The Harpsichord: Where Bach Meets Eminem

>This is the fourth in a series of posts about appreciating classical music. Catch up on the first three parts of the series here, here and here.

Though its name sounds archaic, the harpsichord is a bit like a wormhole. Little used for 200 years, it connects music from the distant past—Couperin, Scarlatti, Handel, and Bach—to well-known music from contemporary times—The Kinks, Massive Attack, Eminem. Its brittle sound has attracted musicians of widely varying genres. In this way, the harpsichord can serve as a bridge from the 18th century to the 21st. Or as a Rosetta Stone.

Some brief background: the harpsichord is a keyboard instrument that relates to the piano like an elder cousin. It cannot vary its volume from note to note, but it can be made louder by adding a whole rank of strings. Sometimes layered and crackling, other times plunky, like a guitar made of straw, it specializes in fleet-footed, staccato melodies. Depending on the context, it may sound quaint, brittle, stubborn, or brashly stabbing.

As for listening, the harpsichord's shrill voice also makes it easy to pick out from loud recordings. Even on honking streets, where I have to strain my ears to make out string quartets, I have no trouble hearing Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. This quality, plus its digital vibe and knife-like sound, make it easier, somehow, for friends to grasp than throbbing strings. In a way, the harpsichord sounds fashionably retro.

See the contrasts below, where the instrument gives a porthole through which to show the continuity of music, and its breakdown.

Bach's G Major Toccata Meets Eminem's "Slim Shady"
Bach's jubilant, brilliant piece shows all the things harpsichords do best: figures tumbling like wagon wheels, restless arpeggiation, sparkling trills.


Eminem, probably not harking back to Bach, pulls in a synthetic harpsichord for the main loop on this hit track. The effect, to my ears, is acidic—as though the harpsichord etches a creepy, baroque image for Eminem's syncopations to play on.


Bach's C-sharp Major Prelude & Fugue Meets Love's "Stephanie Knows"
In this clip, I love the thorny brightness and edge. The prelude (up to 1:15 in the track) gives you a sense of how the harpsichord can be used to build rhythmic momentum to overpowering effect.


Here, 1960s psychedelic pioneers Love make use of the harpsichord's driving energy to sketch out the opening song on their album Da Capo. Though quickly swamped by Arthur Lee's barks, the intro riff lays out the song's skeleton before diminishing to a background sparkle.


Ligeti's "Continuum" Meets Massive Attack's "Teardrop"
Györgi Ligeti is one of those modern composers who, along with Manuel de Falla, discovered new uses of the harpsichord sound. Here's a bit of proto-electronica. (At least that's how it sounds to me. Ligeti's dense, overlapping clusters pose rhythmic challenges to the ears.)


A bit more pleasant, perhaps, is Massive Attack's actual electronica. The British duo employs a cycling harpsichord sample that has a tired, vulnerable sound.


Bonus: Hear a Harpsichord Shredding
Didn't think pyrotechnics were possible on a quiet keyboard? Listen all the way through, or skip to 2:40 for a scathing coda that, for my money, puts all but the heaviest shredders to shame.


As always, all questions and ideas are welcome. In my next post, I plan to tackle the connection between color and classical music.

Presented by

Benjamin F. Carlson is executive editor of The Atlantic Wire.

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