The term pedal harpsichord, called by the Germans "Clavecimbelpedal" indicates 2 types of instruments:
- an ordinary harpsichord under which pedal keys are located which pluck the lowest keys of the harpsichord using strings or some other mechanism. in other words, it is a harpsichord with pedals permanently connected. - an ordinary harpsichord placed on a second harpsichord which is played by the pedal keys. The two instruments are thus completely independent one of the other, the pedal harpsichord having its own strings and registers. Those interested in the historical aspect of the instrument, will read with interest the article by Karin Ford "The pedal clavicord and the pedal harpsichord" in the review Galpin Society Journal, No 50 (March 1997) or the dissertation of Etienne Baillot (CNR of Paris, 1991).
To come to the reasons which prompted me to order such an instrument, I go back a few years. Since the 1990s musicians and makers of harpsichords began to be interested in the German old instruments after a kind of hegemony of the French and Flemish instruments
There is a view that German harpsichords are strongly influenced by the organ. Indeed, as of the XVIth century, harpsichord makers multiplied the registers, i.e. build several rows of jacks which pluck the same string at various places, sometimes obtaining a very fluty sound, sometimes a nasal sound. This preoccupation with variety further lead them to enrich the traditional string layout (8' 8' 4 ') by additional choirs of strings at 16' or 2'. Problems of constructions that such construction pose were brilliantly solved by makers like the Hass family of Hamburg. They built the largest harpsichords in history: 3 keyboards with 16' 8' 8' 4' 2 ', with nasal play and lute, or 2 keyboards with 8' 8' 8' 4' 4 '!
Not content to offer the the least standardized instruments in Europe, Germany has a variety of traditions related to the autonomy of the provinces which make it up. There is lttle in common indeed between the highly decorated harpsichords owned by the wealthy merchant of Hamburg and the rustic harpsichords of Thuringen. Hass, Mietke, Gräbner, Harass, Silbermann, Hildebrandt, Zell: as many makers(often of organ and harpsichord), as many styles of instruments.
Harpsichords with 16' stop.
The first instrument built by Nicolas Macheret after a harpsichord with 16' by H.A.Hass for Pierre-Alain Clerc, upset the vision of the harpsichord of all those which touched this type of instrument for the first time. Fascination for some like me, repulsion for those who suffered from the industrial harpsichords based on one 16': the new instrument and sound resources that it places at the disposal of the interpreter do not leave anybody indifferent.
Contrary to the organ, where the 16'register seems impossible to circumvent, it raises with the harpsichord a question of use: solo register, colouring , or fundamental register of the harpsichord?
Practice and reflection on the question brought me to this conclusion, one uses it in the tutti to reinforce the presence of the sound of the harpsichord as a whole: the low harmonics, absent from the other instruments (except the double bass) "release" the sound of the harpsichord. It is necessary however to review the taste for clarity: the sound thus obtained is strong, but rich and heavy. One also uses it in the bass with one 8' to give it contrast. One thus obtains texture equivalent to the combination of cello and double bass.
The interest for the playing of basso continuo is evident, but implies restrictions also: if the left hand plays on the 16 and the 8 feet of the lower keyboard, the only remaining registration for the right hand is the upper 8 foot.
One understands finally Hieronymus Albrecht Hass, who isolates on one 3rd keyboard the 16' and the 2'!
The use of the 16' as a bass register evokes the writing of the organ immediately, where the bass is reserved for the feet in the large majority of cases. One thus arrive gently at an evocation of the existence of the pedal harpsichord.
In 1996, I decide to ask Nicolas Macheret to build for me such an instrument. Since no old instrument of this type survived, it was necessary to carry out a reconstitution, based as much as possible on old elements.
The Pedal harpsichord in Germany during the XVIII
Many sources however attest its existence and contribute to the image which one can have.
The most detailed description of the pedal harpsichord is by Jackob Adlung in his book "Anleitung zur musicalischen Gelahrteit" published in Erfurt in 1758:
"One adds also sometimes pedals to these instruments (the harpsichord), or better still, one makes a distinct body of pedals (Pedalkörper) on which one poses the harpsichord. However, it should be built with much care, on the one hand, so that the tension of the strings does not deform the case, on the other hand, so that these instruments hold their tuning well. The most beautiful harpsichord and, at the same time, the most beautiful pedal harpsichord (Clavicymbelpedal) which I saw are those that had took me to see and hear Mr. Vogler burgomaster in Weimar, which had given itself the instructions for their construction. The harpsichord was assembled of two choirs of strings of eight' and one of four', and it had an compass of six octaves, C-1 with c4. One of the eight' was on the upper keyboard, and all the others played from the lower keyboard. When the upper keyboard was pushed back, one played on the lower keyboard: the two keyboards were coupled but nevertheless very easy to play. The stops were on the wrestplank and he had painted them in vermilion. The jacks were very fine and very light. Their quills were slightly angled upwards to prevent hanging. I noted that the sound board was so thick that it gave the impression of being unable to sound, and yet, I never heard an instrument which had a more beautiful sound than this one. The interior of the case was reinforced with many elements of iron, that of the pedals in particular included iron screws, especially the side of the tail, where the tension of the strings is strongest. The pedals had two choirs of strings (not overspun) at eight' and a line of plaited catgut strings at sixteen'. The lid had a door which one could open to increase sonority. Both cases were skillfully covered with veneer."
In the posthumous work "Musica mecanica organoedi", Berlin, 1768, he adds: "the case can be built like that of a clavichord or like that of a harpsichord. In the second case, the strings will be plucked by quills and one will have a harpsichord with pedals. As the harpsichord is characterized by its beautiful sonority, pedals of this kind will produce a happier effect. This instrument does not demand a particular description. It is built like an ordinary harpsichord, but with an extent of two octaves only. The jacks are similar, but they will benefit from being arranged back to back, since the two octaves take as much space as four in an ordinary harpsichord ".
One will note in passing that the Burgomaster Vogler (1695?1765) was a pupil and admirer of J.S.Bach. He was an organist at the court of Weimar before being named Burgomaster in 1735. (E.Baillot, p 18)
I overlook the many mentions of harpsichords provided with pedals to retain only this mention in Berliner Intelligenzblatt, 1763: "Harpsichord of Johann Caspar Vogler, Weimar after 1750, provided with 2 keyboards of 6 octaves with 2 registers of 8 feet and one of 4 feet, and pedals with a register of 32 feet, 16 feet and 2 registers of 8 feet."
One does not dare to imagine the size of the pedal-harpsichord, since a natural string of 16 feet should already be at least 4 meters long... If these sources reveal us many details on the strings, the construction and the provision of the registers, the questions as to the shape of the case of the pedals remain unanswered.
I let the reader discover the stake of the problem by comparing the photographs attached:
Pedal-harpsichord, Gerstenberg, Leipzig 1768
Pedal piano, Brodmann, Vienne 1815
The illustration of the harpsichord of Nicolas Macheret reveals the options chosen in this project.
It remains to give some information on the harpsichord and the reconstitution carried out by Nicolas Macheret starting from the text of Adlung.
If the pedal part could only be reconstituted, it would not be the same. After some research, we decided to visit a harpsichord with 2 keyboards, 3 registers and 5 octaves (F-F) attributed to Johann Heinrich Harass, active in Grossbreitenbach in Thuringe at the beginning of the XVIIIth century. This harpsichord, currently preserved at Sondershausen is not playable. It is however in its state of origin and presenta striking similarities with the famous "Bach-cembalo" of Berlin, an instrument not signed, with 16 feet, which was believed a long time to have belonged to Johann Sebastian Bach.
After having visited it, Nicolas Macheret created a copy of the Sondershausen instrument.
The construction of the case of the pedal-harpsichord takes as a starting point many characteristics of the harpsichord of Harass.
We finally decided to transpose the provision of the harpsichord to the pedals, since this one has of two 16 feet and one 8 feet, with the octave of the harpsichord which has two 8 feet and one 4 feet. One lays out of a play of lute on one 16 more feet and the 8 feet.
The tessitura is of 27 notes, two octaves and a tone (gilded), is a little more than the most current tessiture at the time: 25 notes of C to C.
Lastly, the keys of the pedal-harpsichord are a copy of those of an organ of Silbermann, and surprise today by their size.
I will not linger further on the technical aspects of the instrument, which are evocative only for the initiates. I will on the other hand try to describe the sound of the harpsichord such as it appeared to me, after one year of work in the workshops of Nicolas Macheret.
The sound is very defined, quite clear but without the brightness of the French harpsichords, with a great clarity of the bass register. The 8 feet of the first keyboard is extremely round and singing (because the pluck point is very far from the bridge); that of the second keyboard is very clear, transparent, without ever being nasal. I particularly mention the Lute stop, placed on the first keyboard and especially successful.
As for the pedals, the choice of a very large, massive, long and broad case created all the acoustic conditions for the low deep the, rich fundamentals. The lowest notes (most critical to the length of the 16' strings) suggest slightly the tone of a Bombard. The duration of the sound is exceptionally long. The Lute stop allows the imitation of the pizzicati of Double basses.
A distinct sound aesthetic
The current aesthetic in early music, following the neo-classicism, has accustomed us for 30 years to simplify all our preceding sound references. Organs brighter, less elaborate choral groups, finer and brilliant violins, the symphonic ideal was seriously put down.
For 10 years, the pendulum of history has set out again in the other direction: the organists can no longer design one organ without expressive Récit full with celestial Voices, and among the most stringent "baroqueux" (among which I amount...), the tendency is with plenitude in all its aspects.
How was it around J.S.Bach? Which sound would be his ideal?
The answer which I bring here could be only partial: the references, the comparisons are too numerous and the reality of the time too rich time and too varied.
On can however retain the following references:
- the project of restoration of the organ of St-Blaise de Mülhausen by Bach in 1708: new bellows, addition of Soubasse of 32 feet to the Pedal "which gives its depth to the entire instrument", replacement of a Trumpet of keyboard by a Bassoon of 16'. Addition of a Viola da gamba.
- the habit of testing the wind of an organ by pulling out all the stops. An inconceivable practice on a French, Italian, Spanish organ or even north-German of the époque.
-modifications of instrumentation in his cantatas: the reprises in Leipzig are always elaborate, particularly for the bass, where doubling the cello and Double bass was the norm.
One finds as a whole the evolution towards a rather deep and fleshy sound. Adlung, speaking about the plaited catgut strings for the 16' of the harpsichord says to us that they will be "Desto gravitätischer".(Musica mechanica organoedi, p. 105)
I stop there, the matter is rather clear. Each one will be able to continue their own study through other texts, or other references.
Use and virtue of the pedal-harpsichord
from this juncture, it is necessary to wonder how to use such a harpsichord? for which use and which repertory to have such a monster at home?
Home practice for organists does not justify such an investment in this country of heated churches where the organ abounds!
However, it is known that before the invention of the electric motor, the organists were to work on their premises on harpsichords, clavichords or pianos provided with pedals. Many texts evoke this situation, and the study of Etienne Baillot counts a very high number of such instruments of XVIth to the XVIIIth century.
If this situation can seem to us ungrateful, I believe now that daily exercise on other keyboards than the organ develops better the finger technique and the sensitivity of the fingers. It is in any case the observation which I could make on a purely personal basis since I am the owner of a pedal-harpsichord.
The organ requires of course particular sense of space. To communicate a musical message through a large instrument to an audience requires a particular expertise. But convesely, the complexity of the mechanism of the organ hardly supports the direct rapport with the sound: it is only a small organ with a direct and short action which reveals the technical gaps of all the organists accustomed to less precision.
I thus allow myself to say, that on a teaching level, the harpsichord and the clavichord (or the piano) are the required estension of the organ to acquire a fine and moderated finger control.
I will mention to finish, the experiment made at the Academy of Gothenburg, where a copy of the clavichord with pedals of Gerstenberg of 1768 is at the permanent disposal of the students organists.
Finger work is thus redoubled by real work with the feet on an instrument which can be pitiless.
From there, we arrive quite naturally at the question of the repertoires intended for the pedal-harpsichord. Which works does one play on this instrument, I am often asked?
Everything of course! The repertory of the organ is vast and more than one piece is discovers every day.
Of course, musicological research and many musicians have tried to prove that the passacaille in C minor and the trio sonatas were composed in fact for the harpsichord or clavichord with pedals. No contemporary source of Bach seriously comes to support this assumption.
Of course one still finds parts without attribution of instrument which seem rather for harpsichord, and which include low notes for pedals (sonata in D major etc).
There again, one will not be able to really establish if it is about a repertory for this rare instrument.
It seems more logical to to me to consider the problem from a more practical angle.
Few people had such instruments at the time. They thus did not constitute a public for which one was going to compose.
In addition, a great number of owners of these instruments were professional musicians, organists for the majority.
For these, in addition to allowing daily practice, it constitutes an instrument enriched in the bass spectrum. From this angle, one uses the instrument for what it offers, through improvisation or in arrangements.
What would Bach have made of a pedal harpsichord? Which musical forms would it have used? The trio, which allows the 2 keyboards and the independent pedals? The fugue, omnipresent with the organ as with the harpsichord? The concerto, in its Italian form, as the transcriptions made by Bach of Italian works sometimes for the organ, sometimes for the harpsichord? Continuations of dances, in a richer texture harmonically?
The answer remains open, but I would like to finish by this testimony of Johann Friedrich Agricola: "sonatas for violin alone of J-S. Bach are undoubtedly more difficult still and more harmonious than the caprices of Banda(...). Their author often played them himself on the clavichord and as added as much harmony to it as he found necessary. It thus recognized the need for a sound harmony which it could not fully reach in this composition."
After these many considerations on the old harpsichords, on sound aesthetics, the relationship between the organ and the harpsichord, I must leave room for the music. Many people discover the instrument in concert. Some are surprised by the imposing presence of the bass, by the mechanical noises of the keys of pedal, others are disturbed to hear their favorite works for organ on a harpsichord, but all recognize the homogeneity of the instrument and its undeniable musical qualities.