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Clavichords and Climate Change

Clavichords and Climate Change

Bainbridge Island, Washington.

The Cascade Mountains were dusted with snow this week, less a harbinger of the coming winter than of ominous larger changes in the climate. According to many, the snow came “too early,” especially considering the apocalyptic smoke from the fires of summer just gone.

The Washington of my youth was a paradise for the “outdoors.”  The future points “indoors.” It is there that solace will have to be sought.

When snow blankets the ground the clavichord comes into its own. The world becomes quieter, or tries to, and this quietest of instruments finds its voice anew.

The clavichord demands great concentration of listeners but rewards them with its unlimited dynamic shadings and expressive powers. In this heightened state extraneous sounds come as a shock to the ear. The clavichord is an instrument of introspection, but it can also be played for the enjoyment of a few listeners seated nearby; it requires a degree of stillness to which few people are accustomed. J.S. Bach is said to have “favored it for private musical entertainments.”  The most popular domestic keyboard instrument in eighteenth-century Germany, the clavichord could not compete with the flash and brilliance of the piano, which had largely displaced it in bourgeois homes by the early nineteenth century.

The clavichord is the most expressive of keyboard instruments and derives much of its beauty from the simplicity of its action — the mechanism for producing sound. In contrast to the complex piano action with its array of levers, hammers, dampers, not to mention whippens, capstans and other exotic contrivances, the clavichord strikes the string in the most elegant and obvious way.

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