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A Bach A to Z

A to Z - E
H is for harpsichord vs piano

Extracts from interviews with  Angela Hewitt, and Steve Reich, which will be broadcast on Radio 3 during 'A Bach Christmas'.

"On the harpsichord, you can't imitate the human voice by tapering a phrase- it must have disappointed people in Bach's time and I'm sure that Bach would have been thrilled to have had a keyboard instrument that could do this. The invention of the piano enabled this, and also produced a more powerful sound. 

Bach gives you a wonderful technical grounding in how to play the keyboard. In his introduction to the 2 and 3 part inventions Bach explained that they were to develop playing clearly in 2 and then 3 voices, to develop a singing tone and to develop the independence of every finger. From a musical point of view, Bach helps learn about composition and structure - the development of themes through fugal treatments, phrasing, musical line - everything really. Bach gives such a good grounding to going on to later composers... you can hear a difference between pianists who have had that grounding. "
Angela Hewitt


"To me one of the greatest experiences of my youth was hearing the original Glenn Gould recording of the Goldberg Variations when I was at Cornell. When I discovered Bach I thought 'it's got to be on a harpsichord, anything else is a complete violation of history' and then I heard the Gould recording and said 'forget it'! "
Steve Reich

    Read what others have said..

    Antonia Brentano, Netherlands
    Bach's music comes first; if you use the piano, harpsichord or clavichord to get message across is simply less important. Harpsichord players, however, tend to have better knowledge of baroque performance practices then most pianists. I have no problem at all with Bach being played on piano as long as does justice to Bach's rich musical ideas.

    Sally Mosher Pasadena, California, USA
    I am a harpsichordist, and was trained as a pianist. I compose for the harpsichord, and perform historical repertoire as well. Formerly, I performed as a pianist, playing a fair amount of Bach. Bach can work well on the piano. You would use the resources of the instrument, and play the pieces quite differently from the way you would on the harpsichord. Remember, though, that Bach was composing them on the harpsichord, using the resources available on the harpsichords of his time. So, the pieces are geared to the harpsichord. Another consideration is that Bach was concerned primarily with form, as opposed to French Baroque music where sound is so much more a factor in realizing them, of showing their beauty. Thus, French Baroque works generally would not work well on the piano.

    Thomas Dent, Heidelberg
    Some players may be incapable of playing the harpsichord expressively, but that doesn't mean it is impossible. If you hear a good player with a good instrument you will find it has just as much resources as the modern grand, though produced in a different way. Naturally enough, modern piano technique on an early instrument merely sounds dull. And the other way round: many of the techniques known from Bach's era don't work on the piano. The notion that Bach must have felt some deficiency in the harpsichord is just silly - he owned half a dozen and composed so much music for the instrument, in a way that was clearly adapted to exploit the things that it did best. Half of the music he published was explicitly for harpsichord! Just one example, the way to create a stronger dynamic on the harpsichord is to write or play more notes at once, and go down into the bass of the instrument. See the beginning of the G minor English Suite. But on a grand piano, instead of creating power, this creates mud - forcing the player to reduce the tone and contradict Bach's composed-in dynamics!

    Egbert Daum, Osnabrück, Germany
    Ref. to Louvier HK: "Of course harpsichord. There is no piano in the Baroque period." This is not true. J.S. Bach himself preferred the clavichord (a forerunner of the hammerklavier) to the harpsichord, but the clavichord was too low for performances beyond an audience of more than one person - the player himself. Apart from this it is known that J.S. Bach worked on a sort of hammerklavier together with the famous organ-builder Gottfried Silbermann. So J.S. Bach must have had more than a glimpse of how his music for keyboard would sound from a "modern" piano ... So, Neil Coleman, London, is completely right.

    David Hansell, Surrey
    with ref to Angela Hewitt's first sentence - has she not heard of the clavichord? This can even do vibrato!

    Penelope Cave. Guildford
    You CAN imitate the human voice by tapering a phrase on the harpsichord but it requires skill. It would be more accurate to say that you cannot play a two-manual piece upon a SINGLE keyboard, such as the Goldberg Variations that demand a different tone quality for each hand. Although we treasure the historical performances of Glenn Gould, it probably IS "a complete violation of history" to continue to publicly perform and broadcast Bach on the modern grand piano. It is disappointing to hear Bach trivialised by racing-car speeds or cheapened by self-indulgently slow ones. Pianists often use a dry emotionless touch, in an effort to avoid 19th century romanticism, display a lack of understanding of the interpretation and integral nature of baroque ornamentation and the dynamic, expressive & rhetorical possibilities of appropriate phrasing and articulation with knowledge of the French clavecin school and it's influence. A good musician will make any instrument sing and if this is not being appreciated, maybe there has not been enough good harpsichord-playing broadcast?

    Mark Prowen, Oxford
    Harpsichord or piano, one voice to a part or large choral society, synthesiser or brass ensemble arrangement, authentic orchestra or a Stokowski arrangement? - I can't help thinking Bach himself would have loved all of these if he were alive today. The spirit and enjoyment of Bach can shine through all of these, surely. Full marks to Radio 3 for the Bach Christmas!

    Matt Holdreith Seattle Washington USA
    On the evidence of the revelatory readings of the Well Tempered Clavier by pianists as different in their approaches as Tureck, Schiff, Hewitt, and (to a lesser extent, as the dryness of the piano he favored and its correspondingly short decay time) Gould, the piano manifests the profundity (and also, not less importantly, the songfulness) of this music more convincingly and movingly than the harpsichord--an instrument (this latter) which, though it thinks very clearly, is almost entirely without an emotional life. The harpsichord, however, is a better accompaniment for the flute and violin sonatas than the piano, as the piano, unless played more self-effacingly than most performers are willing to, thoroughly overwhelms the solo instrument, muddies the texture, etc., often (as in the otherwise beautiful Menuhin-Kentner readings) with disastrous results.

    Louvier HK
    Of course harpsichord. There is no piano in the Baroque period.

    Gavin Mist, York UK
    I personally prefer the sound of the harpsichord but I can understand why many prefer the more expressive tone of the piano. If Bach had had access to instruments as expressive as the modern piano, though, wouldn't he have composed the works differently to suit? Or was he so forward-looking that he anticipated the expressive capabilities that were to come? I must admit that I don't understand Radio 3's apparent double-standard in that it rarely plays performances of Bach's orchestral (and other baroque music)on anything other than 'period' instruments (presumably on the basis that this is in keeping with modern day performance practice)but has no qualms at all in broadcasting performances of Bach's keyboard music played on a concert grand.

    Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade, UK
    Building and then struggling to play both a harpsichord and a clavichord were revelations. Once you start looking into the history of instrument making, you realise that Steinway was deliberately trying to create an instrument that wasn't suited to part-playing. Listening to Bach on a metal-framed piano is like watching to a string of pebbles being cast into a pond - every note is independent an unrelated to the others. You simply can't hear the parts. Players like Harold Samuel in the past and Angela Hewitt have managed to overcome the pianos limitations, but such performances are few and far between. There's a whole string of acoustic reasons why the earlier instruments are the first choice for all polyphonic music, not just Bach. Sadly, they are also ill-suited to concert halls and recording. Listen to them live, in intimate surroundings, and you will gain a deeper feeling for the music. Play them, and you will never go back.

    Neil Coleman, London
    The notion that Bach could only choose between the harpsichord and organ, neither of them capabable of dynamic inflection within a phrase, is quite mistaken. Angela Hewitt is quite right in saying that it disappointed music lovers at the time: Mathesson says as much. But he also points out that it was the clavichord that was 'beloved above all' for solo pieces and that on a good one, it was possible to perform pieces most faithfully, with shading-off and overholding, thereby achieving a more singing quality than was possible on the 'always equally loud, equally sonorous spinets and harpsichords.' Das Neu-eroeffnete Orchester, 1713. Forkel points out that Bach 'liked best to play upon the clavichord' although his assertion that the piano was still too coarse is negated by a contemporary report of Bach finally giving Silbermann his warmest approval on his improved piano design. Please take note: Bach and many others besides had expressive and dynamically flexible keyboards at their disposal and of the highest quality.

    A Bach Blog

    Bach Blog


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