Free the Clavichord! (Or What Jeffrey Eugenides Doesn’t Know About Early Music)

There should be a very long German word for that demoralizing feeling that comes with peering at musical instruments imprisoned in museum display cases, silent and forlorn, prevented from doing what they do best—produce music. The greatest, funniest, most perceptive, and most opinionated of writers on music, George Bernard Shaw, didn’t coin a term for that emotion, but captured the essence of the problem at the start of a review of a musical instrument inventions exhibition held in London in 1885:

No less satisfactory exhibition can be conceived than a collection of musical instruments surmounted by notices that visitors are requested not to touch. Even a Stradivarius violin is not pleasant to look at when it is standing on end in a glass case. You may not hold it to the light to make the lucid depths of the varnish visible; you must not foreshorten its curves by placing it in the position in which it should be played—the only position in which a fiddle does not remind you of a plucked fowl hanging by the neck in a poulterer’s shop; you cannot hear the sound, apart from which it is the most senseless object extant, and your personal independence is irritated by the feeling that what prevents you from satisfying your curiosity by force of arms is not your conscience, but the proximity of a suspicious policeman, who is so tired of seeing apparently sane men wasting their time over secondhand fiddles and pianofortes, that he would probably rather arrest you than not, if only you were give him a pretext for the capture. A harpsichord with a glass lid on the keyboard is disappointing, but a clavichord similarly secured is downrightly exasperating; for if there is one instrument that every musician would like to try, it is the wohltemperirte Klavier of Sebastian Bach.

No one has ever evoked more memorably the allure of the clavichord and its status as—quite literally—the keys to discovering truths about the most profound and uplifting keyboard music (Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier) ever composed. Many of these revelations were not attainable on the outsized, iron-framed grand pianos of Shaw’s day and of our own. Then twenty-nine years old and already an iconoclastic music critic for nearly a decade when he wrote the lines above, Shaw understood intuitively the expressive potential of this most intimate of keyboard instruments, one beloved of celebrated German writers such as Matthias Claudius and Jean Paul, and embraced by the leading virtuosos of the eighteenth-century: Mozart, Beethoven, and all the Bachs.

Indeed, the most famous—and the most vivid—description of any musical performance on any instrument comes from the English musical traveler Charles Burney on hearing Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach play his trusted clavichord at his Hamburg home in the autumn of 1772:

M. Bach was so obliging as to sit down to his Silbermann clavichord and favourite instrument, upon which he played three or four of his choicest and most difficult compositions… In the pathetic and slow movements, whenever he had a long note to express, he absolutely contrived to produce, from his instrument, a cry of sorrow and complaint, such as can only be effected on the clavichord, and perhaps by himself.

Even greater heights of expressivity were reached by the host after he and his guest had shared the evening meal.

After dinner… I prevailed upon him to sit down again to a clavichord, and he played, with little intermission, till near eleven o’clock at night. During this time, he grew so animated and possessed, that he not only played, but looked like one inspired.  His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance. He said, if he were to be set to work frequently, in this manner, he should grow young again.

The clavichord’s rare and subtle power, heard best by the player him- or (as was often the case) her-self, cannot be conveyed adequately on sound recordings, and even less well on YouTube: at the clavichord more than at any other instrument, the virtual is a pale—even pointless—substitute for the real. Burney conveys a more illuminating sense of C. P. E. Bach’s clavichord brilliance than can be gotten from an internet clip of a modern performance on an old instrument.

As for Shaw, the range and rigor of his radical aesthetics can be seen not just in his avant-garde defense of Wagner, but also in his advocacy of historic repertories and instruments. Fascinated by both the modern and the antique, Shaw was never fusty and never boring, an attitude that animated his energetic views of what is now called “early music.”

That same phrase serves as the title of one of the contributions to the debut collection of short stories by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Jeffrey Eugenides, Fresh Complaint, recently published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. The slight volume makes for an attractive stocking-stuffer at $27.

The central prop of “Early Music,” first published in the New Yorker magazine in 2005, is a clavichord; the central character is a clavichord player named Rodney.

As Jean Paul put it in his Flegeljahre of 1804, “Some people are a clavichord and can only be played alone.” Anti-social Rodney is such a person, but someone—nonsensically for a real devotee of the instrument—devoid of a need for self-expression.  Whereas Burney’s C. P. E. Bach is a man on fire at his keyboard, Rodney is cryogenic, the music he plays, even that by J. S. Bach, similarly frigid. Equally bleak is the climate in what he calls his “music room” where the clavichord he’s purchased on credit but can’t afford sits: “Rodney kept the apartment a bracing 58 degrees. A little cold weather was good for you. Cold weather was like Bach: it sorted the mind.”

As I divulged in a CounterPunch piece written more than ten years ago, Rodney is based on me.  Eugenides and I had met each other while both of us and our families were living in Berlin in 2003.  The next year we rented Eugenides’ apartment, when he moved from Berlin to Chicago, an itinerary also followed by the characters in “Early Music.”

In 2005 I had been commissioned to write an essay of a scholarly bent for a publication called Tangents, the newsletter of the Boston Clavichord Society.  (Tangents are the brass hammers that strike a clavichord’s strings.) Given that the clavichord is by any objective measure a marginal instrument and had just appeared in a leading national magazine, I believed I could usefully comment on its literary treatment by an important American author, while at the same time offering larger historiographical observations regarding the use (and abuse) of historical and organological facts as well as reflections on the way in which details of personal interactions between me and the novelist had been taken up and transformed by his literary imagination.

I duly submitted “Rodney and Me” to the newsletter. Within hours the cantankerous Tangents editor had vehemently rejected my piece. She was utterly unconvinced that I was the model for Eugenides’ clavichord player, even doubting that I was 6’3” like Rodney. I told her I was 6’3”, but she had already taken against my piece.  That both my wife and Rodney’s are English and have a sharp chin and that we had two young blond daughters were equally irrelevant. That we had brought a clavichord in Eugenides’ apartment was also beside the point.

The business about the frozen apartment had to do with the fact that an old-time Berlin nudist who lived directly beneath us had his radiators cranked up to the maximum lived under us, so we rarely had to turn on our heat at all. This meant we were owed a rebate on the prepaid utility bill, which we received some years later. I found this interesting. The Tangents editor did not.

This skirmish with the editor put things in perspective: whereas Jeff was getting his clavichord fiction published in the New Yorker, my own nonfiction response couldn’t even make it into Tangents.

For Eugenides, early music and the clavichord are not only cryogenic, they’re geriatric, too, as we learn from a description of attendees at one of the concerts given by Rodney during his tour of Germany playing an antique clavichord, one “famous” in a way the performer most certainly was not:

That the audiences who came to see Rodney weren’t large, that the universally retired members of these audiences were permanently stone-faced from years and years of faithfully enduring high culture, that fifteen minutes into a piece by Scheidemann [note: no piece by Schiedemann lasts that long] a third of the audience would be asleep, their mouths open as though singing along or sustaining one long complaint—none of that bothered Rodney.

That’s a cheap shot about concert going and its subcultures, and it might even be funny in its way. But whereas Bernard Shaw rightly claimed to “know his business,” Eugenides doesn’t know much at all: “Early Music” is riddled with errors and gaffs. However irritating to experts these infelicities and the lack of rigor in the research may be, it is the general misunderstanding of the instrument and its ethos that grate most. Rodney is cold, whereas the clavichord is, as even Shaw knew, an instrument that demands the most intense warmth of expressivity. A more charitable reading of “Early Music” might venture that Eugenides is exploring this contradiction: a man without feeling at the instrument of feeling par excellence.

As a stocking stuffer Fresh Complaint won’t ignite the Yule log, but will damp its embers instead. What is clear from “Early Music” is that Eugenides doesn’t want to open that glass case covering the instrument. Instead he condemns the clavichord to its confinement—untouched, unheard and, worst of all, scorned.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at