Discovering the Clavichord, by Matthew Hall
My first experience with a clavichord was with Dolmetsch Chickering No. 34. I was perhaps a freshman or sophomore in high school and had made an appointment to be shown Harvard’s Early Instrument Room (august from without, bedraggled from within) to try the harpsichords. I was let in unceremoniously through a door at the end of a corridor with a low ceiling, reminded to sign out at reception as I was leaving, and left alone there. The door was locked behind me.
I remember playing a bit of The Well-Tempered Clavier I that day on the collection’s Dowd copy of a harpsichord by Michael Mietke (the maker of an instrument which spurred, it seems, Bach to compose the fifth Brandenburg concerto), but all the while my eyes wandered around the cluttered room — really a storeroom. Eventually, I left the harpsichord and spent the rest of the afternoon putting my nose where it probably shouldn’t have been. The door was locked, after all, and I would hear any potential discoverers fumbling with their keys.
There were fortepianos, also my first experience with those; I remember them being out of tune. There was a medieval-style portative organ (of the kind one sees St. Cecilia depicted holding) and I occupied myself with that for a bit. There was a panoply of stringed and wind instruments, Western and non-Western — some in unlocked, uncurated glass cases, some just laying about on tables and chairs or on the floor along the perimeter of the room. I remember a serpent, and it being smaller than I had expected from books. The serpent is a weird ecclesiastical woodwind/brass hybrid; about it various people have said various things — all hilarious, whether intentionally or not. Handel said, “Surely this is not the Seprent that seduced Eve”; P.D.Q. Bach said, “It looks like a snake and sounds like a cow”; Berlioz said, “It is used to reinforce the terror of the Dies Irae. Then, no doubt, its cold and abominable howling is in place.” Unlike the clavichord, the serpent was designed to be clearly (though perhaps merely) audible.
There was a broken theorbo without a case sitting on a table. Its ribs were smashed in, and a few splinters of wood were to be found on the floor — as if someone had accidentally stepped on it (or, indeed, in it) while navigating the clutter, and then had placed their victim on the table to spare it further damage. It was labeled, and I was shocked to see a date starting with “15…”; it was I think, at the time, the oldest object I had ever seen, much less been left alone to pick up. That it was smashed and forgotten rather than preserved and cherished made me doubt, actually, its age — a fallacy of historical thinking to be sure, but it was a naïve reflex of my own interest in and love of old instruments. I collected what I was sure were ancient splinters (too small to see if they were actually bits of theorbo) and placed them in a tiny pile a nearby window sill. I’m sure, whether or not they were in fact bits of 400-year-old theorbo, they were mistaken as pencil shavings by the next passing custodian and dusted away.
At some point I took notice of the table upon which the corpse of the theorbo was layed out: it was beautifully painted in creamy Art-Deco green and gold. Hinges suggested a writing desk, and as I was now fully in snooping mode I removed the theorbo and opened the lid. I was surprised to find a keyboard within: a clavichord! I prodded the keys with an index finger — the instrument was all but silent to my ears. “Broken,” I peremptorily concluded. Given the state of many of the treasures in the room, it was a reasonable inference too hastily alighted upon. I knew about clavichords from books and overmic’ed recordings, and knew that they were very soft, but had not supposed that a nearly inaudible thunking noise is precisely what a clavichord is supposed to sound like in the flesh. Ironically, by the time I was next in that Early Instrument Room several years later, the Dolmetsch Chickering had been rendered unplayable by a leaky humidification system: I had missed my chance with this instrument.
The clavichord used in tonight’s performance is, at the time of writing, not broken. I bought it as a kit in the spring of 2009 with the intention of building it that summer in time for me to take on my study-abroad year in England. I did all the woodworking in 2009 but I didn’t finish the setting up the action in time, so it sat for a year while I was abroad. When I returned to the USA in late 2010 I got a job working for the C.P.E. Bach mafia. Proofreading reams and reams of Chuck’s stuff day after day, only to go home to an unfinished clavichord silently taunting me from its corner, impelled me to make incremental steps towards finishing it over the next few years. It was only after 2014, when, I found myself at the center of C.P.E. Bach universe attending, helping to organize, and performing in, anniversary concerts and conferences, that the silence of the clavichord became unbearable and I finally finished it, with the help of Charles Wolff (Canton, MA). Under these circumstances, this clavichord sounds really loud to me. There is still a bit of clickety-clack action noise which one day I will probably tire of and try to regulate away, but for now it reminds me that this clavichord sounds. This is its first concert; the music is used to play it (rather than the other way around). I invite you to listen in.