The harpsichord should have become a relic of history. Much smaller than the piano, the instrument produces its brittle sound by a string-plucking mechanism. Given second life by early music specialists in the 20th century, another sign of its revival comes Monday, when the Westfield Center for early keyboard studies hosts its first international harpsichord competition at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park.
While the competitors will play on modern reconstructions of historical instruments, a concert series at the National Museum of American History is featuring priceless historical instruments from the Smithsonian collection, including a 1620 Ruckers virginal. The museum’s Hall of Musical Instruments, which displays these and other precious bits of music history, will close in October for renovation.
An exquisite harpsichord built by Benoist Stehlin in 1760, one of only three Stehlin instruments surviving, was heard Sunday in a recital by Mitzi Meyerson, who is conducting master classes at the Westfield Academy. Meyerson holds the professorship of harpsichord and fortepiano at the Universitat der Kunste in Berlin, the first position of its kind when it was created for legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in the early 20th century. The prospects for young harpsichordists today are quite different from when Meyerson was making her name, she says. “I feel sorry for my students now,” she says, “because the whole scene has changed so much. There was the excitement of discovery when I was starting,” as the early music movement started to gain steam in the early ’80s. Meyerson smiles at the memory, adding, “It was like a love affair.”
Kenneth Slowik, the curator of the Division of Culture and the Arts at the National Museum of American History and the jury chair for the competition, agrees. “The world of early music has changed dramatically since it first began to really expand and blossom in the late 1960s and early ’70s,” he said. “Those were heady times, with many new discoveries: newly restored instruments, newly read treatises, new repertoire and new ways of handling the ‘traditional’ baroque repertoire.” Now, with so many harpsichordists having made so many recordings, there is the sense that little remains to be discovered. Combined with cuts in government arts funding in Europe and elsewhere, often so crucial for early music specialists, fewer opportunities are available.
Meyerson describes the frank discussion she has with each harpsichord student she takes on. “If the harpsichord is one of two things that you have going on,” she says ruefully, “you should go with the other thing, because this career is a heartbreaker.” Shaking her head, she asks, “Why would anyone want to study this dinosaur art?”
One of this year’s competitors, Francis Yun, 29, is more optimistic. He started playing the piano at age 7 and did not take up the harpsichord until he was 25. It is becoming easier for him to switch between the two, but he admits that it is difficult because they are so different. He was attracted to the instrument because of the repertoire. “I love Bach, and it is great music, but there is so much earlier than him, so many great composers, and so much variation in how to interpret the same music. With the piano, the standard interpretation is often so clear, so widely accepted, but not so with earlier music.”
He encountered some skepticism when he took up the older instrument. “A lot of musicians and peers asked, ‘What are you going to do with the harpsichord?’ And I would respond, ‘What are you going to do with the clarinet?’ In other words, I think the chances are about the same.” In fact, according to Yun, there are even more ensemble performance opportunities when you can play the harpsichord. “I actually see a bright future ahead,” he says.
This is Yun’s first harpsichord competition, and he says he decided to compete mostly for the chance to meet other young harpsichordists. “I will play, but I am also here to listen to the other musicians,” he said. “I just want to hear as much as I possibly can. Obviously I want to play to the best of my abilities, but my real goal is to learn and listen.”
Twenty-five harpsichordists, all younger than the cutoff age of 35, from Russia, Estonia, China, South Korea, Japan, Finland, Germany, France, Spain, Canada and the United States will compete. Based on their performances in three rounds, winners will receive four awards ranging in value up to the first prize of $7,500. Those who hear both sessions of the competition’s final round next Saturday can vote to determine the recipient of the Audience Prize, worth $1,000.
Downey is a freelance writer.
Monday through Aug. 18 at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park. All rounds are free to the public. For information, go to