Harpsichord Diary

I’ve taken down all the previous posts under the “harpsichord” rubric.

I’m sorry to have done so, but it’s for the best. The intention was good but in the real world it was not realistic.

After all: to show vulnerability in this scene is a bad idea. “Vulnerability” includes announcing that you have bought a harpsichord, and that you have loved the process of “coming up to speed” with ownership.

Mind you: coming up to speed took me approximately a day. Never mind. That’s enough for some.

There is music, and there are our preferred ways to make it. Nothing else is especially significant.

I’m currently working on a project related to harpsichord music, and will post more here when it’s closer to completion.


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Parallel Octaves, Again

I’ve read some internet chatter about BWV565 that makes me shake my head.

An allusion to “parallel octaves” in the opening measures.

Here we go again.

I wrote about this in The American Organist in September, 2011. The organ does not–repeat, does not–automatically play in parallel octaves and fifths. Registering a passage 8-4-2, or (equally) composing a solo line out in octaves, is not the same thing as “parallel,” “consecutive,” or “improperly approached” octaves.

Rather, it is one voice in the counterpoint. The pseudo-parallels are really just part of the harmonic series–the timbral profile of the single line. An orchestral tutti in unison is exactly the same thing: one line. Not twenty or thirty.

By the exact same token, writing a unison line in octaves is orchestrational or registrational–not contrapuntal. Invoking the shibboleth “parallel” is uncalled for.

I don’t know if this is the worst of it. Perhaps worse than judging “faults” where there are none is the underlying narrative: that “the rules” are all “just old stuff put up there to intimidate us.”

Before you say a word, please: look, actually look, at a few orchestral scores.

With any luck, within two minutes you will find passages where the basses double the cellos at the octave below, and where the piccolo doubles the flute at the octave above.

Brahms–Beethoven–to name two–didn’t know as much as you do about the laws of counterpoint? Do you really think that? Do you really think they were just “writing the way they felt” and slyly winking at the “rules”?

To repeat: it’s a unison line, registered and/or composed analogously to orchestration. One line of counterpoint. Not two lines forming parallel octaves.

In the age of cheap photons, it’s more important than ever to evaluate your sources. Be careful with random googly searches that land you on a page that sounds smart.

The lesson I offer you is a good one: timbre and counterpoint are not the same thing, and not all composing in octaves is “parallel” or “consecutive” per the historic (and perennially valid) rules of counterpoint.

Class dismissed!


Posted in AGO, Baroque Music, Music, Music Criticism, Music History, Music Theory, Nutters and Such, Pipe Organ, The Agonies of Art, The Lapping Shore of Psycholand | Comments Off on Parallel Octaves, Again

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Dretzel Update

The Divertimento Armonico of Cornelius Heinrich Dretzel settles into an Italian harpsichord perfectly. The italophilia of Nuremberg is borne out in this piece, and the bright, clear, affirmative tone of my new harpsichord is serving it well.

At the same time, the idea of BWV565 being conceived for harpsichord is appearing (to my fingers, let alone my mind) as ludicrous on the face of it. The style of the two pieces is identical, but the Toccata and Fugue (or Adagio and Fugue) was conceived for organ.

As I said in my article of some years back, no amount of conjuring can turn 565 into a harpsichord, violin, or other instrumental work. Removing the organ from the pieture achieves nothing, expect perhaps to dull the sense of cognitive dissonance. After all, we “know” it was by Bach, right? Because we were told so. Because it’s famously identified with Bach.

Name another Bach piece that sounds even a little bit like it.

BWV565 is not by Bach. If it’s not by Dretzel, then the composer is totally unknown and perhaps unknowable. The continued circular recitation of A-listers like Kellner, Krebs, et al. eternally fails to achieve anything.

My close study of Dretzel’s major surviving and attributed work convinces me of the stylistic similarity, to the point that I am at ease with my attribution.

And it’s a joy and a privilege to be playing it daily on a beautiful harpsichord.

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Fifth Day of Christmas

Happy five golden rings.

It got down to nearly zero Fahrenheit last night. This morning, the hot-water heater sent voluminous puffs of steam out the chimney. The day started cloudy but the sun is coming through. I’m home, cleaning the basement and office and making banana chutney.

These are homey days–there’s plenty to do, but little if any need to travel. I taught a new organ student yesterday, and had a great time doing that. But otherwise, I’m a homebody right now.

Above all, I’ve enjoyed stargazing. I’ve had great views of Mars and Jupiter, split Castor quite well, revisited the clusters in Auriga, admired Almaak–plenty of basic targets like that. Above all, I’ve been closely observing the terminator line of the waxing moon. Lunar motion has been a deferred challenge for me, and this is a great chance to work on it.

Big sales at the supermarket: a 13 lb. turkey for under seven dollars. Roasting a turkey on the spur of the moment is a little like flying to Heathrow on the spur of the moment; daunting but a lot of fun once you start. The neighbor got a prime rib for about four bucks.

The harpsichord is being kept at a steady temperature and humidity. I’m taking a little break from music-making. Today, the mailman is supposed to bring my tiny jeweler’s pliers and “headlamp” style magnifier, so I can extract a stubborn broken quill stump and requill high F. I think the instrument is coming up on requilling.

My love of harpsichord is of long standing, and I’ve had fine teachers and solid experience. What I haven’t done, till now, is own one, with its attendant pleasures and responsibilities. It’s sheer joy to be able to play a harpsichord any time I want; it’s a responsibility to tune it and keep it up. So far, it agrees with me very well.



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First Day of Christmas

I received an email from an online merchant I’ve worked with. Today, they say, is the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

I’m glad they’re good at horticulture, because their theology needs work.

Today is the First Day of Christmas. The Twelfth is Epiphany.

Today, Christmas Day, is the First Day of Christmas.

Have a wonderful day.

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Merry Christmas!

It’s Christmas Day. I came home after a very successful Christmas Eve service at the Presbyterian church, and an intimate and joyful Midnight Mass in the village. Attendance was down at the latter because of storm warnings, but there was no issue getting there or home again. Father was very happy–as were my dear friends in the Presbyterian church.

Christmas Eve involved my re-début as a harpsichordist. It was a chore getting the “runabout” into the car and up the winding 1870 staircase into the balcony. The instrument was very irritated with me at first, but soon settled down and performed faultlessly.

I’d broken a quill–what else?–the night before, and there was no way I could remove the tiny stub with the tools I had on hand. So I swapped jacks, and ordered a tiny jeweler’s pliers and a wearable magnifying glass, to make the repair ASAP.

Nevertheless–“Spunky”  played like a champion last night. His minor complaints at being moved soon disappeared in the pleasure of being played well! (Please understand–this harpsichord has been under many expert fingers. I’m just saying that he forgave me for the car ride and long haul up the winding 1870 staircase.)

The handbell choir–The Emmaus Ringers–gave their best performance to date. Progress is obvious. Their “Bell Peal” and “Carol of the Bells” were excellent.

I was moved to tears by the “Organ Fund” envelopes in every bulletin. Here’s hoping.

Afterwards, a delightful gathering at a choir member’s home. Baked brie covered in brown sugar, Asian-style boneless chicken wings,  shrimp, cinnamon apple sauce, homemade stromboli, goodies galore. I drank only water, as I had much to do yet. The tree was surrounded by a big Lionel train set. I had a Lionel set in New York City when I was little.

Back in the village, Midnight Mass was pleasant and deeply religious. I chanted the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, and we sang favorite carols. Father was very happy, as was the congregation.

I got home through a light dusting of snow by 1 AM. Not a creature was stirring…

This morning, the tree was on and a beautiful Christmas morning ensued. Gifts were simple and greatly appreciated: cookies, candies, a few toiletries (I love Pinaud!) and so on. There were even Trappistine candies. Look them up online!

I made my mother’s fantastic cheese-ball recipe for a dinner later today, up in the Black Dirt Country of my own adopted town. Major Grey’s Chutney is involved. I haven’t made these in years, and as I licked the mess off my fingers I was amazed all over again at how good they are.

These are not the “port wine cheddar”  pure plastic cheese balls you get online. These are a worthy Christmas dish! The last time I made them, they vanished in seconds. Let’s see about today.

Merry Christmas. It’s a beautiful day.

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Jupiter was up and brilliant in the pre-dawn sky. Three of the Galilean moons visible. The planet was very bright indeed but I could still resolve the main equatorial bands.

I’d been up since the wee hours with the telescope. I think this was the first break in the clouds since the harpsichord arrived almost three weeks ago, so I took advantage of it.

Nothing remarkable to report at 2 AM. Kemble’s Cascade was nice to look at, ditto some old chestnuts like M42 and the Double Cluster.  Ursa Minor was unsually clear. I think I spotted HIP14350, a K-class reddish-orange star near Perseus. It was a beautiful little gem.

The light pollution has worsened since I arrived here, but there is still much to see.

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First Communion

Today, December 16, is the anniversary of my First Communion. A big anniversary, at that.

I don’t know how many people remember the date of their First Communion. I’ve kept the booklet, and it represents an interesting time in the history of the Church. It was the Tridentine Mass in English, with an opening song by the infamous Ray Repp and the familiar “Now Thank We All Our God” at the end. It was the feast day of St. Eusebius.

The redoubtable Monsignor Farricker, our pastor, a Manhattan legend, was the celebrant. He had been at Epiphany since 1924, overseeing the installation of the famous Epiphany Window that was nearly destroyed in the disastrous fire of Christmas, 1963. I was the first class to receive First Communion in the new Vatican-II showcase, with its new Epiphany Window featuring a piece of the old one. (Incredibly, the only undamaged portion was the Mother and Child.)

For many reasons, I love this time of year. It’s almost time for the “O” antiphons, Christmas is coming, my favorite music is everywhere. The picture above shows me at work at the piano–it was taken during Thanksgiving by a good friend.

Another connection: yesterday, December 15, was the birthday of Dr. Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto. The person who took this picture is a fluent speaker, and we have many a happy krokodilado over the years.

This Christmas, there’s the harpsichord as well. It makes its “new debut” in just over a week. So do I, as a harpsichordist. We had a trio rehearsal this morning–“Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben” from the Christmas Oratorio.

It’s been an intense but wonderful and energizing semester at school, with four pre-concert talks and many excellent students. I find myself tired but full of pep.

Merry Christmas, but Happy Advent first.

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