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Chicago Tribune (US)
Sunday, February 25, 1996


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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