Archived Voice Articles

One Week in October: Harpsichord Recital

With its lovely spruce sound board, its twenty-two carat gold leaf trim, and its bone keys, Dordt’s new harpsichord looks more impressive the closer you get to it. The sound is impressive from near or farther away. The audience was certainly impressed with its sound at the inaugural recital on the instrument held on Parents’ Weekend.

Dr. Robert Horton gave a masterful performance of pieces by Handel, Haydn, Telemann, and Bach, highlighting the sound and quality of the new instrument and playing more notes in one evening than anyone would want to count. He was joined by two Dordt College music faculty adjuncts, Stephanie Kocher on flute and Eunho Kim on violin.

Playing a harpsichord is different from playing a piano.

“It can’t be muscled,” says Horton. “You need to let the instrument do its work. Playing is a partnership.” On a harpsichord the sound comes at the top of the key as it moves down; on a piano the sound comes once the key is all the way down. Playing harder does not create more sound, so performers must fill out the texture of the music by improvising a swirling texture of rolls, ornaments, and strums.

The new harpsichord replaces an older instrument that was built during the harpsichord revival in the 1960s and constructed more like a piano. Today’s instruments are made more like the harpsichords of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Horton says. With their lighter frames, today’s instruments create fuller, better sound.

“You don’t need heavy woods because the harpsichord doesn’t need to sustain the same tension that a piano does,” says Horton. Newer models, such as the one the Dordt music department recently commissioned from Dr. Adam Decker of Atlanta, do not dampen the sound, but let it sing. In addition to spruce, the instrument uses pear, basswood, and oak. In traditional fashion, the Dordt harpsichord is painted with a pigment used during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is banded with 22-carat gold leaf and uses patches of “Dutch gold,” natural unfinished wood that looks almost like gold leaf from a distance and was used especially in the Flemish court.

The new harpsichord is much more sensitive to humidity and must be kept in climate controlled areas, but it is used for piano lessons. The instrument needs to be played regularly, and both students and faculty have regular access to it.