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“Bach, Chopin, and the affordances of keyboard instruments during the long eighteenth century.”

Chapter in book
Authors Joel Speerstra
Published in Bach and Chopin: Baroque Traditions in the Music of the Romantics
Pages 265–282
ISBN 978-83-64823-92-3
Publisher Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina / The Fryderyk Chopin Institute
Place of publication Warsaw
Publication year 2019
Published at Academy of Music and Drama
Pages 265–282
Language en
Keywords Bach, Chopin, keyboard technique, materiality
Subject categories Music, Musicology

Abstract

When we use the term ‘keyboard technique,’ we generally simply mean the skills a performer develops in order to depress keys on a keyboard instrument. But there are many kinds of keyboard instruments. Not all organ actions are alike. Not all pianos are alike, or make the same demands of the performer. A clavichord demands an approach to tone production more like the piano than the harpsichord, but a resting of weight on the key after it is initially played that is more like what happens at the organ than either the piano or the harpsichord. And each individual example of any of these instrument types may demand something different of our technique as musicians. In fact, our keyboard technique always should develop in dialog with the instrument we have in front of us, what it ‘wants’ to do and what it ‘allows’ the performer to do. In this article, the theory of affordances developed by James Gibson in 1979 is used to explore how the dialog between a performer and an instrument is an embodied one, and this dialog may affect the creative process, and thus the resulting compositions themselves. Chopin could not finish composing his 24 Preludes Opus 28 on Majorca until his piano arrived, because he embodied his music in improvisation and in a dialog with the piano that was necessary for his compositional process. Some keyboard instruments are more demanding of our technique, and some less so. The article explores Bach’s keyboard technique at the clavichord, which, it is reported, forced performers to be more refined, but allowed them to be more directly expressive than at the harpsichord. A parallel is drawn to the instruments available to Chopin who preferred the Pleyel pianos even though they were more difficult to control, over the “ready-made” sound he could find in the Érards of his day.

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