Playing up for the clavichord at the Petworth Festival

Julian Perkins
Julian Perkins

The clavichord has been termed the Cinderella of keyboards. For the Petworth Festival, Julian Perkins, artistic director of Cambridge Handel Opera, will show that it is in fact a rich and rewarding instrument, both to play and to listen to.

His recital on Saturday, August 4 at 12 noon in the Sacred Heart Church (GU28 0BG) will be a highly-intimate lunchtime event in celebration of an elegant stringed keyboard instrument which was used largely in the late Medieval, through the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras. Historically, it was mostly used as a practice instrument and as an aid to composition, not being loud enough for larger performances. But for a chapel setting and an audience of up to perhaps 150, it offers plenty of delights.

Julian makes the point that he wouldn’t particularly want to be known as a clavichord player: “I have got to make a living and pay the same bills as anyone else!”

But he is happy to be known as an advocate of the instrument within the wider keyboard context. Julian will treat his Petworth audience to repertoire by J S Bach, Domenico Scarlatti and more recently-composed music by Herbert Howells and Stephen Dodgson: “It was once a ubiquitous keyboard,” Julian says. “Lots of keyboard players would have had a clavichord, particularly organists – something they could easily play at home rather than paying someone to pump your wind bellows in church. It was a very common instrument.

“I think it was used throughout the 18th century and into the 19th. I think of the clavichord and the harpsichord being a bit like the hare and the tortoise, with the harpsichord being the hare that races ahead with the clavichord just bobbling along in the background, and they continued into the 19th century. We know that possibly Mendelssohn and Brahms had one. It was a very practical instrument. You could use it when you were moving around. You often get little clavichords with a drawer underneath the keyboard with your writing materials for composing. It was like a little Casio keyboard that you could travel around with. But I think like a lot of baroque instruments it fell into disuse. It was not loud enough basically. You could not play a concerto on a clavichord without a mic. But it did come back. At the end of the 19th century the first rival clavichords were being made.

“I love the intimacy of the instrument. It is like the keyboard equivalent of playing a lute, and you can have dynamic contrasts. And it is quite a demanding instrument. With the piano to an extent, you can put the pedal down and off you go. But with a clavichord you become naked in a way. You have got to create the sound, and you have got to maintain contact for the sound. With the harpsichord you pluck, but I think that’s the appeal of the clavichord, the technical demands and the intimacy.And you can play anything, more or less. Bach would not have said ‘This is a harpsichord or a clavichord piece.’ They would have just said this is a piece for a keyboard.”

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