The harpsichord is inextricably tied to the eccentricity and experimentation of the historical performance movement. Any hot new recording of baroque repertoire would be incomplete without a first-rate instrument. But the harpsichord can seem almost comically limited: as any pianist will be happy to tell you, you can walk over to harpsichord and hit a key as hard or as gently as you want, but it will always sound at the same volume. How can the harpsichord be an expressive instrument? What is it that draws people to its sound? How did composers like Bach envision music for an apparently “unmusical” instrument? I called Pierre Hantaï, one of the foremost interpreters of Bach at the harpsichord, to find out.  

Hantaï in 1993 • Photo via
Hantaï in 1993 • Photo via

VAN: How does one create dynamics at the harpsichord?

Pierre Hantaï: Like with any instrument, you play more forcefully. Beyond plucking the string faster, there are secrets of the harpsichord individual to every performer. For instance, the duration of a note often determines its dynamic capacity.

How so?

Harpsichordists do not simply play notes in a scale, one after another, as a pianist might on a Steinway. You can hold certain notes down to permit an accumulation of resonance. You can create harmonies, dissonances, resolutions and even a physically larger amount of sound when five notes are speaking instead of one. Conversely, shorter notes can be heard as softer, as they have less time to resonate through the instrument. The process of experimenting with differences in duration with simultaneous voices is how you work towards getting “louder” and “softer” sounds. As a harpsichordist, I am in the practice of giving the impression of dynamics.

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Are the dynamic contrasts really audible to the listener?

I think so. Whenever I do a take in a recording studio and go back to the booth to listen, I also look at the computer monitor. In looking at the levels, you can see the louds, the softs, the waves of dynamic fluctuation.

Sure, but seeing is not the same as hearing them.

There is an element of faith, I suppose. Though the range of dynamics on the harpsichord is relatively small compared to an instrument like the piano, it doesn’t mean that they are not there. You have to believe that they are there and continue to seek them out.

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A lot of harpsichord music is written without expression markings. Is that an indication that the harpsichord is less musical or expressive than, say, a violin?

No. I’m convinced that Bach and his contemporaries heard dynamics. If the harpsichord was not an expressive instrument, why would good composers have gone through all the trouble of writing such good music for it? Why would harpsichordists keep playing, studying and recording?

In previous interviews, you’ve said that the sound of the harpsichord isn’t what drew you to the instrument.

I admit that I had to learn to fall in love with the instrument. My first love was Bach, especially recordings by the great concert pianists of the 20th century, like Glenn Gould.

What changed?

I had an instinct that one could get closer to Bach himself when I first heard Gustav Leonhardt’s recordings of the English Suites. I could tell that he was somehow more connected to the music.

Leonhardt is often credited with expanding the boundaries of the harpsichord: both its resurgent popularity and the technique on the instrument itself. How do you remember his approach?

Leonhardt was really the first person to look at what to do with the ictus and decay on a harpsichord. How could one wait for the next note? How long should one wait? It was an incredibly detailed approach, for sure, but it was also a reaction against 20th century pianism.

Could he be dogmatic?

Absolutely not. Leonhardt was happy that his students were all playing differently from each other. He said that his starting point was that he knew very little about what the instrument had the potential to achieve. In his lessons, he was always looking not just to teach what he knew, but to be convinced by new ideas. His teaching was never dogmatic or rigid. He wouldn’t spend time giving articulation marks on each and every individual note. In fact, by the 1990s, I remember him telling me that he thought that many harpsichordists were getting too bogged down in the details of articulation.

Does that hold true today?

Perhaps. But I also think that it’s good that people are trying new things and playing differently from each other. We all have our own ways of expressing ourselves. If I took anything away from my studies with Leonhardt, it is that the harpsichord is ultimately an instrument that speaks. Above all, clarity and beauty are what we have to aspire to.

Should harpsichordists at least begin from the same place, with Rameau’s treatise on technique, for example?

Sources like Rameau are useful, sure, but in reading them you can see that they really just set down the foundations and the first principles. Don’t get me wrong: going through the rigor of learning technique is necessary. Even today there are some harpsichordists who move their arms too much, or don’t understand the basic mechanics—they could do with revisiting Rameau! But technical information is not artistic guidance. In the 20th century, harpsichordists—especially Leonhardt—managed to create subtlety and dynamics by experimenting upon the technical foundations that we find in some historical sources.

The harpsichord requires the player to be fairly autodidactic. Was your schooling rigorous in how you should approach the instrument?

In a way I was fortunate in that I was free from institutional restraints or influences. My brothers and I didn’t attend a conservatory for our musical training.

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At all?

No. My brother Marc was learning the baroque flute and Jérôme the gamba, but we were very young when we started. I myself started the harpsichord when I was nine. In the 1970s, there weren’t many kids or even teenagers interested in early instruments. And the historical performance movement hadn’t really arrived yet in the academy either.

How did you get performing experience?

I played with my brothers! As children, we put on concerts and rehearsed at home. Nobody told us we couldn’t.

Having played the instrument since you were a child, has your approach changed at all?

I breathe more at the instrument. Every time I come back to the “Goldberg Variations,” I feel as if I give them more space to speak.

You’ve recorded the “Goldbergs” twice. Why not just once?

Along with the Bach’s “Art of Fugue,” it is the most beautiful and important work for the keyboard. I learned it as a teenager, and have been performing it for nearly 40 years. But since my first recording 25 years ago, I’ve become a different musician—I’ve become a different person.

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What specifically changes when you record such a mammoth work twice?

Well, there are instruments you might have access to that you didn’t have before. For instance, if I were to record the “Goldbergs” again, I would love to do it on Leonhardt’s copy of an instrument by Mietke, which sat in his apartment for years. It’s a wonderful instrument. But also, there are antique instruments which are being restored to better, more authentic standards. You have to alter your playing style on such instruments, as they often sound much more like lutes or theorbos—they’re sweeter, more resonant. You really have to wait for them to speak in order to be expressive. Sometimes it’s the silences and pauses that can be the loudest. ¶

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