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Clavichords and Climate Change

Bainbridge Island, Washington.

The Cascade Mountains were dusted with snow this week, less a harbinger of the coming winter than of ominous larger changes in the climate. According to many, the snow came “too early,” especially considering the apocalyptic smoke from the fires of summer just gone.

The Washington of my youth was a paradise for the “outdoors.”  The future points “indoors.” It is there that solace will have to be sought.

When snow blankets the ground the clavichord comes into its own. The world becomes quieter, or tries to, and this quietest of instruments finds its voice anew.

The clavichord demands great concentration of listeners but rewards them with its unlimited dynamic shadings and expressive powers. In this heightened state extraneous sounds come as a shock to the ear. The clavichord is an instrument of introspection, but it can also be played for the enjoyment of a few listeners seated nearby; it requires a degree of stillness to which few people are accustomed. J.S. Bach is said to have “favored it for private musical entertainments.”  The most popular domestic keyboard instrument in eighteenth-century Germany, the clavichord could not compete with the flash and brilliance of the piano, which had largely displaced it in bourgeois homes by the early nineteenth century.

The clavichord is the most expressive of keyboard instruments and derives much of its beauty from the simplicity of its action — the mechanism for producing sound. In contrast to the complex piano action with its array of levers, hammers, dampers, not to mention whippens, capstans and other exotic contrivances, the clavichord strikes the string in the most elegant and obvious way.  At one end the key is veneered in ebony, boxwood, bone or another traditional substance that is both beautiful to look at and hard enough to withstand the wear from years of fingertips against it. Inside the instrument the key narrows to a thin strip on which is placed a small piece of brass—a tangent—that projects up from the end of the key about three-quarters of an inch. When the finger depresses one end of the key the other end goes up, making the tangent strike the string. At the hands of a skillful player, this simple action allows for minute dynamic shadings, abrupt accents, and even vibrato.

Johann Gottfried Müthel (1724-1788), the last of J. S. Bach’s students, was by all accounts a willful, melancholic genius and one of the greatest masters of the instrument. Much of Müthel’s music, with its carefree passage work and ornaments that suddenly dissolve into reverie and pathos, would seem to bear out the scant biographical information that documents his moody character. Prone to introspection and even lassitude, Müthel produced a relatively small body of work. An interesting recording of some of Müthel’s keyboard concertos (played on harpsichord) and chamber works was made back in the 1990s by Music Alta Ripa of Hanover, Germany; the two CD-set gives you a sense not only of Müthel’s incredible dexterity of mind and hand, but also of the elegant and often intense conversational mode that brings the keyboard into contact with other instruments in the bourgeois and noble drawing room where it was heard. One is amazed, even sometimes perplexed, at the frequent collision of the insouciant and the soul-searching that animates Müthel’s style.

No music reflects that pleasant paradox of art and nature so crucial to north German music of the eighteenth century more than Müthel’s. He was a musician, like so many others of his caliber, who apparently spent huge amounts of effort learning to act or play “naturally”; all should sound easy, but the level of detail and refinement is taken to such an extreme that things begin to sound like a critique of politeness: the manners are so refined they become almost scathing. The above-mentioned CD doesn’t quite capture this manic decorum.

The finest recording of Müthel, indeed of clavichord music of any kind is that of the Dutch keyboard player Menno van Delft.  On this double CD van Delft plays Müthel’s solo keyboard works, three sonatas and two sets of variations on a clavichord from Hamburg built in 1763 and now in the Russell Collection in Edinburgh. It is a sumptuously decorated instrument that was first bought by a wealthy Amsterdam family and was played on in their household by Mozart. Mozart also loved the clavichord, and doubtless loved this one, capable of such power and nuance, such bold outbursts and whispered asides. Müthel’s music is fiendishly difficult both for its velocity and other acrobatics and for its hushed nuances. To hear van Delft make these demanding works his own is to begin to understand that Müthel at the perfect instrument is a unique musical experience: there is really nothing quite like it, and this recording is as impressive as it is moving.

In spite of his solitary nature, Müthel had many admirers and his music was disseminated even as far as London. The eighteenth-century traveler Charles Burney visited the most legendary of the clavichordists, C. P. E. Bach (J. S. Bach’s second son), in Hamburg in 1772 and described a transcendent clavichord performance in his host’s house in which Bach’s “eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance.”
Burney did not make it far enough east to meet Müthel in Riga, but he acquired a copy of the German’s mighty duet in E-flat for two keyboards. The title page of this 1771 publication lists piano, harpsichord, or clavichord all as possibilities for performance, but clearly the last of these is the perfect instrument for the piece, especially since it calls for so much of the vibrato.  Burney had the piece performed several times by his daughter and her husband (both of whom were keyboard virtuosos) during his winter concerts in London in 1775, describing the work as the “big gun.” In the final pages of the third volume of his European travels published in the 1770s, Burney turned to Müthel on the farthest frontier of musical civilization:

“When a student upon the keyed instruments has vanquished all difficulties to be found in the lessons of Handel, Scarlatti, Schobert, Eckart and C.P.E. Bach; and, like Alexander lament that nothing more remains to conquer, I would recommend to him, as an exercise for patience and preservation, the compositions of Müthel; which are so full of novelty, taste, grace and contrivance, that I should not hesitate to rank them among the greatest productions of the present age. Extraordinary as are the genius and performance of this musician, he is but little known in Germany.”

It was difficult to persuade Müthel to play even for his circle of devotees, which included Johann Herder. He would relent only when “thickest snow covered the ground” of the Baltic city of Riga, where he spent his professional career. Only when the outside world was muffled could his innermost thoughts and feelings be expressed in the fullness of silence.  The clank and clatter of horseshoes on cobblestone were intolerable intrusions.

I got my first clavichord the year we lived in a rent-controlled apartment building in Santa Monica, California, four blocks from beach.  It was one-bedroom one story above a back alley lined by other apartment buildings.  Gray carpeting covers everything but the dingy linoleum of the bathroom, kitchen, and the “dining room,” a five-by-ten rectangle between the living room and kitchen.

Wall-to-wall carpet soaks up too much of the clavichord’s precious sound, so we put the instrument in the dining room with its linoleum flooring and plasterboard walls, the best acoustical space we could find. But the buzz of the refrigerator a few feet away in the kitchen was very distracting. Müthel would have flipped out. I turned it off, and the next day I opened the freezer to find a lake of shrimp juice and vanilla ice-cream. The bathroom was just big enough for the instrument so I tried it in there. But the intermittent hiss of the toilet filling with water for a few seconds, perhaps as a result of the building settling, or—more ominously—the entire Santa Monica Palisade sliding into the Ocean. The stopcock was too corroded to close, and the building manager had his hands full with the stacks of deferred maintenance.

At dawn we would hear only the rock doves, but by 7:00 a.m. cars were starting up in the alley; the surrounding buildings acted as a sound box, amplifying the engines. From the more affluent blocks to the north came the distant complaints of leaf blowers and lawn mowers punctuated by car alarms. By nine o’clock the opera-singer-to-be in the adjacent apartment building would begin her shower and then proceed methodically through a battery of vocal warm-ups and exercises, and then move on to actual pieces. As ten o’clock approached reservoirs across California were a tremolo of whirlpools, draining to her song.

There were rains that year, battering the gutters and the dumpsters in the alley outside our apartment. When the rain let up there was the slide. A huge rib of the Santa Monica Palisades fell onto the Pacific Coast Highway bringing with it a chunk of the park above. This temporarily silenced the faint whir of traffic along the Coast Highway but attracted flocks of helicopters monitoring the progress of the clean-up.

In the spring men painted the adjacent apartment building:  just outside my window were the sounds of scaffolding going up and being torn down, cursing generators, the hiss of paint, and the pleasant voices of the painters.

To play the clavichord is constantly to be reminded that the world was once a much quieter place.

Müthel would have been happy for early snow, but furious about the snow blowers.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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