Julian Perkins

Posted on February 4th, 2010 by




PSS with Julian Perkins-onstage at Wiltons. May 2009. Photo: Richard Bram

Julian Perkins is a wonderful musician and communicator, with whom I have collaborated on many occasions. He has a particular passion for the Clavichord, and has explored its historical use as a concert and domestic instrument for many years.

Here he is playing music by Stephen Dodgson who has long championed the instrument.







Julian Perkins playing Nares. Photo Richard Bram


Oh Still Small Voice of Calm

Julian Perkins introduces the Clavichord

Used throughout the Baroque era as a private tool for composing, practice, and meditation, the clavichord lived on into the nineteenth century and has influenced musicians from C. P. E. Bach to Oscar Peterson.

Oh Still Small Voice of Calm:

An Introduction to the Clavichord 

Dating from at least the 1400s, the clavichord is often regarded as the cinderella of keyboard instruments. However, it was ubiquitous up to and including the eighteenth century for both musical and practical reasons. J. S. Bach’s injunction to cultivate a ‘cantabile style of playing’ on the clavier for his Inventions and Sinfonias must surely relate to the clavichord; pedal clavichords were essential to organists as practice instruments; and Constanze Mozart claimed that her late husband composed Die Zauberflöte, La Clemenza di Tito, the Requiem, and a Masonic Cantata on the clavichord now in Mozart’s ‘Geburtshaus’. The instrument reached its zenith in eighteenth century Germany where its deceptive simplicity came to epitomize the Empfindsamer Stil (Sensitive Style’) of composers such as J. W. Hässler, J. G.

Müthel and, most famously, C. P. E. Bach.

The clavichord continued to flourish in Sweden, Spain and her colonies throughout much of the nineteenth century, and there may hardly have been a break between historical instruments and modern copies. (Peter Bavington has even shown that the ‘monoacordio’ continued to be used in South America until well after World War I.) Its renaissance in England came about largely through the inimitable Arnold Dolmetsch, whose first two clavichords were made in 1894. Misunderstood for many years through 20th-century instruments that yielded only a ‘silver whisper’, the clavichord is now finally re-entering our musical conciousness. Its soft power has inspired players as diverse as Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, András Schiff, and Gustav Leonhardt, and composers including Herbert Howells and Stephen Dodgson. 

 Ornaments unique to the clavichord:

 1. Bebung – a vibrato, or literally a shaking of the strings. Cp. voce umana  

 The tangent’s continuous contact with the strings when employed allows for the player to vary the pressure on the keys with an up and down motion. This results in an upwards vibrato on the strings. It is usually most effective when applied slowly to the second half of long notes, and often evokes a melancholy character. D. G. Türk warns ‘against the over-exaggeration of a tone …which

some call howling.’

2. Tragen der Töne­ ­– a portato

There is only a single variation of pressure within a note. C. P. E. Bach states that ‘notes …will be drawn out, and each of them receives in the same time a perceptible pressure.’

3. Chiming – my term. A percussive effect.

This is usually reserved for contemporary music. It is only possible on certain notes of fretted clavichords (when two or more tangents share the same string). A note is held down whilst the higher note(s) that share the same string strike what is now an un-dampened string. This gives a sharp attack and oriental ring to the lower / lowest held note. 

Some practical considerations:

–        ­Breaking of slurs to bring out dissonances (as on harpsichord).

–        Breaking of ties and dissonances if instrument is fretted.

–        Arpeggiation as a different expressive device on the clavichord.

Bernard Brauchli states that ‘One of the principal reasons for arpeggiating or breaking a chord on the harpsichord is to avoid too harsh an attack of several simultaneous notes, the dynamic volume of which cannot be otherwise controlled. On the clavichord, where the interpreter has control over each note’s dynamic value, this technique is no longer a necessity.’ Arpeggiation on the clavichord can thus be regarded as an ornament that enhances the melodic and / or rhythmic expression of a musical line.

 Clavichord touch

J. N. Forkel’s description of a ‘Bach touch’ is especially apt to the clavichord:

‘…no finger must fall upon its key, or (as also often happens) be thrown on it, but only needs to be placed upon it with a certain conciousness of the internal power and command over the motion.’

 Handel and the clavichord

Handel’s affinity for the clavichord is well documented in 18th-century sources. John Mainwaring, who wrote Handel’s first biography (and in fact the first biography of any composer), describes the composer’s youthful obstinacy with regards to his first clavichord:

‘From his very childhood HANDEL had discovered such a strong propensity to Music that his father, who always intended him for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. Perceiving that this inclination still increased, he took every method to oppose it. He strictly forbad him to meddle with any musical instrument; nothing of that kind was suffered to remain in the house, nor was he ever permitted to go to any other, where such kind of furniture was in use. All this caution and art, instead of restraining, did but augment his passion. He had found means to get a little clavichord privately convey’d to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep. He had made some progress before Music had been prohibited, and by his assiduous practice at hours of rest, had made such farther advances, as, tho’ not attended to at that time, were no slight prognostications of his future greatness.’ From Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel, 1760.

Although this story was later embellished, it stemmed from conversations between Handel and his long-term amanuensis, J. C. Smith.

Julian Perkins