I have previously made clear that the harpsichord works of Bach are not my favorite.
Yes, I am grateful to him for being the first to put the harpsichord center stage. James R. Gaines quotes Susan McClary in “Evening in the Palace of Reason” to the effect that Bach, in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, turned the harpsichord, heretofore “the ensemble’s lackey,” into the main attraction – and thereby made the piano concerto a possibility.
But gratitude for, you know, allowing the grand tradition of Western music to begin aside, Bach’s harpsichords grate. They noodle by, so much background noise, the classical music equivalent of, I don’t know, the loud tuneless Soca my neighbor is playing across the back courtyard/lot of weeds this Memorial Day weekend.
I’ve chosen to listen to everything Bach wrote featuring two or more harpsichords today, just to *expletive deleted* get them all out of the way. I’m near the end of this longer-than-expected sojourn of mine with Bach, and the harpsichords are PHYSICALLY BLOCKING ME from moving on. Imagine, if you will, a phalanx of harpsichords – hundreds of harpsichords, sentient, evil, zombie-like, ambulatory harpsichords – barring the street on your way to the subway, or your commute on I-240, or whatever, and there you have my mental state. It requires the cap lock key. Nay, it demands it.
Innumerable concertos for one, two, and three harpsichords tinkle and plunk ever onwards – some of which LITERALLY DO SOUND like skeletons copulating. (As in this clip from BWV 1060, a two-harpsichord piece – yes?)
Then there is one, just one, concerto for four harpsichords. Bach transcribed this Vivaldi work, originally for four violins, especially for harpsichords, bless his soul. He probably played it himself with two of his sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emmanuel, and – The Bach Soloists speculate – pupil Johann Ludwig Krebs.
For whatever reason, four harpsichords seems to be the point:
-Where I stop hearing baroque and start hearing modernity. In the largo, starting at around a minute in and lasting, blessedly for more than a minute – here, here’s a clip, here – doesn’t that sound like John Adams?
-Where I stop hearing skeletons copulating, and start hearing wind chimes. Pleasant, wafting, wind chimes.
-Where I stop resenting all this rigid string-plunking nonsense and start reveling in it. Where I stop resisting the evil harpsichords, and just let them bite me and get it over with.
Maybe it’s just that it’s better than THAT ACCURSED SOCA MUSIC. Maybe it’s that I’ve hit capitulation, the point where the tortured begins to identify with the torturer…but…I sort of like it. Now, only now that I have seen the light, will I be able to move on, past Bach.
(But first – a couple of epic, wrapping up all of Bach posts, are coming. They are coming SOON.)
Link to the Original