Clavichord music

In the early 1970s, inspired, I think, by the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and by the clavichord music of my teacher Herbert Howells, I bought a secondhand Morley clavichord, and quite soon wrote some music for it.  Later, due to pressure on space and house-moving, it sat in a corner unplayed, and only recently I found a performance space for it again and was able to revisit and further explore the clavichord repertoire, enjoying this quiet and peaceful, but also most sensitive and colourful keyboard instrument.

This explains the forty-year gap between the composition dates of my clavichord pieces: Prelude, Air and Gigue of 1973 (the Air and Gigue were published by Oxford University Press but are long out of print), Six Miniatures of 1975, and Level, 2018.

Air and Gigue were first performed by Kathleen Crees at London’s Purcell Room in June 1975, and much more recently have been recorded, on harpsichord, by Penelope Cave – details here on the CD ‘Panorama 1919-2013’ (Prima Facie CD) and on Spotify here (tracks 18 and 19).

My recent piece, Level, is a palindromic study originally written for marimba and first performed by Joby Burgess, and now completely revised and rewritten for the clavichord. The marimba and the clavichord have more in common than one might think and it was a very interesting and enjoyable task to recreate the piece.  The palindromic structure – the second half of the piece being the first half in reverse (both in rhythm and pitch), creates a gradual development from calm (with one or two intermediate rises and falls) towards a busy climax, and then a gradual return to the character of the opening.  I think that the difficulty for any composer using this structure is that a climax point half-way through the piece is more difficult to manage, as there is a natural tendency for high points to feel more appropriate at approximately two-thirds of the way through (the ‘golden section’ proportion) but I hope that in my piece the relaxed and calm character of the clavichord, together with the emerging realisation of the unfolding of the music in reverse, will carry the music through.

So it is with great pleasure that I look forward to a clavichord concert by Francis Knights on Saturday 9 March 2019 at 2.30 pm in Hughes Hall, Cambridge, in which he will play all of the above pieces, alongside music by Herbert Howells, Barry Guy (world premiere), Ivan Moody, Julia Usher (world premiere), Graham Lynch and Matyas Seiber: a great opportunity to hear and assess clavichord music of the past hundred years. Admission is free: details here

4 thoughts on “Clavichord music”

  1. This is most interesting as I was the person from whom you bought that second hand Morley clavichord. At the time I was working at Novello’s at Borough Green. I had bought the instrument new some years before when I was living in lodgings and wanted a quite keyboard instrument that would not disturb other members of the household. By the early seventies we decided to graduate to a piano, principally so my young daughter could learn to play. Hence the add. in the Musical Times to which you kindly responded.
    Over the years I have never lost my affection for the little instrument, and am so pleased it has played a significant part in your career as a composer.

  2. Dear Dr.h.c. Bullard,
    thank you for the Joining the Dots series, it’s excellent. As still somewhere between beginner to early intermediate I’m also learning on the Clavichord for 6 months now (with a separate teacher) in addition to the Piano (3.5 years)and just downloaded ‘Level’, thank you very much for it. May I ask, which tuning do you use on your Clavichord and would you suggest a specific tuning for ‘Level’? (I’ve got quarter-meantone on my clavichord on a=415, but may go to a=around404 as the builder uses; my teacher’s got a Werckmeister on a=392hz). Thank you very much, Sincerely, Michael

    1. Dear Michael,
      thank you for these comments and I’m glad you are finding Joining the Dots useful. And I hope you enjoy playing ‘Level’ as well.
      As regards tuning, I don’t have any strong views except to say that as the music is quite chromatic some kind of equal temperament would probably suit it the best. But some other tunings might lead to pleasant surprises! Please feel free to experiment, and to explore some of my other clavichord pieces, perhaps. Best wishes, Alan

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