The Technic of the First Classical Period

When the harpsichord was invented we know not. But we do know that the organ preceded it. The harpsichord seems to have been, at first, a mere household substitute for the organ, which latter instrument was, of course, too large and expensive to be used anywhere except in churches, monasteries and other large places for public assemblies. The harpsichord was at first a resource of organists for home practice and gradually found its way into popular use.

At first, organ music was transferred to it, and no account was taken of its peculiar capabilities. For a long time pieces were written “for the organ or harpsichord,” and even at the time of Bach and Handel harpsichord players were almost always organists as well. And not only so, but these players seem to have considered the organ as so much superior that they devoted little attention to the harpsichord, regarding it as a mere auxiliary, subordinate to their main interests.

But the striking difference between the capacities of the two instruments must have suggested to some of these players that there might be something in the harpsichord worth cultivating. So long as scientific music was almost exclusively confined to the service of the church, so long the organ retained its exclusive supremacy. But when opera was invented, in the sixteenth century, and the harpsichord not only came into prominent use in the orchestra, but had to serve for the accompaniments of recitatives and arias, its importance increased. Compositions began to be written which took into account its special peculiarities ; its evanescent tones, its lack of sonority and its lightness and shallowness of touch as compared with the clumsy actions of the organs of the period.

The shortness of the tones precluded the cultivation of the lyric quality and suggested the appropriateness of rapid passages as the staple element of compositions intended for that instrument. When tones had to be prolonged they were trilled or furnished with turns, mordents, prall-trills or appoggiaturas. These were borrowed from the vocal embellishments of the time, but were not mere ornaments, as in the case of arias, etc. ; they served to supply the defect of shortness of tone in the instrument, and so were an important element in harpsichord music.

The second peculiarity, lack of sonority, owing to the lightness of the strings and the impossibility of producing a powerful tone by plucking a string with a quill, precluded any broad, majestic effects, and contributed to the adoption of light and rapid passages and embellishments as the main peculiarities of harpsichord music.

Lastly, the lightness of the action pointed in the same direction.

Harpsichord technic, then, involved light and rapid playing of scales and arpeggios and of all sorts of finger passages, including trills and other embellishments. It required independence and flexibility of the fingers and great dexterity, but not strength.

But there was no employment of extended scales and arpeggios as there is in our modern music. In the first place, these instruments were much smaller in compass than our modern pianofortes, rarely exceeding five octaves.

Then, too, the prevalent music was polyphonic, and extended passages were impossible in fugue playing. Each hand had generally to perform two or more voice-parts at the same time, and this involved the necessity of writing them within a narrow range of notes.

It was perhaps owing to this fact that the fingering of single scale passages in vogue at that time was so crude and clumsy. As late as the last decade of the seventeenth century the rules laid down in the instruction books for fingering scales required them to be played with two fingers only; the third (middle) and fourth in ascending and the third and second in descending.

The use of all five fingers was a result of the development of monophonic playing, or, what is, for technical purposes, the same thing, of the employment of long passages for only one voice for a single hand, in free polyphony. The hand, not being hampered by the necessity of playing two or more voices, could indulge in much greater freedom of execution, and out of this gradually came florid monophony, culminating at last in our day in the difficult passages of Thalberg, Liszt and others.

Of this style of free polyphony involving florid monophonic passages Sebastian Bach was as great a master as he was of strict polyphonic playing. In the latter he was unrivaled. He was not only the greatest composer of fugues, but the greatest player of fugues. In the art of delivering several melodies simultaneously he surpassed all his predecessors and contemporaries. This art involved the frequent changing of fingers on one key and the sliding of the fingers from one key to another, so as to produce a perfect connection between the tones.

The greatest defect of the harpsichord for fugue playing was the impossibility of discriminative emphasis. The clavichord was somewhat superior in this respect. It was possible to make some slight difference in the power of the tones of this instrument, to emphasize somewhat the entrance of a fugue subject or answer, and to discriminate one melody or passage from another by greater or less force of delivery. Above all, it was superior to the harpsichord in lyric quality, in the possibility of prolonging the tones beyond a mere tinkle, and imparting to them something of singing effect.

Accordingly, the clavichord was a favorite instrument with Sebastian Bach, as having finer artistic capabilities than either the harpsichord or the pianofortes of his day. The action of the latter was still too imperfect and clumsy to satisfy his requirements. The mechanism of the pianoforte is necessarily complicated, and it was thirty or forty years after Bach’s death before it finally superseded the older instruments.

Sebastian Bach’s technic, then, was the technic of the harpsichord, and especially of the clavichord. In him polyphonic playing, as well as polyphonic writing, culminated. All that could be done on the instruments of his time he did. He attained the utmost independence of finger, the utmost ease, lightness, fluency ; his dexterity in interweaving contrapuntal parts was perfection itself; he employed all five fingers in passages when they could be used to advantage, disregarding the pedantic rules of his time ; he made the most of the lyric capabilities of the clavichord. In short, like most original minds, he was an innovator, discovering all the possibilities of the instruments he used and inventing new means of accomplishing his ends.

Haendel was also a great organist and harpsichordist, but devoted most of his life to the production of Italian opera. His harpsichord technic, as far as it goes, differs in no essential particular from Bach’s.

Domenico Scarlatti seems to have had more of the virtuoso spirit, in the sense in which that term is used in Germany at the present day.

A virtuoso, in this sense, is one who puts the mastery of technical difficulties and the display of his technical attainments above those aims which the real artist regards as paramount.

The true artist has in view, first of all, the worthy embodiment of a worthy ideal. As an interpretative artist he holds it his paramount duty to render truthfully the conceptions of any composer whose works he takes upon himself to represent to others, selecting the works of no composer whose genius he does not respect, treating them reverently and interpreting them with conscientious fidelity, so far as he can ascertain the composer’s intention.

The virtuoso, on the other hand, is apt to use his attainments primarily as a means of glorifying himself in the eyes of others. Whatever he writes is apt to be written with reference to the display of his attainments, to the production of astonishing and sensational effects, that he may gain glory for himself. His performances of the compositions of others are apt to be characterized by the same dominant purpose. “Effect ” is the watchword of the virtuoso. He does not like to play pieces, however noble or significant, which are not ” effective.” He is apt to desecrate the noblest works of the greatest genius by additions and alterations intended solely for show.

The spirit of the artist is one of self-abnegation, of devotion to ideal aims. The virtuoso is primarily an egotist, using his technical attainments as a means not to the faithful setting forth of noble conceptions, but for his own personal aggrandizement. But, although there are abundant examples of both classes of players, there are perhaps few artists who play much in public without sometimes being tempted to sacrifice something of the higher interests they are called to represent, to the desire for applause, and perhaps there are few virtuosi who do not sometimes feel impelled to use their splendid gifts and acquirements for high ends. It is a question, in each individual case, of predominant tendency and habitual intention.

As regards Domenico Scarlatti, it would doubtless be very unjust to represent him as a virtuoso pure and simple, in the sense in which that word has just been explained. But there is much in his compositions which seems to have been conditioned, not on any inward necessity of expression, but on the desire to overcome technical difficulties and to display his mastery of them. There are passages exceedingly troublesome to players even now, which seem to serve no ideal end, but to exist solely for the sake of difficulty.

The most conspicuous examples of this are passages where the hands are crossed very rapidly, as in the sonata No. 10 of Koehler’s edition (see Chapter 1). But whatever we may think of the intellectual or artistic worth of this sort of work, it undoubtedly contributed much to the mastery of technic, and especially to the development of the monophonic style of playing.