Archive for the ‘harpsichord’ Category

strings from waterloo

October 7, 2013

© Tilman Skowroneck 2013

I have mentioned this before. I am not convinced that a given harpsichord can be substantially improved by putting up some new strings.

In fact I am rather convinced of the opposite, which is that random changes to a given design (and the stringing of a harpsichord belongs, or should belong, to its maker’s design choices) not normally result in a major shift toward a better tone. The expectation that a harpsichord can be optimized by applying a number of relatively simple tricks, or by experimenting with some new string material, is usually rewarded by some kind of disappointment. In my experience, a truly noticeable shift in a harpsichord’s quality often goes in the other direction: it happens when the instrument is being neglected. Improvement is a much more hard-won thing, especially when the instrument is assembled and ready to be used.

So what I will discuss here below should be seen as an exception, as I am about to introduce an exceptionally well-suited string material which actually does, within reasonable limits, improve the tone and tuning properties of a harpsichord:

Over the past decade or so, Stephen Birkett  of the University of Waterloo, Canada, has researched the properties of historical iron strings, and has come up with a formula to produce iron wire with very similar properties. This so-called P-wire is now becoming available (here is some more information about it), and I have had the chance to test it in three quite different harpsichords with a Flemish-French mixed scaling (brass in the bass, and iron from the tenor upward). (more…)

teachers and students: transmission versus copying

March 30, 2013

© Tilman Skowroneck 2013

Gustav Leonhardt’s transcription of J.S. Bach’s Ciaccona

Musical transmission is a well-explored topic in the history of Western music. In a rare filmed appearance, pianist Edwin Fischer recited, more than explained, how it works: “Beethoven instructed Czerny how to play the Well-tempered Clavier; Czerny taught it to Liszt; Liszt taught it to Eugène d’Albert.” The clip is part of the documentary “The Art of Piano” (found at 1:07:31 of this YouTube video). To complete the lineage for the benefit of readers of our time: d’Albert taught Fischer, who was endorsing his then-new recording of Bach’s WTC.

In addition to being a great-great-grandpupil of Beethoven, Fischer was also a celebrated teacher. His statement about the musical lineage that authenticated his way of playing Bach can be seen as a statement about pedagogy rather than a display of vanity. It tells us that by the mid-20th century, the idea of a student imitating the example of his teacher was considered more than just valuable in a general sense.

To Fischer, the transmission of skills, knowledge and values from teacher to student in an unbroken tradition was profoundly meaningful: the essence of why one became a pupil, or later a teacher. This idea is not new. In France in the 1670s, J.L. Le Gallois suggested the same pedagogy of learning by imitation in his famous praise of Chambonnière’s way of playing: “in order to learn the pieces of each master, it is necessary to study them with the same masters who have composed them, or with their best pupils.”

For a student of harpsichord in Amsterdam in the 1980s, however, learning by imitation was not normally considered an option. On the contrary. (more…)

oiling quills: new findings

June 5, 2012

© Tilman Skowroneck 2012

Denzil Wraight has now published his findings about the wear pattern of quill, the best technique for oiling quill, and recommended oils for this purpose in one short article and a rather longer one with extensive explanations at:

http://www.denzilwraight.com/quilling.htm

This should be seen as a complement, and in some ways a correction, to my own article about voicing which I published earlier on this blog (a link to the PDF version is here). I am presently testing oiling the quills (with Ballistol) in two of my instruments according to Denzil’s recommendations (including the French Double that takes the brunt of my practicing) and my initial experience is positive (see my most recent thoughts in the third comment added to this post).

beryllium copper on the front page

April 26, 2012

© Tilman Skowroneck 2012

As the “searches” tab in my blog stats is telling me, many people are interested in the characteristics of  beryllium copper harpsichord wire in comparison to other materials. Some time ago, I have posted an explanation in the “Skowroneck harpsichords” tab of the sidebar (see my full text there), but I would like to pull the discussion to the front, and expand it.

As I have stated, beryllium copper is not the same as phosphor bronze (the latter doesn’t sound all that well, hence this whole discussion) although it looks very similar. It has similar characteristics to brass and can be used in harpsichords with a brass scaling, or in the bass of harpsichords with a mixed scaling. I also claim that,

beryllium copper of the kind best known to me also has a good sound. True, most people will have no possibility to make direct comparisons between the various materials – and “good” is a problematic term. I have tested brass and beryllium copper in one single instrument and monitored their properties over a time span of 15 years. I found beryllium copper to sound slightly “fuller” than the brass that is usually available today, but without compromising the appropriate overall “brassy” sound character. Together with the advantages listed above I personally prefer this material. As said above, however, these properties may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and not all beryllium copper appears to be as good as I describe here.

I am re-posting this here, because I should add that beryllium copper can be hardened just as other wire. This property might in fact be at the bottom of some negative judgments about its usefulness as harpsichord wire. (more…)

Gustav Leonhardt 1928-2012

January 18, 2012

© Tilman Skowroneck 2012

It is a sad occasion that makes me resume the writing of blog posts: yesterday morning the news reached me that Gustav Leonhardt has passed away on 16 January in his Amsterdam home.

Gustav Leonhardt walking the streets of Vienna. Photo by Ibo Ortgies, October 22, 2011

As I wrote elsewhere, I remember Gustav Leonhardt as a lifelong friend and mentor. Lifelong, because our first encounter happened at a time that I do not even remember. I am told that I was two years old; friend, because that’s what he was to me: always kind, inquiring, never brusque, and on many occasions more than ready to share not only musical, but also completely unmusical experiences such as a new movie, a book with high-end photos of Bugatti cars, a (slow, one may add) sightseeing drive through the summery back country of Siena, Tuscany, or the offerings of one or another new Amsterdam restaurant; mentor, finally, because since the first time I touched a keyboard (with higher aims than a plinking or plunking agenda, which was at the age of five and a half) Gustav Leonhardt’s musicianship has been a continuous source of inspiration for me. When I finally was in the position to take lessons at his house in Amsterdam, he spent considerable time and effort to critically assess my playing (quite in contrast to his generally complimentary style at masterclasses), from which I benefit every day even today, and for which I am eternally grateful.

The impact of this shift in the world of historical performance practice will be great. No matter whether in accordance or in opposition, there will be few harpsichordists today whose playing is not, in one way or another, influenced by Leonhardt’s approach. Now, all of a sudden, we’re on our own. The impact on the world of his closer friends and colleagues is immense. His unique wit, brilliancy and warmth will be missed at every moment to come.

My thoughts are with his wife Marie Leonhardt, his family, and his friends.

The New York Times Obituary is available under this link.

lecturing or entertainment?

June 13, 2011

© Tilman Skowroneck 2011

Fellow wordpressers know this, of course: somewhere in the functions that only can be accessed by the blog owner there is a little window that lists all the search terms that people used for finding one’s blog. Last week, someone found my website by searching for the words nobody needs a harpsichord.

Of course, one cannot but wonder what circumstance prompted someone to type these words of wisdom into a search window. But words of wisdom they are, at least almost: we, the harpsichordists, have to make a dedicated effort of making our music accessible to listeners who often didn’t even know that they needed us. It is possible; the ubiquitous manifestations of (positive, to be clear) surprise after a recital (“I didn’t know a harpsichord could sound like that!”) are ample proof that a single person playing old music on a box with strings and plectra can, in fact, provide true listening pleasure to audiences.

The harpsichordist largely depends on getting the entire package of her or his recital across “as is.” Dancing, for example, funny costumes, grimaces, dramatic monologues, cigar juggling or walking on one’s hands don’t really do the trick to make a harpsichord recital more palatable to the audiences. The times that the use of an “exotic” instrument in itself worked like a hat trick are long gone. (more…)

harpsichords, art worlds and support personnel

June 11, 2011

© Tilman Skowroneck 2011

“Art worlds decline when some groups that knew and used the conventions which inform their characteristic works lose that knowledge, or when new personnel cannot be recruited to maintain the world’s activities.” (Howard S. Becker Art Worlds, 349)

The importance of “support personnel” and “conventions” in art worlds is somewhat easier understood when we look at examples of everyday technology: until a few years ago, for example, it was not problematic in the least to get color films adequately developed, printed, or put on a high-resolution CD. For the past two years or so it has become very difficult to find labs that are still matching this standard: real film is nowadays processed so rarely that it (apparently) has become a major hassle for the labs to keep their chemicals fresh and uncontaminated. As a result, some of my most recent pictures resemble my first photographic efforts when they came back from our corner-store developing service back in the sixties, featuring indistinct colors, embedded particles of dust and debris, specks, and scratches.

But not only the standard of the technology and its maintenance declines. The people who are there for me to talk to about my pictures have no longer any clue about the processes involved in conventional photography. (more…)


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