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Early Music, Music Feature Print

Part 3 of 5

February 26, 2014 - most recently updated on January 2, 2017, Easthampton, MA:

Part Three of Four Parts

The Playing Style

In my earlier piece, I pointed out that most French pianist-composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries revered these clavecinistes and sought to follow their tradition and incorporate their style into their own works for piano. They often insisted that performers follow their scores carefully, and in doing so, were in fact again following, and occasionally so stating, the tradition of the clavecinistes.

The French harpsichord performance practices grew out of the practices for playing the lute. There are several pièces that are labeled "luthé," others that are clearly intended to be played in this manner, i.e., in imitation of the strumming of strings, and even a few whose title is: "Le Luthé." A good example of an un-labeled one is the second section of the Allemande of Le Roux' fifth Suite, excellently rendered by Kenneth Gilbert on his Clérambault CD (See Appendix C below). One of the most famous lutenists of the earlier time, Charles Fleury, sieur de Blancrocher (c. 1605-1652), was greatly admired by the early clavecinistes, and several, including Louis Couperin and Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667), wrote Tombeau(-x)… (tribute works or musical elegies that imitate the style of the honoree) to him (See Appendix C.). Other lutenists such as Denis Gaultier (1597 or 1602/3-1672; he wrote the first documented tombeau, to René Mesangeau [c. 1567-1638] in 1638), and François Dufaut (before 1604-1672?), likewise admired by the clavecinistes, also wrote Tombeau(-x)… to Blancrocher.

This is the origin of the agréments as well; they are based on the ornamentation practices of the English and French lutenists. Likewise, musical forms for compositions for the harpsichord, both the dance rhythm and the character/genre pièces, grew out of those for the lute. Both are plucked-string instruments; indeed, some have called the harpsichord a "mechanical lute." The concept was to be able to handle the keyboard with the fingers as if they were plucking the stings directly, which led ultimately to what we call today the "French" keyboard playing style of emphasis on the fingers, hands , and wrists without using the arms and body, which remain motionless when strumming the strings of a lute. In the four pages of his "Une Methode [sic, and for all other variants from modern French spelling] pour la mechanique des doigts Où l'on enseigne les moyens de se procurer une parfaite éxecution sur cet instrument" that he wrote to accompany his second book of Pièces de clavessin in 1724, which also included a "Table des agrémens," Jean-Philippe Rameau says at the beginning of the second (p. 4):

Il faut d'abord s'asseoir auprès du clavecin, de façon que les coudes soient plus élevés que le niveau du clavier, & que la main puisse y tomber par le seul mouvement de la jointure du poignet. C'est afin que la main tombe comme d'elle meme sur le clavier, qu'il faut d'abord avoir les coudes audessus de son niveau ; & ils ne sont jamais trop élevés,

[…] il faut que les coudes tombent nonchalamment sur les côtés, dans leur situation naturelle; situation qu'il faut bien remarquer, & qu'on ne doit jamais déranger que par une nécessité absolue, comme lorsqu'on est obligé de transporter la main d'un bout du clavier à l'autre.


La jointure du poignet doit toujours être souple : cette souplesse qui se répand pour lors sur les doigts, leur donne toute la liberté & toute la légereté necessaries : & la main qui par ce moyen se trouve, pour ainsi dire, comme morte, ne sert plus qu'à soutenir les doigts qui lui sont attachés, & à les conduire aux endroits du clavier où ils ne peuvent atteindre par le seul movement qui leur est proper.

First of all, one must sit at the harpsichord in such a manner that the elbows are higher than the level of the keyboard and that the hand can fall onto it by the simple movement of the wrist joint. It is in order that the hand may fall as if by itself onto the keyboard the elbows must at first be above it level; & they are never too high.

[…] The elbows must fall relaxed to the sides in their normal position, position that must be taken note of, & that one must never disturb except out of an absolute necessity, such as when one is required to move the hand from one end of the keyboard to the other.


The wrist joint must always remain limber: this flexibility which then spreads out to the fingers, gives them all the freedom & all the lightness necessary: & the hand which by this means is, so to speak, as if dead, serves only to support the fingers which are attached to it, & to take them to the spots on the keyboard that they cannot reach by their own movement.

After he has described numerous exercises to strengthen the fingers and make each work independently of the others, and then the hands, independently and together, he says, on the fourth page (p. 6):

Quand on se sent la main formée, on diminuë petit-à-petit la hauteur du siege, jusqu'à ce que les coudes se trouvent un peu au-dessous du niveau du clavier ; ce qui engage pour lors à tenir la main comme collée au clavier, & ce qui acheve de procurer au toucher toute la liaison qu'on peut y introduire.

Quand on exerce les tremblemens ou cadences, il faut lever, le plus qu'il est possible, les seuls doigts dont on se sert pour lors ; mais à mesure que le mouvement en devient familier, on leve moins ces doigts ; & le grand mouvement se tourne à la fin en un mouvement vif & leger.

Il faut bien se garder de précipiter la cadence sur la fin, pour la fermer : elle se ferme naturellement, lorsqu'on en a une fois acquis l'habitude.

When one feels that the hand is trained, one lowers little by little the height of the seat, until the elbows are a little below the level of the keyboard; which forces [the player] to hold the hands as if glued to the keyboard, and which ends up achieving for the touch all the linking that can be introduced.

When one practices the tremblings/trills or cadences, one must raise, the most possible, only the fingers that are then being used; but as the movement becomes more familiar, one raises these fingers; & the grand movement turns in the end into a quick and light movement.

One must take care not to hurry the cadence to its end, to close it: it will close naturally, once one has finally acquired the habit.

He concludes:

Cette Méthode sert comme d'introduction à un sistême [sic, & for all other variants from modern spelling herein] complet de la méchanique des doigts sur le Clavessin, que jespere donner bien-tôt ; l'utilité de cette Mechanique ne s'est point encore fait connoitre, & c'est dans l'accompagnement sur tout qu'elle se fera le plus sentir : j'y epargne à la memoire une infinité de régles, qu'on ne peut cependant mettre en usage, qu'après avoir sçu les faire passer du jugement au bout des doigts.

Ce que j'ai dit touchant du Clavessin, est à observer pareillement sur l'Orgue.

This Method serves as an introduction to a complete system for the mechanics of the fingers on the harpsichord, which I hope to publish soon; the usefulness of these Mechanics is not yet well known, & it is in the accompaniment above all that they will be useful: I spare the memory an infinity of rules, that one cannot apply, until after having made them go from the mind to the fingertips.

What I have said concerning the Harpsichord, applies likewise to the Organ.

In 1732, he published a Dissertation sur les différents methodes [sic] d'accompagnement pour le clavessin ou l'orgue in which he repeated these instructions.

Other clavecinsites wrote advice for playing, mostly in the prefaces to some of their books. Jean-Henry d'Anglebert wrote an 8-page "Principes de l'accompagnement" and also included "Marques des agréments et leur signification" in his 1689 edition. Michel Corrette wrote a 32-page treatise on the subject for beginners in 1749, reissued in 1779: Les Amusemens du Parnasse; Méthode courte et facile pour apprendre à toucher le clavecin, Avec les plus jolis airs à la mode, où les doigts sont chiffrés pour les commençans, Ensemble des principles de musique, Livre Ier, and the 27-page Le Maître de Clavecin pour l'accompagnement in 1753, reissued in 1790 for playing basse continue. See Appendix D for details.

This style of playing, which was most notably demonstrated by Saint-Saëns in more recent times – many of his contemporaries and reviewers commented on his ramrod-straight posture and restraint of movement of everything other than his lower arms, hands, and fingers, was taught to pianists in the French conservatoires until after WW II. It likewise caused the French piano building industry to design and develop instruments that could produce a greater variety of sounds across the registers and be played with something less than the brute force required by modern Steinways, while also being more sensitive to expressive possibilities, created by the design of the keys themselves, hence their shorter depth and shallower descent, for example. They were merely following the path down which the harpsichord builders went.

Another feature that falls into this category of playing style, but is also related to the style of composition, is that of notes égales [equal or rigourously respected note values] vs. notes inégales [unequal treatment of identically written notes]. One might expect that composers who insisted on their scores being played precisely as notated would assume that notes would be respected as written and mark notes that they wanted shrunken or stretched slightly, but that is not what was done. In practice, notes inégales was the assumption, and when the composer wanted strict values executed, the passage was sometimes marked: "notes égales." Notes inégales is really the equivalent of tempo rubato within the beat, and should not be confused with a rubato that alters the beat such as is common in Romantic period music. This is also an important part of the emphasis on nuanced expression that the clavecinistes stressed, which takes us back to the beginning.

While these works are not played frequently if at all in the US, it is very easy to obtain the scores for many of them for free. They are long since in the public domain and many have been scanned, some by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and one can therefore easily find the originals on the Internet. A number have also been edited in more readily readable format, and are also available there for free. Some of the latter eliminate the marks for the agréments, however, as was customary in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Saint-Saëns did so in his 1895 edition of the harpsichord works of Rameau, for example, so a cautionary comment must be made to attempt to compare these with a scanned version or facsimile edition of the original. Thus, a talented harpsichordist who can read French and understand the agréments can now easily acquire and learn the scores and program the works.

Full disclosure: I have been enthralled by the sound and timbre of the harpsichord since I first heard one in the early 1960s, during the first early-music revival/craze, soon after I graduated from college. I have never found, like Sir Thomas Beecham, that "its thin, nasal sound [is] like that of two skeletons copulating on a tin roof" as reported by Isacoff (without citation of source; see above, p. 55)*. I find the sound of the original instruments on some of the CDs in Appendix C below perfectly ravishing. In the late 1960s, during the "hippie" years, I was seriously tempted to order a kit, when they could be found in the Whole Earth Catalogue, build one up, and teach myself to play, but the space limitations of my tiny apartment at the time and other commitments made me forgo that. (At least one serious contemporary maker started his career this way.) I have regretted it ever since, but at age 72, think it will have to remain one of the numerous "I-wish-I-had-been-able-to-do-that" things in life that most of us have. Researching this piece, reading all the works mentioned in it (and many in French not listed in Appendix D below), looking at all the scores (in print and online), and adding numerous CDs to my already sizeable collection of this genre in order to be thorough if not exhaustive have made for an exciting, often thrilling adventure. The advantages of my current position's access to library resources and the ease of finding things hitherto impossible to consult thanks to technology and the Internet have made this endeavor possible. I hope you have enjoyed reading, browsing, and exploring the fruits of my efforts, and will be inspired to seek out concerts and/or recordings to experience the sound first hand.

* The actual statement, in a chapter entitled "Attitudes towards instruments," was: "Sounds like two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof." "A birdcage played with a toasting fork." (Beecham Stories, compiled by Harold Atkins & Archie Newman, London: Futura Publications Ltd; 1978, p. 34.) Thanks to John Lambert & Elaine Funaro for tracking this down from Larry Palmer. Where these words were uttered may be referenced there.

For part four (of five parts), click here.