voicing III

Part three of six.

Bird’s quill is the historically most common material for harpsichord plectra. In some sources from the end of the 18th century, a growing dissatisfaction with this material becomes apparent. Today this is usually explained by the increasing popularity of the fortepiano: people were less and less patient with keeping their harpsichord plectra in good shape while the instrument was becoming old-fashioned. Most of the historical alternatives for quill, such as leather and metal plectra, also were introduced around that time. Earlier than that, harpsichord plectra were simply replaced when this became necessary, and the sources display no or very little disgruntlement with this circumstance. Of several species of bird, the common raven (corvus corax) was a special favorite for harpsichord quills in many traditions. This is perhaps not so surprising. The raven was for a long time seen as a bird of ill omen and has been relentlessly hunted throughout Europe for centuries. This must have generated enormous amounts of easily available and marketable feathers (I will return to the usefulness of various kinds of feathers further below).

The most important difference between bird’s quills and delrin is their hardness. In and of itself, quill is a much softer material than delrin, but its lengthwise fibrous structure provides the necessary springiness for behaving in a similar fashion nevertheless. One should note that this explanation is technically logical but chronologically backward: I ought to say that delrin, which is a modern replacement for quill that lacks its fibrous buildup, must be much harder in order to match the springiness of quill.

These materials also differ in their durability and their reaction to changes in humidity and temperature. Quill plectra weaken progressively during use and finally, they will bend over at their weakest point. A worn quill plectrum will hence sound progressively softer but, in most cases, it will remain functional for some time, for example until the end of a concert. In contrast, a new delrin plectrum will become somewhat harder after a few weeks of use – after that it might function well for many years. However, instead of progressively wearing out, it will simply break off at a given moment. This means that, in the case of a failure during a recital, one has to stop and replace the plectrum (audiences love this. I don’t). Delrin gets softer at high temperatures; quill usually gets softer in high humidity (this is the reason why it is impractical to perform harpsichord maintenance using quill in very humid conditions).

In spite of these differences it is quite possible to make quill and delrin plectra that sound very similar. Quills that have been hidden in a delrin instrument are usually impossible to find by ear. One of the most usual methods of testing the properties of quill is nevertheless to fit a few quill plectra in a whole register with delrin plectra. This principle makes no sense at all: why would one take pains to make them similar to delrin if one, in fact, is interested in their otherness? Not surprisingly, many modern judgments about quill plectra are negative: players do not see their advantages in terms of sound, and find fault with their lack of durability.

The various advantages of quill only become apparent in a harpsichord that is predominantly or entirely voiced in quill. These advantages are mainly due to the fact that quill is a softer material, as described above. One of the main results of this fact is a reduced mechanical noise (both when playing the note and when releasing the key). Simultaneously the springiness of quill produces a brilliant tone with a high content of harmonic overtones: the pluck of a quill plectrum produces, in comparison to delrin, more music and less noise. This has the following consequences:

– quill improves the projection of the sound away from the instrument and into the hall.

– quill creates a harpsichord sound that blends better with other instruments.

– the articulation noise of quill plectra at the end of the tone is softer (should the player intend to make a loud articulation sound, she or he could always release the key more quickly).

– a quill plectrum can be voiced slightly louder than delrin before sounding forced (see above), because the total level of mechanical noise is lower. Nevertheless, the touch feels softer than in delrin instruments.

All these remarks are based on a long period of observation in many very different harpsichords, but they remain to a large degree subjective. A few disclaimers are in order here:

First, I cannot guarantee that my experience can be repeated exactly by other persons, because I am not there to check how they make their plectra.

Second, the comparison of sound projection and volume in various instruments is, in practice, very difficult, because the ear adjusts so very quickly to new circumstances.

Third, plectra of whichever shape or material might in the best case bring forward the best qualities of an instrument, but there is no possibility that the plectra alone can help to transcend its limitations. You cannot make a dog levitate by using a better type of leash. A dull string remains a dull string even if it is excited by the most heavenly type of action. This is a very important thing to realize before one, for example, begins to change all the plectra in one’s actually perfectly fine harpsichord.

To be continued

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