The Gentle Clavichord...

This little period piece is a feature article from House Beautiful magazine, February 1962. ("The magazine dedicated to the business of better living" from the Hearst Corporation.)

There are some major factual errors in this article. It reads rather like a high school research paper in need of some editing, and it is not clear that the author had actually heard or played any of the instruments or music cited.

But I think this is nevertheless an interesting glimpse into American upwardly-mobile culture of 1962...especially as seen through the eyes of New York fashion. This is a pitch for the amateur to buy an instrument that can also be attractive furniture without taking up much space. A clavichord does help to beautify a home in several ways, and that's the point.

To the reader experienced with clavichords and harpsichords, I present this article as an amusement. Imagine it as a presentation narrated by Doris Day....

- typed by Bradley Lehman

See also:

The Gentle Clavichord

The 17th Century's gift to modern music-making takes little room, makes an intimate sound

by Natalie N. Morgan

Of all the instruments in the world, of all the early instruments of Western civilization, the clavichord is the most subtle, the most soothing, the most expressive, and, for just the right person, the most satisfying.

Most of us have heard the story of Handel practicing at night in the attic on a broken-down clavichord. Most of us have wondered how his family failed to hear him as he practiced in secret against the wishes of his father. After you hear a clavichord, the reason is abundantly clear. Its soft tones can be heard only a few feet away.

The clavichord was an instrument that musicians considered "uniquely expressive," according to Beethoven. They enjoyed toying with its singing characteristics as compared to the dynamically more powerful harpsichord and pipe organ. While the harpsichord and organ were for concerts and mass appeal, the clavichord was for the personal enjoyment of the musician with sensitive musical taste.

For a keyboard player who finds himself in a small apartment with neither room nor patient-enough neighbors for a piano, the clavichord is the magnificent solution. It is small in size (often no more than 16 inches wide and 48 inches long), small in sound, and can be easily moved about.

The clavichord is an instrument so like the virginal in appearance, it is often confused with it. Like the virginal, it is a small rectangular "box," which rests on its own special stand or legs. Or it may be placed on a table. It is the most "singing" of the keyboard instruments, yet it is very quiet. It used to be thought of as a German instrument, one for poor scholars, organists, and schoolmasters, but not any more. Nowadays, you can buy an American-made clavichord, or have one imported, from $400 up.

Usually it is plain in appearance, like a small wooden suitcase, available now in rosewood, walnut, mahogany, or any cabinet wood. The keyboard is arranged like a piano's, with the same naturals and accidentals, and has a four-and-a-half-octave range. Open it, prop up the flap, and you have a perfect way to make quiet music for yourself.

To understand the distinctive tone of the clavichord one must understand a little of the technicality of how the tone is made. On harpsichords and virginals the tone is made by a "thorn" plucking the "string" (actually a wire) with a mechanism to prevent the string from being plucked a second time as the thorn drops back down. On a clavichord (like a piano) the tone is produced by a small metal "hammer" striking the string. The clavichord hammer is on the end of the very key your finger touches. Therefore, you have direct control over the string. The player can control loudness (which isn't very loud), softness, sharpness, even execute a vibrato, merely by the fingers. Contrast this to the fact that once a piano key has been struck, the player no longer can control the tone, due to the mechanical release of the striking hammer. The clavichord stands apart from all keyboard instruments, including the organ, in the directness with which the finger plays upon the strings.

Most historians agree that the clavichord evolved from the monochord which was an instrument with a single string, played with a series of keys. Gradually, more strings were added and eventually there was a string for each key. Clavichords built now are patterned after those in Bach's time.

Music for the clavichord covers a relatively short period and is basically from the German school. Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor at Leipzig; J. S. Bach, himself; his two sons, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach; and Joseph Haydn begin and end the list of important composers. The most important compositions for clavichord are probably J. S. Bach's Sinfonia and Haydn's Opus 14. Kuhnau wrote dance suites adapted from church sonatas including allemandes, courantes, sarabands, galliards, and gigues. Bach, of course, wrote many keyboard works for harpsichord, virginal, and clavichord and usually did not specify which instrument should play which. W. F. Bach wrote fugues and polonaises quite unlike his father's compositions. They were more modern and even romantic. Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach, sometimes called "Clavichord" Bach, wrote sonatas and rondos, floridly ornamented. These sonatas of "Clavichord" Bach impressed and influenced young Joseph Haydn, who took them as a model for his own early compositions for the clavichord.

This comprises virtually all the music written strictly for the clavichord, but, of course, virginal and harpsichord music, which is unlimited, can be played successfully on it. The gentleness of the clavichord's tone and the identity of its sounds make it admirably suited to the works of Corelli, the Scarlattis, and Vivaldi--all composers of dance-suite counterpoint, light graceful music as exquisite in its miniatureness as the clavichord.

Germany was the country of the clavichord. It was known in other lands, but not as completely understood. It is a lonely, intimate instrument, of sufficient sound for the player, but virtually useless for the concert hall or even as a supporting instrument.

When a pianist plays a clavichord for the first time he is likely to be shocked. All his life he has heard that studying the clavichord will develop the best touch, the most musical playing, the best phrasing. His first reaction will be, "Ah, it is nothing!" True, it is not a piano. Not true that it is nothing. Its subtlety, gentleness, sparkle, and expressiveness are exquisite.

The clavichord is generally more stable mechanically than other early keyboard instruments and will stay fairly well in tune for months. The harpsichord must be tuned once a week and, in uncooperative weather, even more often. The clavichord, like its giant descendant, the grand piano, needs little tinkering and tuning to keep it in playing order, even though there are sometimes two strings per tone. One clavichord came from Germany to Manhattan and did not need to be tuned on arrival!

The pianoforte eventually evolved from and displaced the clavichord. However, the clavichord continued to be popular into the 19th Century. It is now having a gentle rebirth of popularity, especially among apartment-dwellers.

Recordings of the clavichord are generally unsuccessful. In order for the sound pick-up to be strong, microphones have to be placed so close that often the mechanical sounds of the instrument are also picked up and magnified.

Clavichords are readily available from the following manufacturers and importers, who will supply you with catalogs upon request:

[omitting addresses and other details...] Challis, Neupert, Sabathil, Taylor, Verkruisen, Zuckermann, Dolmetsch, Feldberg, Goble, Hodsdon, Morley, Paul, Rhodes, Thomas.

Captions (photos omitted here):

The clavichord is so small in tone, you can play it at 3:00 a.m. without bothering the neighbors--or even your own cat! The instrument can rest on a table or bench, as here, or on its own legs. This 4 1/2-octave, American-made clavichord has a fine walnut case, and costs under $400. Its sound hole is a bronze "rose." Clavichord from Wallace Zuckermann, New York. Furniture, John Stuart Inc., New York. Rug from "American Prestige" group, Simon Manges & Son, New York. [The posed photo is of a young woman playing a nonsensical bitonal chord of ten notes; the music score is an oblong bound facsimile of some manuscript.]

The clavichord attaches easily to its four legs and is as easily removed. It takes 48" x 16" of floor space. Tuning, seldom required, is quickly learned; tuner, on left of instrument, and pitch fork are only tools required. [Same instrument, now on legs, now against a different wall and with no player.]

BPL, 7/2000