Is the Harpsichord a liturgical instrument?
  • ghmus7
    Posts: 1,221
    I wonder if any of you know of historical citations of examples of the
    Harpsichord used in church. Certainly it was often used in choral music
    As a continuo instrument, but I wonder if there are further references to it used as
    A solo instrument.
    Last year I painstakingly restored Burton 8,8,4 and wanted to use it
    in the chapel. The rector has forbidden it's use. So much for four months work.
  • Outside of a possible continuo in orchestrated choral works (such as Bach cantatas - or French grand motets, etc.) I can't imagine that there would be any liturgical precedent for the harpsichord as a church instrument. Even in Bach et al's church music I think that the organ would be the favoured continuo instrument. These assertions may or may not be scholastically impregnable. As much as I love the harpsichord I can't think of it, any more than the piano (which I love also), as a church instrument. Why not give a harpsichord recital in the church or another large room?
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  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,510
    I certainly have nothing against the harpsichord but it seriously lacks volume in a large space. It would be much more workable in a smaller and more intimate setting. It can sound rather harsh and too percussive but some of that may be the fault of the builder.
  • doneill
    Posts: 191
    The harpsichord is a beautiful instrument, but historically was a keyboard instrument for the upper class in their homes, and not used in churches - except, as mentioned previously, in concerted works as a continuo instrument, perhaps along with an organ. That said, if your rector was willing to allow some creativity under the "all instruments can be made suitable" provision, it could be effective in certain settings - say, accompanying psalmody, or improvising on chant at the Offertory. It will never be great for accompanying congregational song, especially in a large church, because the sound dies immediately (one could say the same about the piano and guitars, but I digress...) If you have the luxury of two competent keyboard players, you could use the organ and harpsichord together. If the rector still won't allow it, play a post-Mass recital in the chapel, or some other location.Your work is not in vain, because surely there is some way to expose people to its beauty.
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,181
    I don't think percussive instruments serve the liturgy well.
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  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 1,981
    Cambridge Companion to the Harpsichord p170 "the tento is not strictly a liturgical genre, though it could be, and was, used during liturgy." And a footnote on page 179 "which is not part of this preview"
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSesIpLegyM
  • Drake
    Posts: 104
    If the rector has forbidden its use, then it would seem best to me to obey and store up some treasure in heaven. Four months labor is nothing to sneeze at, and God greatly values obedience. So I agree that your work is not wasted.

    As an academic question, I wonder if harpsichord could be used outside of the liturgy proper, e.g., to play a prelude or postlude or even to accompany a recessional.
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  • I don't think percussive instruments serve the liturgy well.

    Is it really a percussive instrument? My understanding is the the strings of the harpsichord are plucked, not hammered

  • As for historical and liturgical precedent, didn't King David accompany the psalms with a harp? And it's sort of like that.
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,902
    some creativity under the "all instruments can be made suitable" provision


    Kinda looks like a Pp. Francis phrase, mutatis mutandis. Never heard of that one before today.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,510
    Is it really a percussive instrument? My understanding is the the strings of the harpsichord are plucked, not hammered


    I suppose you could argue that a couple of ways. I always remember the older lady after hearing someone play the harpsichord. She said it sounded like an animal digging at the sides of a metal building.

    The instrument works for a certain body of literature. I am well aware that it once was part of the orchestra, but those orchestras were much smaller then. It doesn't have the power for orchestral and choral literature created after it fell into disuse. I guess you either love the instrument or hate it. If the one I have encountered is any guide, be ready to tinker with it often to keep it playable.
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  • ViolaViola
    Posts: 352
    A harpsichord was used at Aquhorties, an early 19th century seminary in north east Scotland. They couldn't afford an organ at first so the harpsichord plus a few fiddles accompanied the singing and played voluntaries. Interestingly the harpsichord was transported to the college by canal. I have seen an arrangement of Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus in which it was used.
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  • ...digging at the sides...
    This is definitely the reaction of some cinder-minded individual who was neither musically discerning nor musically astute - the sort of remark to dismiss out of hand with a funny look.
  • SFdSO in St Louis had one in their gallery. Don't know if that is still true with the new Wilhelm going in.
  • tomjaw
    Posts: 1,838
    I think the Ordinariate Church in London has one in their loft...
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,510
    the sort of remark to dismiss out of hand with a funny look.


    Jackson, there are harpsichords that don't sound very good. They are not all equal in quality or construction. One of the worst I have heard was one of those "build-it-yourself" kits. The animal digging at the metal building probably sounded better.

    Let's face it, harpsichords were built for another time and another style of music and that time has passed by. That instrument doesn't work well for music written after its heyday. No surprise, since it wasn't designed to.
  • ViolaViola
    Posts: 352
    I think the Ordinariate Church in London has one in their loft...

    Yes! I was there a few years ago, looking at Embassy Chapel music mss for my PhD. In the 18th century the church was originally part of the Portuguese Embassy, so one of the few places Catholics could openly attend Mass before the Catholic Emancipation Act. It was well known for its music (Samuel Webbe, Vincent Novello and other English Catholic musicians were associated with it). and has a fascinating collection of church music used at that time. Worth asking to see it should anyone be in London with time to spare.
    The harpsichord was being tuned in the same room where I was looking at the manuscripts. All the twanging was quite a distraction as I tried to concentrate.
    It wasn't in a loft at that time just some ground floor room, and presumably was being used if they were bothering to tune it.
  • All of the issues that make the piano unsuitable for liturgical use on a purely practical level - its inability to support singing with a sustained sound that carries well in such an acoustic - are amplified on the harpsichord. Regardless of whether or not it is indeed a "liturgical" instrument, it simply does not work as well as an organ for liturgical use.
  • ghmus7
    Posts: 1,221
    Wow so many dissapointing responses. It's clear that many of you folks have no experience with a historically built harpsichord that is well voiced and tuned. The harpsichord as a percussion instrument???? What???
    I beg to differ with most of your opinions. At my last parish, we had a fine Hubbard in the chapel that seated maybe 100. It worked perfectly as an instrument to accompany hymns.
    In our present chapel, I was not proposing that it would accompany congregational singing (the space seats 300). But rather as a something to enhance the liturgy instrumentally or perhaps to accompany psalms.
    Thanks to those who came up with some references, as for the rest of you, look us Gustav Leonhard on Youtube!.
    The question here is that the instrument was completely banned from ANY use in the chapel, while guitars multiply...was looking for some historical support, not ill informed opinion.
    As well, I can name at least 6 churches in my city that have harpsichords in their churches and use them.
  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 1,981
    Robert Edward Smith is both a noted harpsichordist and a prolific composer in several genre, including liturgy. But I don't think any of his liturgical pieces are offered for harpsichord.
    There is of course a distinction to be drawn between liturgical music and music used during (or before/after) liturgy. If the chapel is used for funerals, I don't see any reason for banning the harpsichord from the usually lengthy quiet prelude. Or for meditation during Rite 2 Reconciliation, and no doubt many other possibilities.
    That is assuming a skilled player, but the same would suit a classical guitar in the hands of a good player.
    Just my two pennyworth from the pew!
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  • ghmus7
    Posts: 1,221
    Well I agree, but the rector does not want it at all...its the same old story....
  • ViolaViola
    Posts: 352
    My doubt would be that to hear a harpsichord played is a rare event for most PIPs so could be a distraction from the liturgy.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,510
    I suspect that most people have never heard a harpsichord live. Some would remember Lurch playing one on the Addams family but that's about it.

    I once played for a church that had a, believe it or not, celesta on the organ. It actually was quite nice when paired with pieces that worked well with it. I would suspect a harpsichord would be no different. However, some digital harpsichords are not that pleasant to hear. More like a harpies-chord.
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  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 1,981
    CharlesW - do you have recommendations for liturgical music that would suit the organ you describe?
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,181
    In college I conducted, by default, the Christmas section of the Messiah. We had a harpsichord and strings to work with and they sounded wonderful. I wouldn't use that combination liturgically, unless it were definitely baroque music, and even then I would doubt the use of the harpsichord because it is percussive.

    I would say the same regarding the harp and other plucked strings.
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  • Liam
    Posts: 4,049
    Chant is lovely with discreet harp accompaniment.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,510
    CharlesW - do you have recommendations for liturgical music that would suit the organ you describe?


    I didn't describe an organ only a harpsichord. But since you asked, Anthem, Gather us In, One Bed Three Bodies Menage a Trois all would sound like an animal scratching against a metal building.
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,902
    even then I would doubt the use of the harpsichord because it is percussive.


    Yes. Argumentation to the contrary is .......ahh........remarkable.
  • I, certainly, would much prefer a harpsichord to a piano or guitar.
    If one had an organ, though, I cannot imagine that it wouldn't be given 'pride of place' as the instrument of liturgy.

    It is curious that...
    CharlesW points out a friend of his who described a harpsichord as sounding like an animal scratching at a metal building. No doubt, there may be harpsichords that do so.
    I am perplexed, though, as to why he didn't mention that by far most harpsichords DON'T.
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  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,510
    Jackson, harpsichords in this area are still not common. Most are kit builds and projects of an organist or an organ professor who just decided he wanted one. I am not aware of any that would be considered the work of a world-class builder. But, someone may be hiding one that I haven't seen or heard. Since I have heard some decent organs sound bad in the hands of a less than competent organist, I would suspect the same would be true of harpsichords.

    Those Baroque instruments can have limitations which is why they are no longer widely used. The French music I love to play was mostly written by organists who also played harpsichord. A little harpsichord knowledge would be helpful in playing that music.
  • Indeed, Charles -
    David Ponsford, in his book about French organ music of the age of Louis XIV, goes to some length to reveal that by the dawn of the XVIIIth century the organ in France was, in fact, played much like the harpsichord, with harpsichord ornamentation, harpsichord arppecgiation of chords, etc., all owing to the fact that the harpsichord was the dominant instrument in society at large. I highly recommend his book to all. It is full of well-documented surprises.
  • bhcordovabhcordova
    Posts: 823
    Kathy,

    As has been noted by others, the harpsichord is not a percussion instrument. The strings are plucked like a harp, not hit by a hammer.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,824
    bhcordova... while that is true, i think the point kathy is making is that it has an attack and a decay... a not so obvious point, but valid nonetheless.
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  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,181
    Bhcordova, I've said percussive, not percussion.
  • bhcordovabhcordova
    Posts: 823
    My bad. One day, I'll learn to read!
    Thanked by 1Kathy
  • Antonio
    Posts: 43
    I have been using the harpsichord on festive post-postlude occasions (or, if someone prefer, one-piece mini-recitals after Mass) after a few very special Masses or after a few Marriages. The last case was the Mass of Christ the King Last Oct sunday EF Mass). After the liturgical procession at the end of the Mass and singing a cantus varius, we performed the A. Schmelzer Sonata "Victori der Christen" for violin and B.C. (or "Die Türkenschlacht bei Wien 1683"), which is an adaptation of HF Biber's Rosenkranzsonate Nr. 10 for the program that chronicles the siege of the Turks to Vienna and the consecutive victory of the Christians. Again, a solo harpsichord after a Mass-related hymn during and shortly after the end procession. Anyway, leave the harpsichord for extraordinary occasions because extraordinary is within the liturgy.
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  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,369
    adjective: percussive

    relating to or produced by percussion.

    Don't think a harpsichord fits this definition.
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,181
    Can anyone link to a video of a harpsichord that does not sound percussive? I would love to hear what you are hearing.
  • In the unlikely event that a 'pluck' could be described as synonymous to 'percussive' those who maintain that the harpsichord is percussive are up a creek without a paddle. Plucking and striking are two quite different events.
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  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,181
    I've been trying hard not to use the word "banjo." Mutatis mutandis, obviously.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,510
    This is beginning to sound plucked up.
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  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,369
    Famous crossword clue: Pole with lots of pluck.
    Answer: Wanda Landowska.

    Gustav Leonhardt played harpsichord with great sensitivity, and the solo harpsichord at all percussive in this performance (Sarabande from the Suite in F minor, BWV 823):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqSqwNdakmo&list=RDcmx6LrW2hYc&index=3
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,369
    Here's the first in a series of Harpsichord Voicing videos that show the importance and care of the plectra for a harpsichord. The background harpsichord music is exquisite.

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  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,510
    I have read that practicing organ in those Baroque days required hiring someone to pump the bellows and playing in an often freezing church. It was easier and cheaper to practice on the harpsichord and avoid the inconvenience and costs for someone to operate the bellows. It went on to say the harpsichordists brought their techniques to the organ with them.
  • Jeffrey Quick
    Posts: 1,629
    Do not mess with a woman like Kathy whose business is words.
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  • Percussive, yes - percussion, no.

    If we really want to change things up, how about no instruments with the congregation singing in a minimum of 4-parts a la Eastern Orthodox? *runs away
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  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,181
    I think the Orthodox have the right idea. Since the Incarnation, breath is the correct producer of liturgical sound.
  • Kathy has just spoken a great truth.
    (Alas, I hear that even the Orthodox, at least in this country, are beginning here and there to avail themselves of organs and other instruments.)
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,181
    Well, an organ is a breathing choir, in a way.
  • Yes... yes, it is indeed!
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