Harpsichord copies after various 18th-c. German originals hit the market some time around the late 1980s. Some German harpsichords, the originals as well as their copies, belong to the instruments dearest to me (there is certainly nothing amiss with this type of instrument). Others have, in my experience, their share of problems. Let’s have a look.
I am especially thinking of one-manual German harpsichords after Michael Mietke, which are usually based on a not-quite-original-any-more original preserved in Berlin. Its short scaling – taken at a pitch of around 415Hz – suggests an instrument entirely strung in brass, and this is how most copies are made. The more sonorous ones have a certain (lute players, excuse me) lute-like quality. In the more intimate specimens, we often hear a rather quiet, silvery tone, which is easily buried in ensemble playing.
Such a Mietke’s mellow lack of punch seems to invite many makers to apply a rather heavy stringing. Among all the possible disadvantages of such a solution I will discuss the three that have frustrated me – speaking as a performer – most of all.
First, heavier strings will inevitably bring any possible unevenness of the instrument to the front. The especially resonant sections will likely get too loud in comparison to the rest. Problem areas will, on the other hand, likely not improve at all. For example, in many of these Mietkes, no matter who built them, there is a curious section around the middle d, as well as several strings in the treble octave, that tend to sound weak and subdued. These areas are ethereal and flute-y and, for some reason, sometimes even permanently a little out of tune. They also tend to blend poorly with the sections above and below. No manner of making better plectra, inserting more back-pins on the bridge, or revising the gauge transitions seems to help overcome this irregularity; fatter strings, far from solving the problem, expose it to the maximum instead.
The second disadvantage of thicker strings is that they require heavier plectra, or they will remain under-excited. Thus, the instrument becomes tougher to play, which may be undesirable (especially in a quiet-sounding harpsichord); additionally, any slight shift, or any work-hardening of the plectra (or any roughening of their surface) may soon result in over-plucking (as it is imprecisely called) and cause single strings to go spontaneously out of tune. Correct these problems by scraping the plectra thinner, and you’re back at the flute-y ethereal sound you wanted to avoid.
If the maker used Mietke’s original inner construction with internal ‘knees’ around the sides and a few supporting braces, the harpsichord’s bentside will turn out rather flexible and we are faced with a third disadvantage of a heavy string load. Such harpsichords often react to tuning like early Viennese fortepianos: when you have tuned your way up to the last octave, the middle gives way as a consequence of the changed overall tension. At best you will have to give the instrument’s upper half another tuning turn to get everything settled. More likely, you’ll get caught in a touch-up roundabout until your patience wears out.
The sum of all this could, for example, be found in a harpsichord that I played almost daily during sixteen years of ensemble work. It sounded pleasant, but too soft. It either required some sort of rip-and-tear plectra that produced a lot of non-musical noise, and had a poor repetition, or it was too quiet for its tasks. It also needed to be tuned all the time. When the time came to sell this instrument, I finally gave it a good look, compared some stringing tables and took some measurements…
(A string band’s mass and its downward pressure on the bridge have a dampening effect on the entire soundboard. Increasing the thickness of the strings may thus, in practice, predominantly increase the plucking noise – and introduce a certain “thump” to the tone – while the overall output in sound remains largely unchanged. It all depends on how well the soundboard is able to vibrate under the increased load.)
I felt that perhaps the soundboard of my patient was a little too flabby for its load and decided that it would be worthwhile trying to find an – still appropriate – lighter stringing for it. In the end, I strung everything about one step lighter, and the second 8′ register even somewhat lighter than that. The gauge transitions were at the end fine-adjusted by ear.
Out of this experiment came a totally transformed Mietke. Not all that loud, certainly, but noticeably more present than before – not truly rock-stable in its tuning perhaps, but certainly able to survive a few days without a touch-up, as opposed to a few hours as previously. I could finally apply some normal plectra, which resulted in a substantially improved touch and repetition.
So what I am telling here is really only the old story that one cannot string or punch or rip any sort of harpsichord into being a loud, stage-compliant beast. Some harpsichords simply don’t sound like that. Luckily, some people actually do prefer quieter instruments, so everyone ought to be happy. What I am also telling is that if you encounter an otherwise healthy harpsichord that feels tough but sounds meek, that doesn’t keep its tuning although the pins actually hold, and, especially, that keeps developing single-note tuning dropouts while being played, you might have found such a sheep on steroids. If you can’t bring it to to a good doctor, who might be able to fix it, at least don’t buy it.
Tags: performance practice