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On Bach and Imitation Harpsichords

From Gustav Mahler to Glenn Gould to this year’s Brandenburgs at CMS, learn more about the extensive tradition of performing Bach on grand pianos modified with thumbtacks to sound like the harpsichord!

The above excerpt from The Art of the Fugue comes from Glenn Gould’s popular 1962 CBC broadcast Glenn Gould on Bach. In this hour-long educational concert, Gould performed Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto and a complete cantata (BWV 54), along with other selections.

As can be heard, he presented these works on, in his words, “not exactly a piano and not exactly a harpsichord, it’s a neurotic piano that thinks it’s a harpsichord.” This enchanting effect is achieved by inserting metal tacks into the hammers of a piano, producing a silvery, harpsichord-like twang.

Gould was by no means the first to play Bach on a “harpsipiano” as he fondly called it (also variously known as the piano-harpsichord, the harpsichordized piano, the tack piano, the imitation harpsichord, the Bach-Klavier, and a variety of other colorful descriptions). The use of such modified pianos dates back to the turn of the 20th century and has quite a storied history, particularly in the musical life of New York City.

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Gustav Mahler is known to us today as the composer of massive symphonic works, but in his time his fame was largely as a conductor. In 1907-1908, he gave debut performances in New York with the Metropolitan Opera and went on to serve as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1909 until his death in 1911.

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907
In his well-reviewed rendition of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in January of 1908, he played the continuo part in recitatives, conducting from the keyboard. According to the New York Times review, “he had an attachment to the pianoforte that gave a somewhat exaggerated imitation of the tone of the harpsichord—an exaggeration perhaps necessary in a house of the size of the Metropolitan.”

In 1909, for his opening season as conductor of the New York Philharmonic Society, Mahler elected to present a newly arranged orchestral suite from movements written by Bach. He again conducted from an imitation harpsichord, a decision he recalled fondly in a letter to a friend back in Germany: “I particularly enjoyed a recent Bach concert…I conducted and improvised—quite in the manner of the ancients—at a very full-toned spinet prepared for the purpose by Steinway.”

Ebonized_Grand_Piano
An advertisement in Country Life in America (Decemeber 1910) for a Miniature ebonized Steinway grand of the type Mahler had “harpsichordized” for his New York Philharmonic tours.

Mahler took the Philharmonic on 1910 tours in New England and the Great Lakes region, bringing the modified Steinway with him. A letter from Steinway to a tour presenter describes the instrument in some detail (as well as a logistical challenge of winter orchestra tours of the early 20th century), announcing the arrival “on a sled [of] a Miniature ebonized grand…this instrument has been gotten up by us to represent a spinet tone and is used by Mr. Mahler in conducting to get certain effects with the orchestra.”

These “certain effects” were overall quite well received. There was of course some skepticism about the instrument among reviewers; one writer in Cleveland snidely suggested it should be relegated to the “junk pile.” But most were excited by the sound of the piano-harpsichord, describing it is an “extremely interesting novelty…the wiry twang of the harpsichord added a quaint touch which transported one instantly into another century” and “a masterstroke. As handled by Mr. Mahler, it enhances the character of the work twofold.”

Willem Mengelberg
Willem Mengelberg

The use of the imitation harpsichord did not fade with Mahler’s death. Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, a devotee of Mahler’s, featured the instrument in a number of 1921 Baroque music concerts with New York’s National Symphony Orchestra. And in 1925, as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he conducted Bach’s Double Violin Concerto from the “piano-harpsichord.”

Mengelberg, it appears, caught the tack piano bug, continuing to use the modified piano when he eventually returned to The Netherlands. It can be plainly heard on his 1935 recording of the Bach Double Concerto with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam:

In the 1920s, imitation harpsichords must have been fairly common, at least in New York. Richard Aldrich, correspondent for the Times, practically complained that in one Philadelphia Orchestra concert the conductor, Leopold Stokowski, did not choose to get “near to Bach’s style” by using “a harpsichord or a modified piano to imitate the tone of a harpsichord.”

In The Romance of the Piano, a 1928 piano guide and history book, author Eric Blom even provided do-it-yourself instructions for creating a harpsichord sound, recommending “a grand piano may with little trouble be converted into a fairly good imitation harpsichord by covering the strings with a layer or two of newspaper.”

The Oratorio Society of New York employed a piano-harpsichord in their choral concerts for half the century. The practice was likely initiated by the friendship between Mahler and Frank Damrosch, conductor of the Society in 1908 and 1909 when a modified piano appeared in their annual performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The Society continued to use the instrument regularly in performances of Bach and Handel through the 1950s.

Poster
Flyer for the 1946 Bach B minor mass performance of the Oratorio Society of New York. Posted with permission from the Oratorio Society of New York.

American composer Lou Harrison, who would go on to use tack piano in a number of his own compositions, complimented the use of the instrument in a 1945 Oratorio Society performance of Bach’s B minor mass, saying “it must be said that this is a happy substitute for that instrument [the harpsichord] when volume is required.” The piano-harpsichord can be heard giving a resonant harmonic foundation to the flute soloist and singers on this recording of the “Domine Deus” from the Oratorio Society’s 1947 B minor mass in Carnegie Hall:

Bach B minor Mass

Recorded in Carnegie Hall on March 25, 1947 with Alfred Greenfield, conductor, Frederick Wilkins, flute, Rose Dirman, soprano, Willard Young, tenor, Harrison Potter, piano-harpsichordist. Posted with permission from the Oratorio Society of New York.

Olin Downes, a rather cantankerous critic in that period, was an unapologetic convert to the instrument, at least in performances in large spaces. In the early 1940s, violinist Adolf Busch started a concert series featuring yearly performances of all of the Brandenburg Concertos, not unlike the Chamber Music Society’s holiday tradition today. In 1943, composer and pianist Lucas Foss took part in Busch’s series. He played the continuo part for the Third Brandenburg Concerto, “sensibly”—according to Downes—“on a modified piano and not a harpsichord, so that the instrument had weight enough for the tone to be perceptible and its rhythm to be pervasive in the performance.”

When he decided to use the instrument in his broadcast, Gould may or may not have known the extent of the history behind the harpsipiano. Still, it was very much in line with his spirit of playfulness and experimentation that he decided to teach and perform the music of Bach from an imitation harpsichord. The resulting recording of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto is spectacularly original. We hear the “pervasive rhythm” and “weight” described by Downes, but also a certain expressive vibrancy that was the unique capacity of this beloved Bach interpreter.

Before presenting the concerto, Gould describes what he thinks Bach aims to communicate in his music: a certain “joyous essence of being.” Indeed, in this performance, Gould manages to create a powerful sense of a musical present, where modern and more ancient sounds are artfully combined to help an audience to arrive at the transcendent joy found in Bach’s timeless compositions.

Hear the piano-harpsichord at the Chamber Music Society in performances of the complete Brandenburg Concertos, December 13, 15, and 17.

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Article by Nicky Swett, temporary editorial manager.

To learn more about Mahler’s tack piano tour, check out Mary Wagner’s book, Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra Tour America.

Special thanks to Marie Gangemi, John Michel, and Kathleen Sabogal for their research assistance.