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The Impermanence of Obsolescence: Performance Practice Challenges in Works Written for Revival Harpsichord

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posted on 2021-11-22, 23:15 authored by Zuelicke, Kristina

The revival harpsichord leads a double life today—enjoying a small fan base on the edge of obsolescence. Most regard the instrument as a twentieth-century foil to the more historically-oriented harpsichords that replaced them by around the mid-1970s. But they are also valued for the repertoire they inspired during the first seventy or so years of the twentieth century, along with their unique capabilities and signature sound. From mid-century onwards, when historical harpsichords began to gain a wider acceptance, revival harpsichords were derided as representing a false notion of teleological progress. Piano building technologies partially adapted to the construction of revival harpsichords have required compromises that ignore basic laws of the physics of sound—including the differences between plucking a string and striking it with hammer. The ontology of a harpsichord type that is piano-informed has led to a widespread conclusion that revival harpsichords are a mistaken concept and are unsuitable even for many of the compositions written for them. The common practice today is to adapt works written for revival harpsichord to historical harpsichords.  Limited attention has been given to revival harpsichords in recent academic literature. While mention is made of their historical significance, a current evaluation of the instruments and treatment of revival repertoire has been lacking. This dissertation seeks to critically assess instruments and repertoire by examining perspectives of authors, builders, performers, composers and critics, addressing current issues in performance practice such as the impact of changing instrumentation from revival to historical models. A case is made for valuing revival harpsichords on their own merits as well as applying first-hand knowledge of revival harpsichords to performances of revival repertoire on historical models. This methodology is supported by interviews conducted specifically for this dissertation, playing different revival models and in presenting information neither widely available nor understood, such as a picture of the current availability of revival instruments and details of their restoration.  This dissertation contributes to an understanding of revival harpsichords and their repertoire by, firstly, providing up-to-date information on the nature and history of the instrument, as well as highlighting the existence of many revival models, rather than accepting the notion of one standard type. Secondly, revival harpsichord reception is examined within a context of the changing purposes of harpsichord construction after 1889. Lastly, a selection of relevant repertoire is investigated, including Erik Bergman’s 1970 Energien for solo harpsichord (a critical edition of which also forms part of the Appendices), Darius Milhaud’s 1945 Sonata for Clavecin (or Piano) and Violin, op. 257, and Peter Child’s Concerto for Harpsichord and String Quartet (2005), which was written for an Eric Herz revival harpsichord.  A tradition already exists of compromising over and discussing which historical harpsichords to use for early music repertoire that spans centuries and the building practices of different geographic regions. This dissertation explores the extent to which revival harpsichords are indeed easily replaced by historical models for revival repertoire, or whether it is sometimes best practice to consider performing these works on the instruments for which they were originally conceived. Alternatively, the performer of a revival work may choose to take certain features of revival instruments into account in developing a performance interpretation on a historical model. Factors hindering performance on historical harpsichords can include performance practice challenges and controversies that arise when transferring pieces to these instruments. Some works defy straightforward alteration and require extensive editing, whereas others are more easily accommodated. Through an examination of repertoire in performance, interviews, and changes in the reception and use of revival harpsichords, this dissertation considers the position and relevance of revival harpsichords today.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Musical Arts

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

New Zealand School of Music


Owens, Samantha; Mews, Douglas