MUSICTEACHERS.CO.UK VOLUME 2 ISSUE 12, JUNE 2001  
Online Journal

A GUIDE TO THE HARPSICHORD
Paperback edition (First published in hardback, 1997)
Ann Bond
Amadeus Press, 2001
ISBN: 1-5647-063-8
£12.99

EARLY KEYBOARD INSTRUMENTS: A PRACTICAL GUIDE
Cambridge Handbooks to the Historical Performance of Music
David Rowland
Cambridge University Press, 2001
ISBN: 0-521-64385-6 (pb); 0-52164-366-X (hb)
£12.95 (pb); £37.50 (hb)

Although much has been written about early keyboard instruments and, in particular, their builders, little practical information of any use concerning performance practice has been made available since the days of CPE Bach's Essay in the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. There is possibly a good reason for this: stylistic awareness has been restricted to the last thirty years with the resurgence of 'kosher' performing techniques, and although much could have been said, one has to consider also that genres and styles of the early, middle and high Baroque were diverse enough to make sure that musical boundaries existed not only between nations, but between succeeding periods. Understandably there was a cross-fertilisation: composers did learn from each other; although JS Bach might represent the perfect example of one who benefited from a knowledge of the music of just about every country in Europe, we have to be thankful for the travels of such less familiar figures as Johann Jakob Froberger, for example, for a cross-pollination of ideas and styles. But try to explain these concordances in words, however, and one will find that not only would we need a book of monumental proportions, but also the very essence of stylistic playing might easily become the target of academically astute, but musically inept, interpretations. With this in mind, it is understandable that early musicians are often regarded by an ignorant public as bookish academics rather than natural performers of the highest calibre: the only way to learn an instrument of this period is to become immersed in the musical idioms of its composers and the musical language of its country, and for this there is no better approach than by learning directly from the horse's mouth.

In the 1970s, Howard Schott tried to fill the void with a well-meaning, but rather inarticulate, volume entitled Playing the Harpsichord, which although more successful than anything published previously, was nevertheless written from the standpoint of a keen amateur rather than a seasoned professional. And from the viewpoint of a seasoned harpsichordist, I was rightly concerned that neither Bond nor Rowland would prove to be less uninspiring: there is little said in either book that is not phrased much better in Saint-Lambert, CPE Bach or, for that matter, Frescobaldi's rather enigmatic Al Lettore to his 1615 and 1637 publications. But from the perspective of an amateur musician or a beginner, there is a useful supply of helpful and practical advice, and excellent background information on instruments. I do feel that Rowland is perhaps of less use to 'early-days' players than is Bond, since he assumes the reader has a modicum of knowledge. Bond's approach is more systematic, taking the reader from the beginning and explaining carefully (if not sometimes in a rather patronising manner), everything from the simple mechanics of the instrument, through the early stages of playing, to advanced approaches that include chapters on stylistic awareness. And perhaps this is where her book falls down: in a mere 240 or so pages, there is simply too little that is covered in depth, especially when it comes to understanding the intricacies of such problem areas as ornamentation or rhythmic alteration. Take, for instance, the meagre nine pages devoted to 'The French Style'. We are informed that 'The nuances of French ornamentation take a little more time to master' and that 'listening to good harpsichordists' will help, but we are neither told what these nuances are, nor how to spot a good harpsichordist.

The range and nature of Rowland's book is wider-reaching, since he also deals with clavichords and early pianos, and touches upon aspects of performance practice from the early Baroque to mid-Romantic periods. Although this is not the forum for discussing the rights and wrongs of including such a late composer as Chopin in a book about early keyboard instruments, I am somewhat perplexed by his parameters since there is as much to be said about Romantic as there is about either Baroque or Classical performance styles.

His manner is more focussed and, overall, his written style is more adept. However, there are several aspects that are somewhat perplexing, especially Chapter 6, which provides six case studies of music from Louis Couperin to Chopin. Although Rowland states quite fairly that 'Within the confines of a single chapter it is not possible to deal with all of the performance-related aspects' of the works he presents, I am left rather bewildered at the rather flimsy information he does give. He is right both to mention Louis Couperin's préludes non-mesurés, since they are perhaps some of the most enigmatic pieces of the seventeenth century, and to point the reader to more informed studies, such as Colin Tilney and Davitt Moroney's publications for Schott and L'Oiseau-Lyre respectively, but to say so little himself is unhelpful and leads one to question his knowledge of such issues. As a player, I am more interested in inégalité in French music than the concept and history of the suite (I can read Grout for that), and although writing about sources and editions proves to be informative, more energy could have been spent discussing, for example, rubato in Chopin or articulation in Haydn, which, from a performance perspective, are issues that are hardly given the time of day (17 lines and 26 lines respectively).

Which all sounds rather negative; for what they are, both books could prove to be useful reference tools. However, both scholars and performers might prefer perhaps less wide-reaching parameters and more focus on important issues. To the beginner they might prove informative, but what wouldn't? Most will tire quickly of these publications.


John Woodford  


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