Beware of Musicians in Historians’ Clothing

Paul Power

[May 2003.]

We play music with its history in mind. We want to be faithful to the composer’s intentions and the spirit of his times. For whatever reasons, some musicians became leaders in their field. We listen and follow. But when their pontifications become an excuse for interpretative idiosyncrasies, we have a right — indeed an obligation — to make sure their history is as good as they say it is. When it comes to Baroque performance practices, a lot of what passes for “history” is just one performer’s view of things as he or she sees them.

The search for “purity” in the performance of Baroque music is a century old. And it is in large measure the greatest of shams. The words “Baroque” and “purity” can only be used in the same sentence by those who never visited a Baroque church or palace. To the people of the Baroque, there was no such thing as an excess of ornamentation and novelty, however tasteless some of it may seem to us today. And, at the outset of this discussion, let us not forget their passion for mechanical innovations that delighted the eye, the ear, and even the sense of smell. This obsession would result in what we would call a century later the Industrial Revolution. It began in the Baroque with things that went whir-r-r-r-r-r!

As the plainest of examples, the “Concert Organ” saw its birth in mid-19th century France, reaching its apogee in the very large instruments of every country — here in the US, the magnificent E.M. Skinners, Austins, Aeolian Skinners, Mollers and Kimballs in churches and town halls just about everywhere. Today, these instruments are largely ignored and many are going to rot because, according to the “purists,” they are “orchestral imitative.” This means that if your stoplist includes French Horn, Clarinet, or Tuba, you are clearly “orchestral imitative,” and that’s not good. If, however, your stoplist includes Blockflutes, Trombas, Clarines Schalmeis, Gambas, and so on, you’re probably OK.

These latter were the instruments that figured in Baroque orchestras. The organ has been orchestral-imitative ever since its inception as a device to entertain the populace while certain Christians were fare for lions. The Hydraulis, as the organ was then called, was cheaper and easier to manage than a bunch of trumpeters. It’s ironic, given its background, that the organ became the mainstay of Christian churches. In 1905, Pius X proclaimed it the official instrument of the Roman Catholic Church and forbade the use of the piano as an “instrument of the theater.”

Many Baroque organs and their re-creations are absolute marvels and certainly the music of the period speaks with a special voice on these. But we should not let historic obsession cloud the fact that these organs were the parents and grandparents of the organs of later times. Especially, we should not allow history to convince us that the musicians who composed for them were delighted with their limitations and could not, with their faith in everything mechanical, dream of larger, easier-to-use instruments. Recently, a famous producer of programs about the organ waxed nostalgic, envisioning old Mr. Bach trundling up the stairs to the organ loft on a weekday to practice. Sorry! The officials at St. Thomas would not pay to have the organ pumped for rehearsals, even for special Sunday services. For my part, I envision old Mr. Bach dreaming of an electric blower at least.

Much bad history has been lavished on the instrument we call the harpsichord. It was known in the Baroque as the “organ of the home.” Time now for some really chilling tales. Let’s start with a simple exercise. It takes about an hour. Secure a copy of the purists’ bible, Frank Hubbard’s Three Centuries of Harpsichord Building. Before you open it, reflect that Hubbard wrote the book to convince mid-20th-century Americans that the harpsichord is a simple instrument anyone can put together with a few tools from a “kit.” Don’t read a word he writes. It’s a sales pitch.

However, the book is peppered with writings of musically involved people of the time, from that old gossip Mr. Burney on down. Read those historical snippets only. Keep a tally of the qualities the writers most sought in a harpsichord, along with their complaints and criticisms. At the top of the list you will find “variety of tone colors.” Running second, you will find the search for mechanisms for rapidly changing registers. High on the list are criticisms of mechanical reliability. None of this has much to do with Mr. Hubbard’s instruments, so you can now put the book away. Note that no one complained of a lack of volume.

We really haven’t the foggiest idea of what an 18th-century harpsichord sounded like. What, you may ask, about all the carefully restored instruments? Since I hope to save you from more bad history, let me give you a parallel experience. I grew up at the tail end of the piano’s halcyon years. The 1920s produced an amazing variety of great instruments. Should you wish to play Ravel or Debussy, you might pick a Pleyel or its American counterpart, a Baldwin, with their sensuous windy basses and mellow upper registers. For Mozart or Haydn, you might choose a Broadwood or Chickering with their light crispness. For the Romantics, you might elect a Steinway, but you could also choose the Bechstein, Bösendorfer or Mason & Hamlin. Then there were the sumptuous, enervating “Music Room Grands,” notably by Mason & Hamlin, and the Steinway Model B. Play Bach on these and you felt as if Pablo Cassals were accompanying you in the middle registers, so rich and string-like were their sounds.

At the end of World War II, Steinway literally bought up all the artists. The old instruments ended up for tax purposes in fraternity-house living rooms where generations of spilled beer has silenced them. Everything today is an imitation Steinway or the real thing.

Why all this piano talk? Because what I’ve described occurred not in three centuries but in my lifetime. You can be sure of one thing. If Aunt Hattie had a lovely little Chickering with Queen Anne legs, it’s still kicking around somewhere. And that’s the problem. The harpsichords that survived did so because of their “furniture” value. A man named Boalch catalogued 600 or so surviving harpsichords in the 1950s. Only one could be attributed to a musician of stature. It was a Kirckman built for Haydn and had pedals for changing stops and controlling an elaborate series of swell shutters that modified the volume. Mark well: It bristled with mechanical innovations.

In museums and art books, we see painting after painting of musical gatherings. The harpsichords are most often large boxes painted brown or black — and thick, as much as 18 inches. The lids are almost never shown open. What went on inside is anybody’s guess. They are the instruments musicians played — not parlor furniture. And they must have produced good volume. Today’s harpsichords have solid bottoms copied from the “furniture” survivors. Those old brown and black boxes must have had open or perforated bottoms. Otherwise, they would not have been heard a yard away.

Hand-drawn wire is another controversial subject. It was clearly lumpy. This must have made a harpsichord builder’s life some sort of hell. If the lump in a string designed to play a1, for example, happens to fall at a nodal point in the string’s vibration, the note might sound as a dull thud or extra loud and intrusive. The string would have to be removed and used above or below in the scale. In any case, the strings would have played louder. Today’s instruments often use a wire coated with a sort of galvanizing mixture to give them what is thought to be similar mass to hand-drawn. But it is machine made and uniform. No accidents, fortunate or otherwise.

By the time the Baroque era arrived, the viols had given way to the violin family and crowned soundboards were all the rage. If a harpsichord (or piano) ever had a crown, it has lost it. Today’s harpsichords generally make no attempt at crowning. Builders do not seem to realize it is the simplest thing to do and assume that Baroque instrument makers were equally ignorant. You have only to install the soundboard over the framing before the exterior sides are affixed instead of trying to drop it into a finished instrument. Now you can crown to an extent that would create envy in a piano maker’s heart.

At this point, you may have decided that I regard myself as pretty damn smart. Well, that’s another problem. Everybody thinks he’s pretty damn smart. What I’m trying to say is that there is absolutely no historically secure way to characterize what old harpsichords sounded like. They are simply not as durable as an organ pipe and far more subject to so many variables. My guess is as good as yours, but they’re both guesses.

What is not a guess is the increasing decline of popularity of the harpsichord since it hit the top of the charts in the 1950s. More Bach keyboard music is today sold in piano recordings than ever before — and without the former disclaimer that the performances are transcriptions. That’s because we think of ourselves as smarter than people used to be. We are “purists” who have emasculated the incredible variety possible with an instrument with registers.

We acknowledge that we live in a marketing age but are sure that Baroque instrument makers did not. Really? The Italians, for example, enamored of the violin and human voice, never had much use for keyboard instruments. They exported their keyboard virtuosi — Scarlatti, Clementi and that crowd — and forced Liszt to perform on an upright when he came to town. But they certainly wanted to sell their manufactures. Hannibal had discovered, trying to cross the Alps with 37 elephants, that carrying large packages over a mountain (an elephant is a very large package) was somewhat difficult. The Italian instrument makers built small, cheap, and “tinny” instruments that were easy to carry over mountains. There was little market at home. Today, Italian instruments are copied in every form. This is tantamount to a car fancier re-creating a Fiat while ignoring Duesenbergs, Rolls, and Hispano-Suizas. The response has been that the record-buying and listening public has gone to sleep out of boredom. It might be informative to hear the music of 18th-century Italian keyboard composers on these instruments except that such composers seem few and far between. They had sent the good ones over the Alps.

Serious musicians would want to hear the music of the great Baroque composers on their own instruments. In the early part of the last century, that’s exactly what happened. Artists such as Landowska went to Pleyel or Maendler-Schramm or Neupert — all piano makers — and asked them to re-create the harpsichord. Today, many would tell you they didn’t know how to research it as well as we do. Back to the Hubbard book. These firms created in the period 1920-1950 instruments with great variety of tone and devices to rapidly change registers. With regard to reliability and regulation, the instruments were rather temperamental, just as the Baroque writers described. Audiences were enthralled and flocked to a two-hour performance of the Goldberg Variations and bought records of this bizarre instrument in record-breaking (sorry about the pun) numbers.

Today, audiences avoid recordings and performances on these historical copies while at the same time maintaining a lively interest in instrumental performances on “period instruments.” Wouldn’t you think that a harpsichord enthusiast might smell a rat? We contend that the surviving instruments (mostly parlor furniture) limited the imagination of the great composers. We have absolutely no solid information that these were typical of the instruments on which they performed. Despite the evidence that Bach was considered a keyboard virtuoso, we avoid the virtuosic. We want nothing that hints of Romanticism in our Bach. Do we ponder, since there was no Schubert, Frank Sinatra recordings or Viagra, that he could ever have become romantic enough to sire 20-some children? We cannot imagine that he might dream some day of sitting at a 1950s Austin Organ console, with its 10 presets per manual, 10 generals duplicated by toe studs, sectional cancel bars and a programmable crescendo pedal.

There seems no end to the degree we minimize Mr. Bach. His organs generally had two pre-sets, a Sforzando and Piano pedal, but we prefer to forget these. They sound too modern. If we are a leftover Scott Joplin performer turned Bach historian, we argue that the B-minor Mass was intended to be sung by a quartet of four musicians. This is so because there are no extant part copies. Never mind that students at the grim Thomaschule were sent there to make a living and that the manuscripts they copied were the equivalent of today’s résumés. They took them with them. But, seated at our frail Italian harpsichords playing Bach’s most romantic passages in detaché style at “evangelical” tempi, we are historians!


It’s fun being an amateur historian. In the ‘70s, as I was really getting into instrument making, I was running a sailing magazine. Sailing is a sport I had been engaged in since childhood. I began to build my instruments using a technique from the boating industry of impregnating the wood with epoxy, rendering it moisture-proof. Since it changed the wood’s behavior no more than a varnish or sealer, the benefits were great. The instruments stayed in tune about as long as a piano and there were no sticking keys every time it rained.

I read somewhere of a Danish princess sailing to England to marry the king. Neither had met. To while away the time and deal with her anxiety, she played a small virginal she had brought with her and sang the hours away. How romantic. So I conceived of — and began to market — the Seagoing Spinet, a small, portable instrument based on English drawings of the 17th century for use on cruising yachts. I was a Midwesterner used to fresh-water sailing. In salt air, mixed metals corrode (electrolytically, like a battery). The cases held up beautifully, one even surviving a shipwreck off Portugal. But the mixture of steel and brass strings, hitch pins and tuning pegs took their toll, and after a year or so, the instruments had to be completely rebuilt and kept ashore. The Princess must have had a short trip.

[Paul Power is a retired builder of harpsichords and guitars. His interest began in the 1960s with a kit. He went on to build some 47 harpsichords of his own design based on historical models. Thousands of tourists see one of his instruments, a small English virginal, at the Williamsburg Restorations where it is the official instrument of the Dancing Master and is featured on their recordings. Ed.]

[More Paul Power]
[Previous Article: A View From the Green Room]