The “Lépante” fretted clavichord in the Musée de la Musique, Paris

The quietest guest of all

The clavichord makes up for a lack of grandeur with extraordinary expressiveness


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Crown your career with the clavichord. You cannot, I admit, play concertos with big ensembles, since it does not roar and thunder like the pianoforte; neither can you, surrounded by a large audience, sound above their shouts of bravo and make their cheers seem like the babbling of a brook … On a clavichord — soft and responsive to every breath of the soul — you shall find the soundboard of your heart.

C.F.D. Schubart, Musikalische Rhapsodien (1786) 

With roots reaching deep into the recesses of musical memory, past the exotic origins of the lute and the rustic buzz of the shawm and crumhorn, perhaps even beyond the ancient taverns whence came the fiddle, the clavichord nonetheless had its heyday rather late compared to most instruments. 

In the three or four decades preceding the French Revolution, this unassuming little wooden rectangle with a keyboard was in the hands of a singularly sensitive and erudite group of players, a definitive expressive vehicle of the various artistic salons of the German Enlightenment. 

The mechanism of the clavichord is really the simplest of all keyboard instruments

The discursive leanings of the Aufklärung were particularly focused on literature and erudite conversation, due to a strong tradition of literary and religious exegesis handed down from Martin Luther and in this period being transferred to more a Cartesian frame of reasoning. This culture, in which every gesture and every hint of an idea was imbued with layers of meaning, prized an instrument equally subtle in its utterances. 

The mechanism of the clavichord is really the simplest of all keyboard instruments. As the key is pressed, a brass blade or tangent at the back of the key lever strikes a string and brings it into vibration which, due to the small size of the instrument’s soundboard, is quiet to the point of absurdity. What the instrument lacks in grandeur it has in an extraordinary degree of expressivity, on a rather Lilliputian level, made possible by the directness of the technical set-up whereby the finger can affect the quality of sound after contact with the string has been made. 

Once the tangent is in touch with the string and vibration has ensued, it can be pushed in slightly deeper to bring a slight rise in pitch, or conversely a player with great control can strike the keys with a slower attack, thus giving a hushed quality to the timbre of the pitches.

The clavichord’s reputation, particularly in the eighteenth century, lay mainly in the suitability of the instrument’s rather pliable tone to the constant changes of affection so favoured by the composers of the Empfindsamer Stil. This aesthetic of Sentiment, misunderstood today as a style lacking in gravity, turned away from the granite monoliths and primary colours of the Baroque in favour of pastels and light pencil strokes meant to evoke Man’s inner thoughts and emotions. 

Its most gentle vibrations resonate with the core of our inner selves

Not for them were the misshapen pearls of their overly passionate forefathers; instead, these composers sought, amid all the adventurousness of their musical utterances, to summon and distill all that was effortless and benevolent in Nature. As with virtually everything else in this milieu, there was an obvious tension between the Enlightenment and its discontents — in other words, what has since been imperfectly generalised as the Counter-Enlightenment. 

As the cool breezes of empiricism swept everything before its path, the arts in particular came to represent a reaction to the old ways in the form of a renewed interest for ordinary human beings and their imperfections, for undulating sounds and colours and words that in their plasticity allowed for a degree of honesty and even unpredictability. 

If the jangly humour or the monumentality of the harpsichord has its visual equivalents in the paintings of Watteau or the Protean angularity of Bernini, then the clavichord is the instrument of drawings in watercolour and chalk by Gainsborough or of naive impressions of life by Reynolds. And, much like this period in art, while its popularity was relatively short-lived, its fall from favour might be said to suggest a shift or even a certain decline in general tastes that speaks much about the cataclysmic changes of the end of the eighteenth century. 

It was only inevitable that the liberally-minded salons of the philosophes and their German imitators — in essence, the early flowering of a liberating process for art that hitherto had been experienced in private — would be short-lived and fall victim to the very ideals it had participated in fostering. Seen in this light, the clavichord both came into its own and went into abeyance at exactly the right historical moments. 

For all the high-mindedness of its idealists, the Revolution in France brought a wave of violence and destruction that in the totality of its mercilessness represents the Enlightenment at its most extreme. This was the paradox of the Age of Reason, that coldly rational thought, even when couched in good intentions, could replace tradition, perhaps even at the expense of beauty. 

Later, the most ardent believed, when necessary, in the dispensability of humans themselves. Once the dust cleared from this great equalising experiment gone terribly wrong, music had become a very public affair, thus setting into motion a process whereby the value of music was measured in the number of people hearing (and perhaps paying for) it. In this new musical world, an instrument suited to the delectation of the few simply could not compete. Where one previously could make a gesture or whisper an idea one could now make grand statements, and, of course, in such circumstances the loudest voice always wins. 

The clavichord will never shake the ground beneath our feet with thirty-foot pipes, nor can it quicken the blood with a stimulating rush of plucked strings. It moves us with subtlety rather than astounding us with grand statements. One might say that it is thus the perfect salonière: one who both pleases and edifies, and who asks of us the very openness and generosity that it offers in its highly refined discourse. 

The clavichord cannot (nor does it wish to) depict heroic tableaux or heavy-handed scenes of great melodrama. But as long as this box with a few strings has but one key depressed, then a flame, a minuscule quiet light, persists that has within its desperately fast-moving flicker the yearning of a human to converse with the sublime. This mysterious vapour of the ineffable is nothing more than the quietest voice within each of us. Its most gentle vibrations resonate with the core of our inner selves.

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