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Early-Keybrds-art - 12/11/13


"Early Keyboards and Their Music" by Domhnall O'Dochartaigh.


NOTE: See also the files: instruments-msg, harps-msg, lyres-msg, guitar-art, Pipe-a-Tabor-art, trumpets-msg, trumpet-build-art, song-sources-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Early Keyboards and Their Music

by Domhnall O'Dochartaigh


First thing to know is that keyboards evolve and early ones were nowhere near as good as modern ones.

The second is that early keyboard instruments in SCA Period are expensive. That's because they are relatively lousy compared to modern keyboards. This makes them not in high demand and thus a "specialty product." That produces big costs for such instruments.


I advocate that (UNLESS you have a ton of dough) you buy a modern electronic keyboard which can imitate their sound. This is the route I've chosen.


What keyboards are "period" (meaning 600AD -1600AD?) Well, the newer ones are the Clavichord and the Harpsichord. Less common and even older are the pipe organ, virginal, and spinet. You can check these all at wikipedia for more info.

As this is a short article about the subject and there is, of course, lots to know, I will be covering only the high points. At least readers will know something of this wonderful music and the instruments that played it.


A bit more about the instruments that played this music. Most folks modernly know about the piano, and it was indeed very high tech - back in 1706 when it was invented! It was so high tech that it basically made the harpsichords and clavichords of that day obsolete.


What was so "high tech about this instrument? Simple - it could, unlike the other instruments of it's day, change the volume of every single key. Instruments before it were either all loud (harpsichords) or all soft (Clavichords) or could make changes which increase ALL the keys volumes at once (pipe organs.)


Unfortunately, the people that love the piano (mostly professional players) have been very slow to adopt newer and more evolutionary changes in the instrument.

Much music was written for the acoustic piano, which we won't cover, as it isn't "period" music.


Pedals, notably the piano's sustaining pedal (the one on the right) were NOT part of any early keyboard and thus to sustain a note you had to keep a finger down on it. This was more or less valuable in the quality of the sound produced depending on the instruments.

Now you should realize that there are two types of sound, both made by different types of keyboards. One type is the sound of decaying string. This kind of sound goes to full volume and then immediately fades away. Most keyboards went this direction.


The pipe organ, however, did NOT. It preferred the sustaining tone. In this tone, the volume went to full immediately and stayed that way till the key was released.


This difference produces a vastly different technique for performance. Thus, you must know how your early keyboard works before you can play it well.


Now I have a book called Seven Centuries of Keyboard Music. That book features exactly what the title indicates, seven centuries of keyboard music. The earliest in it is from, perhaps, 1320, certainly within our period.


Now some notes on performance of such music.


Up until the Romantic era (which includes music by the older Beethoven, Chopin, and such) the quality of musical sound was paramount to a musician. If the listener or listeners liked what they heard, then that was "good" music.


After that period, the focus came to be on "following directions" and although many learned papers have been written on why the change, this fixation on the directions still seems to be how much music is taught, regardless of whether the listener(s) like what they hear or not.


That means that during SCA period, which is normally (in music at least!) called Medieval and Renaissance the focus of performance was almost totally on how the music "sounded."


As I often say to my students, "You can't go wrong if you play something that sounds good."


Thus, the book I am referencing has the original material in dark print and the "editorial suggestions" in light gray print.


They spend a lot of time telling us how much better that is.


I note that the editors have much to add to early pieces and less and less to add as we approach the present.


I, however, say simply play it as you like it. This book does a bang-up job of presenting early music.


What to do, those of you who do not wish to spend a fortune on an instrument? Simply purchase an electronic keyboard good enough to mimic some of the earlier instruments and use those sounds. If you do not know how to read music, then get some training in that field, which can be as short as needed by yourself. Then, once you know, find a book without the bias, which has actual early music.


One thing to watch out for is that bit I explained earlier about "keeping a finger down on the note" as the only means possible to sustain that note.


All REAL early music has this trait as the sustain pedal was not even a part of the first acoustic piano!


Any indication of the sustain pedal being used, therefore, is also an indication of editorial bias. In other words, buy nothing marked "early music" that isn't actually EARLY music!



Copyright 2013 by Dan Starr, 4839 E. 4th St., Tucson, Arizona 85711. <danstarrorg410 at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org