Program Notes by Mahan Esfahani
About this Piece
A Few Remarks
Solo keyboard music is, in its origins, a total monstrosity. The early keyboards of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were completely bound by the human voice, either in terms of imitating it or by improvising or composing decorative glosses around it. Even as instruments became sturdier and acquired a greater range by the late Renaissance, this essentially parasitic quality of the instrument remained in the works of the first great soloists—mostly in England and Italy—for the harpsichord. By tracing the various levels of inspiration for solo keyboard music—from the strains of the human voice and folk song to the rhythms of dance and movement, whether courtly or popular—we, paradoxically, perhaps, come to a realization of the inherent powers of the harpsichord independent of any other sound worlds.
In this sense, William Byrd and Domenico Scarlatti wrote music of the same basic kind, even if they came out of worlds that had no immediate conception of harpsichord “language” in and of its own idiosyncrasies and internal meanings. In Byrd’s case, the harpsichord starts to speak “autonomously,” if you like, through successive variations, which put the human voice far behind the recesses of the listener’s sonic mind. In Scarlatti’s case, the harpsichord comes into its own through a dialectic between abstract musical logic and an almost grotesque imitation of every possible sound—even the grunting of animals. In these cells of imitation and melodic invention, Scarlatti found kernels for his own form of motivic and harmonic development that, in turn, liberate the harpsichord from other methods of sound production.
With J.S. Bach, we have a completely different set of values. Here, the capabilities of the plucked string are taken to a point so distant from the voice and the lute and the organ that his writing is often taken as being somehow unidiomatic for the harpsichord. One hears this as an unquestioned collective wisdom only, alas, amongst harpsichordists, the justification being that basically everything else written in the 18th century is easier to navigate on the harpsichord than Bach. Besides being an example of a confusion between antiquity and greatness in the case of 90% of old composers, this mindset represents a profound misunderstanding of why Bach decided to write for the harpsichord in the first place; we should remember, of course, that he knew what the pianoforte was, and he chose to not write for it. For what the instrument lacks in the kaleidoscopic monumentality of the organ or the pastel-colored whispers of the clavichord, it has in a greatly underestimated ambiguity between an angular clarity and a positively sensual ability to blur and separate notes with such infinite variety that it reminds us of the power of the pencil sketches and etchings of the great masters.
Thus, the power of the great Sixth Partita of J.S. Bach (BWV 830) comes less so from the evocation of grand orchestral tableaux—after all, most of Bach’s contemporaries had already done this—but rather from the feeling that one is watching the drama of theater through a few strokes and gestures that somehow distill the entire experience. Bach calls upon the two manuals and three or four registers of the harpsichord to slyly remind us of the terraced textures of a Baroque orchestra while reminding us of the intimate relationship between the finger and the key that connects to the plucked string and the power of keyboard music to evoke the most personal of experiences as though, in the words of a contemporary observer, the performer were “communing with oneself.”
Unlike the sonatas of Scarlatti (which nonetheless frequently appeared in the manuscript sources in pairs), the dances of the Partita make their full sense known only in relation to the other movements with which they are compiled in the same key. To an observer of the sonatas of Beethoven, this kind of dramatic architecture is to be expected, but, in Bach’s time, it is as revolutionary an aesthetic act as can be imagined. Bach disturbs this very rarely—for instance, the little Tempo di Gavotta and the delicate Allemande clearly offer some form of respite from the massive architectonics of the opening movement, and the Sarabande is the emotional center point of the piece wherein the entire human experience of listening is compacted into one solemn utterance. The Gigue, on the other hand, is the very summation of the composer’s art, even right down to the ambiguity of its meter, which, tonight, I have decided to play in both duple and triple time. Bach traces the development of an entire genre within the course of a succession of movements, in this case starting in the age of Lully and giving us a glimpse of the age of Beethoven.
Seen through this lens, the music of J.S. Bach and Louis Andriessen, then, have basically the same aims: a reinvention of what it is we expect from the instrument, and what the composer expects from us as listeners. This hypothetical preface to an imaginary opera about the great legendary progenitor of musical expressivity is based on a delicately wrought exploitation of the plucked string and its unique sonic textures in a manner every bit as considered as the way Bach handles the instrument. And it is but one example of many successfully conceived modern works for the harpsichord that give the lie to the notion that it is somehow an ancient instrument best left to the ages. But an evening of all new and modern works for the harpsichord shall have to wait for my next visit to Los Angeles.