Celebrating the Rattles and Buzz

Behind the scenes of harpsichord performance from ECO Keyboardist Dr. Beth Etter
I write to invite our community to attend the upcoming performance of the Erie Chamber Orchestra in a fascinating program featuring J.S. Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto with Maureen Conlon Gutierrez (violin) and David Graham (flute), and world renowned marimbist She-e Wu performing a piece written for her by composer Eric Ewazen, rounded out by the legendary Grosse Fugue of Beethoven. 


Sometimes a date and time are not enough to convey the story of a performance on an instrument so finicky, cumbersome, and beyond control of so many natural influences. With origins in the 15th century, the harpsichord enjoyed more than two centuries as a premiere keyboard instrument. Famous composers of most European countries wrote solo works and used it as an accompanying instrument for chamber music and orchestral works. But, the desire for dynamic control and the need for projection in the modern concert hall finally spurred the creation of the pianoforte (or versions of the same idea) in England, Italy, Germany, and France, apparently independent of each other. By mid 18th century, the harpsichord began to take second fiddle, and by 1800, collected dust until the 20th century when Wanda Landowska began her tireless revival.



When we visit an art museum, we learn what makes a painting great within a historical period. As a result, we understand something about how people thought, what influenced them, and, in short, how they lived. But in the field of classical music, we have played very old pieces on instruments that were not even imagined at the time of composition, and performed them in the performance practice of centuries later.

This is why some of us jump on the bandwagon of period performance. I remember vividly the day at CaseDuffin Western Reserve University when all of us who sought graduate degrees in period instrument performance hovered around an article posted outside Dr. Duffin’s door. “Pinky” Zukerman’s review of a well-known period instrument performance claimed it was. . .”f—–ing awful.” And, why would anyone choose to play an instrument with rattles and buzzes, when they could choose to play a Bosendorfer?

Those of us who have immersed ourselves in those rattles and buzzes have found an indescribable beauty of integrity in creating something close to what composers had in mind on the instruments they had available. Each time I haul the instrument, three people–on either end– have to make themselves available for a delicate and careful lifting job. Once the instrument is safeChristian_Ludwig_Markgraf_von_Brandenburg and sound in a hall, the real fun begins. How many times will it need to be tuned given the move, the temperature and climate change? How many quills will break? Will the soundboard crack because of dry, hot inside winter air?

Thanks to the masterful conducting and creative programming of Maestro Matthew Kraemer, I will risk hauling this old girl with all of her rattles and buzzes for a chance to play the piece Bach wrote for himself to show off a bit for Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. The work is timeless, and the harpsichord built after 18th century design of Pascal Taskin deserves the limelight Bach intended.

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