical notion of ‘authenticity’ has come under such attack in recent years that it’s probably best discarded. I think most players now simply believe that the right historical instrument is a more transparent medium for the music – that it fits most naturally on the instruments the composer was familiar with. That’s not to say that performing C.P.E. Bach on the modern piano – or indeed, the harpsichord – is impossible, merely that much thought has to be given to the ways in which the ‘wrong’ instrument might get in the way of the music. I’d certainly play Byrd or Bach differently on the harpsichord, spinet, virginals, clavichord, organ or piano, depending on what the instrument itself wanted to do.

Lock: Since playing the clavichord correctly involves the acquisition of much historical knowledge, do clavichordists often work together with musicologists? Or are many of them, in fact, also musicologists?

Knights: Most early keyboard players have a natural interest in performance practice, sources, editions and so forth, and read up on these subjects for themselves. I’d say that many players, teachers and instrument makers have in fact become musicologists themselves, as you can see from the Magnano proceedings.

Lock: Composers who wrote for the clavichord usually intended their compositions to be performed in small, intimate circles. What do you think of modern performances on the clavichord in large concert halls? Isn’t the sound of this delicate instrument far too weak to fill a whole concert hall? Good-quality CD recordings on the other hand, surely, are a good vehicle to promote the clavichord?

Knights: We have found that small concert halls – like the Holywell Music Room in Oxford – can be an excellent venue for recitals, and that the clavichord is a fine ‘public’ instrument in the right hands. Of course, as with the harpsichord, there is a limit to the size of building, but that seems to me to fit the case quite well: a quiet room with good acoustics seating 100-200 will offer all that is needed of both audibility and intimacy – and is more realistic in terms of audience size too! One shouldn’t think of a clavichord recital in the same way as a modern celebrity piano recital: they’re very different concepts (and one should also remember that few pre-1830 pianos, including Chopin’s, were ever able to fill an Albert Hall). I think that CD recordings are very valuable, though, to introduce listeners to fine playing and neglected repertoire.

Lock: What place do you give the clavichord in our modern world? And what does the British Clavichord Society, for example, do to promote this instrument? Are there many clavichord teachers around for those who want to learn to play this instrument themselves?

Knights: The clavichord revival – evidenced partly by the numerous clavichord societies now springing up around the world – continues to gather steam, and we now have more than one hundred years of modern interest in the instrument. People are performing, recording and teaching on clavichord (the number of items in my revised discography has doubled since the first version was published in 1990), the conferences in Magnano and Edinburgh are generating high-quality scholarship, and the leading players and instrument makers of today are musicians of real stature. Yet there is a limit as to the popularity of the clavichord, in a post-democratic world where most specialist or historical endeavours are looked down on as elitist. And plenty of organists, pianists and even harpsichordists still regard the instrument as little more than a toy, though this is changing fast, mainly thanks to CD recordings. I’d say that we now have a sufficient critical mass of experts and devotees to maintain and develop the revival on a solid footing. Certainly, I’ve always found that a well-played clavichord will ‘sell itself’ to a newcomer quite well, opening as it does an intense, expressive world of music-making. As regards teaching, there are teachers and there are students, but they rarely seem to live in the same places, especially in large countries like the US! The new British Clavichord Society International Clavichord Directory in fact contains a register of teachers, though I don’t think any are exactly swamped with students at present.

Lock: You own a clavichord yourself (based on an anonymous German model of ca. 1730). How do you go about buying such an instrument? I assume there aren’t many originals for sale? Are there many instrument builders who produce good copies? And how truthful to the original are such copies?

Knights: My first clavichord was a Zuckermann kit, which I bought while still at school and made during the summer holidays. It was based on the so-called ‘King of Sweden’ instrument, a four-octave triple fretted design by Georg Woytzig of 1688, and hence useful for sixteenth and seventeenth century music but less so for later music. I still have it, though after 26 years it needs some restoration work! The other instrument was made in the late 1970s by William Foster, and is an approximate copy of the anonymous German instrument in the Mirrey Collection in London: it is unfretted, and copes with most 18th century music, although the C-d3 compass is restrictive. It has a hard touch (Foster had originally installed a very thick beech fretboard – now removed - which made it loud, but almost impossible to play), which makes for good finger discipline. Neither of these instruments is ideal, and I would very much like to have something larger like Peter Bavington’s Silbermann, Karin Richter’s Hubert or Joris Potvlieghe’s Horn, but present circumstances don’t permit. The original instrument I like most is the 1743 H.A. Hass in the Bate Collection, which is a wonderful but very, very demanding instrument – it has such a strong personality that it almost dictates the interpretation of the music in dialogue with the performer, something I have never come across before. Of course I’d like a copy of that one too!
You are right that originals are both rare and prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, there are literally dozens of fine modern makers around the world who produce copies (of various degrees of exactness) of original instruments. The best of these are worthy to be considered alongside the great clavichord makers of the past; in fact, almost the first copies of modern times (made by Dolmetsch in the 1890s after Hass) are fine instruments that are now quite valuable. There are also several dealers in second-hand instruments, but few clavichord copies made before the 1980s are of much value. There are quite a number of decent kit instruments available (see the list in the International Clavichord Directory), and, made well, these range from satisfactory to rather good. The best solution – and it’s an expensive one – is to commission a new instrument from a leading builder. It will cost as much as a small car, but will provide countless hours of musical stimulation and pleasure, and will last for a couple of hundred years.

Lock: It must be rather ‘impractical’ to be a clavichordist. When performing in concerts, do the organizers of the event usually provide the instrument, or do you bring your own instrument with you? Is a clavichord as fragile as it looks?

Knights: Well, apart from the very largest German and Swedish instruments, clavichords are quite portable, at least compared to harpsichords and fortepianos. Many of the smaller instruments can even be carried by one person, and most players are happy to provide their own instruments – very few institutions or halls have good clavichords, anyway. As regards the last question, ‘small’ is not the same thing as ‘fragile’! Being small, carefully structured boxes, they tend to be rather robust.

Lock: Does a clavichord have to be tuned very often? And if so, is it part of the education of clavichordists to learn to do this themselves? What sort of tuning is applied to this instrument (in comparison to the piano, the harpsichord and the fortepiano)?

Knights: As ever, it depends on the particular instrument: how well designed and maintained it is, where it is kept, weather conditions and so forth. But clavichords in my experience are relatively stable, and there have been periods of many months – almost years - where I haven’t needed to retune either of mine, except to touch up the extreme bass and treble.

Lock: How important do you think the clavichord was for Joseph Haydn? Did he own such an instrument himself, and which of his keyboard compositions did he intend to be played on the clavichord?

Knights: In the 18th century, the instrument not only served as a vehicle for domestic performance, practice and teaching, but also as a composer’s workbench. We know, for example, that both Haydn and Mozart ‘wrote’ some of their largest choral works at the clavichord. I think contemporary players – in Austro-Germany at least - would have been mystified by modern scholars asking as the ‘appropriateness’ of the clavichord for keyboard music: it was the standard instrument in the home, and had been for centuries.

Lock: Can you name specific (musical) examples that indicate that Haydn composed for the clavichord? Or examples of Haydn’s compositions that work best on the clavichord?

Knights: Discounting the late works clearly intended for fortepiano – with damper pedal indications and so forth – many of the sonatas and other works are at least satisfactory on the clavichord, and some seem to suit it especially well. I’m thinking of those with a rhapsodic mood, or written in the two-part texture that suits the clavichord particularly. I think it is very beneficial for players to have some Haydn in their repertoire, as it demands a certain kind of firm touch which not all clavichordists care to develop otherwise.

Lock: The Royal College of Music in London owns a clavichord that might have belonged to Haydn. How likely is it that this instrument really was owned by Haydn, and is it open for view by the general public?

Knights: There is a general tendency these days to automatically disbelieve any historical testimony which isn’t supported by cast-iron testimony. Yet we have attested contemporary documents stating that the Bohak instrument was owned by Haydn, and as the instrument is of a kind we might have expected Haydn to own, I see no reason to question its appropriateness for Haydn – a copy built by the late John Barnes in Edinburgh certainly showed this. The RCM instrument museum is indeed open to the public, and although the Bohak is not in playing order it can still be seen and admired.

Lock: Is there a particular CD recording of Haydn’s keyboard works performed on the clavichord that you would like to recommend?

Knights: Although some experts think that the mid and late eighteenth centuries were the classic period of clavichord composition – works by C.P.E. Bach, Müthel, Wolf and so on – players have seemed quite reluctant to tackle the classical period itself, especially the works of Haydn and Mozart, until quite recently. Perhaps this is to avoid comparison with the well-established piano performance tradition, or perhaps suitable instruments have only recently become available. In any case, we know that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all owned clavichords, and that much of Haydn’s solo keyboard music is probably ‘first choice’ clavichord, as he only acquired a fortepiano rather late in his career. As regards CDs, there are all-Haydn discs available from Derek Adlam (Guild GMCD 7260), Steve Barrell (Globe GLO 5023), Péter Ella (Sound Express EPCD 990350), Marcia Hadjimarkos (ZigZag ZZT 990901), Yuko Wataya (Pavane ADW7486/7) and Christine Schornsheim (Capriccio 49 404) – the latter is a complete Haydn survey on 14CDs, performed on harpsichord, clavichord and fortepiano. Of these, I’d say I like the Adlam and Schornsheim best, but the more ways we have of using the clavichord in the classical repertoire the better, and there is plenty of room for alternative interpretations. I’m also very keen for players to use the instrument in really substantial repertoire, rather than saving it for early and minor works. After all, only two Mozart sonatas have ever been recorded on clavichord, and I’m sure many more would work well.

Lock: Many thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!