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Chicago Tribune (US)
Sunday, February 25, 1996
THE SOUNDS OF THE HARPSICHORD ARE IN DEMAND ONCE MORE
By Richard Rothschild, Tribune Staff Writer.
Mention the word harpsichord, and an image forms of a more civilized
era; an enlightened time of sarabands, minuets and a belief in the
perfectibility of mankind.
But as the 21st Century approaches, the harpsichord has become
far more than a parlor instrument. It is used in film scores, commercials, by
rock artists such as Tori Amos and in the theme music for the TV series
"Murder One." Contemporary composers are also making increased use of
the harpsichord for their compositions.
For her album "Boys for Pele," Amos told an interviewer recently, she
enjoyed using the harpsichord because "it represents a time that holds secrets."
The harpsichord music of composer Mike Post runs throughout the credits
and the action of "Murder One" as uberlawyer Teddy Hoffman tries to
match wits with slimy millionaire Richard Cross.
A spokeswoman for "Murder One" says Post envisioned "chamber music as Bach
would write it were he alive today."
All these developments delight David Schrader, perhaps Chicago's leading harpsichord
player. After starting his musical life as a pianist and organist—he continues
to perform in concerts with both instruments—Schrader took up the harpsichord
at 18. It has become his calling card for performance and composing. He
regularly gives solo recitals and plays with the Evanston-based Rembrandt
Chamber Players. "All the emotions are much smaller with a harpsichord," he
says. "No degree of physical force is involved to play the instrument. Less is more."
Schrader, who notes that contemporary composers such as Elliott Carter and
Ralph Shapey have written works for harpsichord, says there is a "manic
intensity" about modern music that his instrument helps tame: "The harpsichord
gives you a feeling of a being that is always controlled, always poised."
The harpsichord, as we know it, started in Italy in the early 16th
Century. For nearly 300 years it enjoyed a series of golden ages with the music
of Frescobaldi, Couperin, Scarlatti and Johann Sebastian Bach. But as 1800
approached, the harpsichord all but disappeared into a century-long black hole
as the piano and its forerunners became the keyboard instrument of choice.
"There was a change in taste," Schrader says. "People wanted more melody,
accompaniment and textures, and the harpsichord doesn't do this so well. People
wanted to express themselves through dynamics rather than time. Concert halls
were getting bigger.
"The harpsichord is kind of like having a Duesenberg in the garage. You have
to like to work on engines, and dig around with the mechanics. As more domestic
households (in the 19th Century) owned keyboard instruments, they
were't equipped to maintain a harpsichord."
The harpsichord was rescued from music's scrap heap by Polish keyboard artist
Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), who argued that the music of Bach and Scarlatti
should be performed on the instrument for which it was composed. Gradually, it
began to make a comeback, particularly after World War II.
Schrader, who notes that there are more harpsichords in use today than in
the instrument's heyday, says with pride: "The harpsichord is proving to be a
real Rip Van Winkle that went to sleep for 100 years."
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