The 5-octave two-manual harpsichord has friends and enemies within the harpsichord community. I mean the large Dulcken model, the expanded Mietke, but first and foremost the Big French Double. Some teachers and students are reported to actually expect harpsichords to be like a Big French. Malicious tongues talk about the Steinway-ification of harpsichord playing. This is not as far-fetched as it seems: I am just reading a job notification for a university piano professor where it says “The School of Music is designated an All-Steinway School”. The step to “this department of Early Music performance provides an exclusive French Double environment” seems small.
Builders hate that they never get to make one of those other really interesting instruments with short octaves or wacky dispositions because the Universities and Conservatoires around the globe all want a big uniform two-manual box. Stylistic purists argue that the resulting loss of variety is evil. Nit-pickers of style would even say that playing Frescobaldi on a Big French is as remote from the original idea as is playing Mozart on a Bösendorfer. On the other hand, this type of harpsichord enables the performer to choose freely from 250 years of repertoire without blinking once. A preference for the one-size-fits-all harpsichord is, in fact, understandable: it seems so practical.
There may be nothing wrong with preparing one’s pieces in the relative safety of a standardized environment – I, too, prefer to reduce risks by preparing and performing my music on the same instrument whenever possible – but, on the other hand, a bold assertion of one’s French-Double-rights really doesn’t belong to this profession at all. If we take harpsichord education seriously, a standardization is in fact not only highly impractical but downright wrong. The differences between historical harpsichord types are so great that one does well to get accustomed to it if one wants to become a true harpsichordist. Having to adjust to various octave spans, compasses, touches and dispositions belongs to our profession. If there is any time to actively work with all these differences, it should be during education.
Playing concerts is a different matter altogether. Harpsichord recital practice has no room for subtleties. Even if making a living by playing the harpsichord has, in fact, worked rather well for me for the past two decades, it remains quite a challenge to sell solo recitals – for me as for anybody else. A mixed recital is often the only thing that attracts attention. The market has no tolerance for arguments that exceed our “it’s going to be nicer than you think, why don’t you try?” pleas, addressed to yet another concert organizer who, nevertheless, keeps making a doubtful face (or worse). If I want to be seen as a reasonable person, I will have to restrict proposals of whole evenings of single styles and composers to specialized festivals and dedicated occasions.
Now if I don’t want to carry two or three different harpsichords around with me in order to turn my recital into an informed show (and believe me, I’ve done even that), I’ll have to find a compromise. And this is where the Big French makes its glorious entry. I’ve played anything between Philips and Mozart on my French harpsichord. Some of the results are re-interpretations of the original circumstances, some are worse or better compromises for the historically aware – some repertoire actually works really fine, if the instrument is a fine one.
Then again, one can always incorporate some Duphly or Forqueray into one’s programs to show where these instruments truly excel, and tell the audiences all this.