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Anne Bond
A Guide to the Harpsichord
Amadeus Press paper ISBN 1 57467 063 8 £12.99
 Amazon UK   £11.20  Amazon US  $14.36

BBC Sunday afternoon concerts in the 1930's were notable for the regular performances of Bach cantatas and other sacred, or at least serious music, of a devout and religious kind. In those Reithian days of broadcasting the ordinary listener would probably switch off and twiddle the radio tuning dial until he found some lighter kind of popular music from the Continent. The more cultured and informed listener however, might pursue the series of concerts for weeks on end, and thus become aware of what must at that time have been a fascinating and newly-discovered kind of music:that of the Baroque age.

Of course, we had long been used to Handel and the one great choral work that even the man-in-the-street might whistle or hum excerpts from, but the annual performance at Christmas, in the local church or chapel, would invariably be accompanied on the organ; even if it were a more important occasion in the local public hall with a scratch orchestra, it would have had the "additional accompaniments by Mozart", or even the further accretions to the score added by that worthy Victorian academic Ebenezer Prout. In none of these "modern" performances would the sound of the harpsichord have been heard. The BBC performances were, at that time, probably alone in re-creating the authentic sound of the baroque orchestra in Britain. One of the mainstays of the baroque sound was that of the harpsichord, yet since the rise of romantic music in the nineteenth century, it had largely come to be regarded as quaint and even archaic.

But times have changed, and for several decades now we have come to recognise and re-value the harpsichord, raising it once more to its rightful place. No longer is it the accepted way to perform baroque instrumental music by omitting the essential element of the harpsichord continuo, or worse still replacing it anachronistically with the piano. Despite the fact that several distinguished pianists in recent years have advocated the piano as a "better" alternative, this is not now, fortunately, the most generally accepted way of performing baroque and other early music.

This book by Ann Bond, although by no means the only one to have appeared in recent times, is cetainly one of the best and the most compelling in its advocacy. It begins by setting the early music scene, its historical significance and the contribution it has made to a re-awakening and a re-appraisal of the whole ethos of earlier periods of musical history. There follows a lucid description of the idiosyncratic mechanics, excellently illustrated by the author's husband, Peter Bond, along with an absorbing account of harpsichord building in the past, the varying characteristics of different national styles: Spanish, Portuguese, French, German and English. The author then discusses the factors that made for the instrument's eclipse - the radically changing musical styles - and its present-day re-birth. A large, and obviously important section of Ann Bond's treatise deals with the player's approach to technique in performance: problems for the beginner, and more sophisticated aspects for the experienced player; one of the latter concerning itself especially with the matter of touch, a consideration probably not suspected by those whose keyboard experience has been naively restricted to the piano. There are enlightening examples from a variety of original pieces, illustrating aspects of rhetoric, rubato and other expressive means of making performance sound convincing. There follow quite exhaustive chapters on national styles, each one thoroughly explored. Comments on the popular dance forms  - Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and so on - along with an explanation of ornamentation, an essential part of the very nature of the harpsichord. One of the most interesting, and indeed revealing parts of this book, concerns the intricate and subtle nature of tuning and temperament; this might be a revelation to many readers. It is rounded off with advice about care and maintenance. Finally a chapter is devoted to twentieth-century music for the harpsichord, and useful information about furthering an enthusiast's interests.

This is a capital book, informative in the best sense of the word; its literary style lucid. There is not a dull or tedious sentence, one of the best books I have read on a musical subject.


Arthur Butterworth

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