Updated: Jan 3
Being a harpsichordist, like players of other large instruments, involves some extra work before you even play a note – getting an instrument into a venue. Like many players, I frequently take my own harpsichord around to performances. Music festivals and concert halls often provide an instrument for me to play – and this is a great experience, meeting friends and colleagues, both old and new, as well as getting to know new instruments and makers. The world of people associated with the harpsichord is pretty small! It goes without saying that each and every instrument is unique. But I also enjoy taking my instrument on the road ….
Where do you get one from? Sadly there are fewer and fewer harpsichord makers and tuners in the UK now. Only this week we heard the very sad news of the passing of Sussex based maker Malcolm Rose (https://jackrail.space/t/r-i-p-malcolm-rose/1072). I enjoyed performing on his 1667 anonymous French harpsichord only in November at Brighton Early Music Festival (http://www.malcolm-rose.com/Harpsichords/Harpichords-details/Anon-1667/anon-1667.htm)
When performing with Ensemble Hesperi, bringing my own instrument to play is always a source of conversation with audience members. During intervals and after concerts, it is always fun to show the instrument to audience members, answering questions and showing them how it works.
I commissioned this harpsichord from UK make Alan Gotto in 2016. It is a single manual version of a double manual original, but with the same specification and range. It has two stops of 8’ pitch, a 4’ and buff stop.
(What does that mean? Read on if unsure … this refers to which octave a note plays in. So an 8 foot stop on a harpsichord or organ is what we call ‘unison’ or normal pitch – ie the note you would expect on a piano. A 4 foot stop will be an octave higher (strings or pipes are half the length) and 16’ an octave lower etc)
I think it is a beautiful instrument, and its sound continues to become richer and develop over time. It is a copy of a French instrument dating from 1667. Its sound is versatile and equally at home in solo music or as a continuo instrument. The fact that it is a single manual instrument makes it slightly lighter and easier to transport. Since 2016, I have taken it all over the UK for concerts, workshops and projects.
Through our involvement in Live Music Now, it has been in care homes and SEND schools.
Here are the most frequently asked questions at concerts, the answers to which you might find interesting/amusing:
How on earth do you move it?
It fits into our Vauxhall Zafira, a small 7 seat car. The stand it sits on easily collapses into 6 pieces in a couple of minutes. The main instrument can then be carried by two people (compared to other instruments, it is surprisingly light, being all made from walnut wood).
Do you have to tune it often?
Very often! When it is at home in a stable climate, it will remain perfectly in tune enough for personal practice, but changes in temperature and humidity cause the whole thing to shift in pitch, which is a problem for playing with other instrumentalists. In an ideal world, the instrument should be in a performance venue for a while to acclimatise and get used to the temperature and humidity. Coming from a warm car into a cold venue always gives it a bit of a shock…
But tuning is all part of the process… On harpsichords, we can easily choose different temperaments (tuning systems where intervals are able to be wider or narrower, producing different characters and musical colours which make different chords and keys effectively more or less ‘in tune’. Modern instruments are in equal temperament which means that all intervals are the same ("equally tuned") meaning every key sounds the same).
For a typical concert, I tune on arrival before rehearsal, before the concert, then a touch up in the interval.
Is it a nuisance to have to take it to different places to perform?
It’s no more of a nuisance than other instrumentalists with big instruments or technical equipment to carry for gigs! I enjoy playing this instrument very much, and so it’s very comforting to have an instrument you know with you. For chamber music concerts, time in venues is really for getting used to the acoustics of a certain building or room, checking balances, tempi, links between movements and pieces, and fine details of articulation and ornamentation, so putting a new instrument in the mix is another thing to think about. At the end of the day, all music is about adaptability, so it is all part of the job. With Ensemble Hesperi, I think we all know the sounds of each other’s instruments and their characters, and the harpsichord is no different to a different violin, recorder or cello.
What’s the most difficult place you have taken it?
Stairs tend to be the trickiest thing. Recently I played for a fantastic performance of Messiah (with Swansea Bach Choir) in the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, where it was incredibly wet going up stairs, which meant trying to be quick and careful at the same time! Last year, Mary-Jannet Leith and I performed in the chapel at the Royal Marsden hospital. We were warned of the lack of parking, and of the need to be quick when doing the drop off (in the layby for taxis and drop offs), but we didn’t expect the revolving doors we were soon confronted with… We had to park in the CEO’s space for a moment (it being the only space free) before trying to figure out a solution. Basically – it sort of went through unscathed with various bits of standing, looking, measuring, pushing, pulling, and lifting. This isn’t something I would like to take it though again in a hurry. On telling this to the wonderful Andrew Wooderson (an excellent maker based in Bexley), he told me that there are ways to take off the doors! Next time...
Taking it in and out of the Wallace collection last summer also proved tricky because of the number of extremely valuable things on the route from gallery to entrance (!) and the rules on safety with visiting members of the public. This was a true team effort in terms in terms of red tape and lifting!
How does it fit in a car?
The passenger seat is tilted forward so the passenger (usually recorder player Mary-Jannet Leith), sits behind the driver. The instrument is just the right length for the zafira! When we were recently interviewed on Sean Rafferty’s ‘In tune’, we got chatting about how this must work in left hand drive countries, where the arrangement of the seats doesn’t work so well with the shape of a harpsichord…!