Writing for the Harpsichord

This article was published in the November 2010 issue of Sounding Board, the e-magazine of the British Harpsichord Society.

Raymond Head

Enshrined in the re-discovery of the harpsichord at the end of the 19th century was a commitment to the re-discovery of Early Music so that it has seemed like a contradiction in terms for there to be anything called a modern repertoire. I knew famous works like the de Falla music and the Elliot Carter concerto for piano and harpsichord and I had the Berio Sequenza, which I disliked, and was much more taken by Ligeti’s Continuum. Personally, I became aware of the problem of writing a modern work for the harpsichord in 1997 when a friend of mine, Klyne Williams of Totnes, a harpsichordist, asked me if I would write something for her to play at a Taskin Conference that was going to be held at Dartington later that year.

At one time and with the righteousness of youth I had hated the sound of the harpsichord but at Dartington I had lessons from John Wellingham and he introduced me to a new understanding - a new listening which I found revolutionary. Firstly, I used the modern Goble and then I was allowed to play the wonderful Ruckers instrument in the private house. The repertoire particularly of works by Couperin and Rameau but also by Peter Phillips was entirely new to me (I was then a Stockhausen fan) and they became new-found treasures. Then when I left to teach I hardly touched a harpsichord again.

It was strange because the request for a modern piece ignited a flame inside me; instantly I began to hear sounds, some mellifluous, some rather spiky. Back at home I tried pinning some of these sounds down on paper and realised that I wanted to write a musical tribute to Couperin and Rameau, but quite definitely not in a pastiche style. By then I had already begun to realise that composing these pieces would provide me with an opportunity to write a musical homage to a great friend of mine called Mary Potts (1905 - 1982), a pioneering harpsichordist whose Shudi harpsichord came from Arnold Dolmetsch and who had died some years before in Cambridge. She had been very kind to me during a difficult period in my life and had opened my eyes to the joys of T’ai chi lessons at the Oriental Faculty, Cambridge and even allowed me to play her beloved Shudi (“very late you know”). Her great loves were Couperin and Rameau amongst many other composers.

Quite a challenge presented itself: how to write for the harpsichord in a modern but idiomatic style so that players and listeners would feel comfortable with them in the appropriate context. I think contemporary works should be performed within in a normal concert programme albeit one carefully thought out and planned; otherwise, new music remains in a ghetto: anything new I think should be perceived as just part of a continuum of music going back centuries. Over the years I have found that my pieces fit very well into programmes of early English and French styles.

After thinking about the problem I felt there were going to be two contrasted pieces; the first le Mystère I thought should be very resonant with slowly shifting harmonies like Couperin’s Les Barricades mystérieuses (played slowly) or some of the pieces in L'art de toucher le clavecin. The term non mesuré is central to this first piece which should always be very expressive yet have forward impetus as if on an ambling voyage of discovery. Then the second piece Le rappel du l’humanité was going to be quite different, more extrovert, linear with slightly offbeat rhythms and have some harsh dissonance. Slowly these pieces were worked out in detail.

From a technical point of view neither is particularly demanding. I felt strongly that there was no reason for writing an extremely difficult piece for harpsichord when very few players play any modern music at all. The pieces had to be technically accessible yet introduce a modern world of sound.

Many years later in 2006 a commission from Penelope Cave allowed me to complete what I had always thought should be a set of three pieces for harpsichord. This time my inspiration came from a very different source; the Sema Mevlana ceremony of the whirling dervishes in Istanbul. I took the 4-part structure of the ceremony with its whirling and contrasted moments of inner stillness as the basis for the work. Then I had to decide how the music would flow to suggest movement. A Bach prelude suggested a resolution combined with a hint of Couperin and the use of a modern minimalist technique.

It is always very gratifying when pieces work and I think these do. A new yet strangely familiar sound world opens up which should not surprise us too much but still give the feeling of having been written in recent times. They have been performed several times in different venues and I am pleased that they have on every occasion been well received. One of the roles of the contemporary composer is to introduce new sounds to people so that there is feeling of the times in which we all live. We happily accept new technology like mobile phones, email, shopping online, so why not try some modern music as well?


My music is available from Sky Dance Press: