Championing the misunderstood harpsichord

Mahan EsfahaniMon 29th April 2013

There is much more to this wonderful instrument than historical performance and powdered wigs

Think of the first image or idea that pops into your head when someone says, ‘harpsichord’. Trust me, I have heard them all. First prize goes to something mumbled about powdered wigs, second prize to the usual nonsense about a supposed lack of dynamic range. Let's give honourable mention to the query of whether I dislike a pianist because they're playing Bach. Add to this the experience of staying up the night before radio shows to come up with a few one-liners to deflect the usual jokes. Welcome to my world.



So, what are the first things that come into my mind when I hear the name of my beloved instrument? I remember the sense of wonderment and awe I felt when I first heard and saw one. The realisation that this instrument has a (supposedly) inextricable relationship with the works of Bach, Frescobaldi, Byrd, et al came later.  



Believe it or not, I am unable to see why the harpsichord can't enjoy a rewarding life in contemporary music. Yes, that's right - the ‘old’ made new. But you needn't take my word for it – ask Berio. Or Poulenc. Ligeti. Nyman. Takemitsu. Cowell. Henze. Xenakis. Carter. Andriessen. Some composers, such as Martinů and Françaix, saw the harpsichord as the perfect vehicle for the neo-classical movement. Others, like the jazz pianist-turned-Hindemith disciple Mel Powell or the eclectic Lou Harrison, used harpsichord sonority to evoke musical worlds separate from the European canon. Still yet, there were composers who simply saw the revival of the harpsichord as offering Western music a completely new medium for modern musical language. Interestingly, many of these figures - Kalabis, Schnittke, Haubenstock-Ramati, Górecki - were from the Eastern Bloc. Could it be that they were unfettered by the Baroque traditions of harpsichord music that existed elsewhere? And in partnership with all of these composers, many of the major harpsichordists of the day (in stark contrast to our own time) – Wanda Landowska, Ralph Kirkpatrick, George Malcolm, Zuzana Růžičková, János Sebestyén – programmed contemporary music alongside the works of the past. Some, like Elisabeth Chojnacka, made a specialty of contemporary music. There was also a cadre of concert programmers willing to explore new ideas. 



Has the early music movement been good or bad for the harpsichord? There is no question that it has been revelatory in terms of allowing us to understand the sound world intended by the creators of the past. But what of the harpsichord as a living instrument with relevance for our own contemporary musical languages? On this point I am ambivalent. For some, historical performance has offered a way out of the sometimes intimidating realm of judgments on performance that all musicians must sooner or later face when they are in the public eye. In other words, if the answer to someone's criticism can run along the lines of ‘I have the facts on my side’ then the subjective musical conversation is cleverly side-stepped. In addition, intellectual points can be scored. This self-serving manipulation of a ‘cult of the past’ was most likely not the intention of the movement's pioneers but, well, every good idea has its wayward adherents. Simply put, many historical harpsichordists just decided to refuse to engage with modernity either in the form of new music or the possibility of being colleagues to their pianist cousins rather than sectioning themselves off into the world of early music. Hence, the last 30-odd years have seen a relative drop in music being written for the harpsichord. If an instrument's most visible advocates are not championing new music, then why would someone write for it? Composers are looking for performances. Then again, many composers would do well to explore this instrument and its possibilities. There are improvements waiting to be made by both parties. 



Perhaps I am laying it on a bit thick with the doom and gloom. Not all is lost. There are many reasons to be optimistic. Conservatoire programmes offering training in harpsichord playing are exposing students to the modern repertoire. Orchestras are starting, after what seems to have been a long fallow period, to programme modern concertos for the harpsichord (though if you ask me, it's excruciatingly slow in coming). The fact that the British Harpsichord Society's 2012 composition competition received 92 scores from young composers all over the world, is cause for great joy. The works by the shortlisted and winning composers are all pieces that I would be proud to programme in my recitals.



I once heard a lecture by the art curator Malcolm Rogers in which he quipped that ‘the proponents of change often project their own insecurities’. To this crime I must confess. Naturally I do worry about the future of my beautiful instrument. Will it be stuck between two extremes of either a niche fetish or as the ugly cousin ridiculed by those who base their judgments on limited hearings and an even more limited ability to re-evaluate their own prejudices? If we hear the piano played badly, we deliver harsh judgment on the pianist. And yet, were the same experience to occur with the harpsichord, how medieval and complete the curses that would be delivered on the harpsichord itself!



So perhaps there is no single culprit. Harpsichordists, embrace your own age. Programmers, quit talking about how you're open to new ideas and actually pay attention to this instrument. Composers, let down your guard. Here is a new challenge for all of you. Are you up to it?

Mahan Esfahani performs Byrd, Bach and Ligeti at the Wigmore Hall on Friday May 3.

Mahan Esfahani

Mahan Esfahani was born in Tehran, Iran, and was the first harpsichordist to be named a BBC New Generation Artist and to be awarded a fellowship prize by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust. Performances include appearances with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Academy of Ancient Music, Manchester Camerata and Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, and at venues including Wigmore Hall and New York’s Frick Collection. Recent highlights have included a performance with the Academy of Ancient Music at the 2012 BBC Proms, featuring Esfahani’s own arrangement of JS Bach’s The Art of Fugue.

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