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Do you know what a harpsichord is?

Published: 17 August 2018

Do you know what a harpsichord is?

Don’t worry; you’re not alone if you’re struggling. But if you are a fan of the harpsichord – or if you want to find out more – then Auckland Libraries has an event for you.

The harpsichord was the most popular keyboard instrument for centuries before being usurped by the piano. Now, music fans have a rare chance to attend a harpsichord concert – including hearing 17th century compositions pulled straight from an original 1697 music book, The Harpsichord Master.

We sit down to chat with harpsichord master Robert Petre, who discovered the book.

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Robert Petre playing the Harpsichord at the St Lukes NZ Barok concert 

First off, what can you tell us about the harpsichord?

Where to start? Worse ... where to stop?!

The harpsichord has a vast and wonderful repertoire. It’s the instrument that Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, Rameau ... even Haydn and Mozart wrote their keyboard music for. 

The piano gradually replaced it during the 19th century – the main difference between the two is while with the piano the strings are hit by hammers, on the harpsichord the strings are plucked by quills.  

And what can you tell us about The Harpsichord Master and its history?

It’s an early form of music tutor book, originally written by English composer Henry Purcell – incredibly the book Auckland Libraries has is the only surviving copy in the world.

The book would have been bought by people learning to play the harpsichord, and also by their teachers. For most educated people then, learning music was a normal skill to be acquired, like reading, writing, horse-riding, dancing and so on.

Because of this, these books were also where the popular hit tunes of the day were published. There was a whole series of The Harpsichord Master after 1697 – a new book every year or so with the latest pop songs of the time!

When did you first come across the book?

It had been donated to the library back in 1937, but hadn’t been paid much attention since. I stumbled across it in 1977 when I was a student at Auckland University and working part-time as the Rare Book assistant in the Central Library. I managed to identify how rare it was and got very excited!

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The harpsichord master

What do we know about the author, Henry Purcell?

A lot! Probably the greatest English composer ever, in the opinion of many – I put him up there with Handel and William Byrd. Like Mozart, he died tragically young, in his 30s, but had still managed to compose several superb operas, choral music, theatre music and some wonderful harpsichord music too. 

Does The Harpsichord Master tell us anything about how the instrument was played 300 years ago?

The book does give incredibly valuable insight into how keyboard instruments at that time were played – the technique needed is quite different to the technique for the modern piano.

For example, one of the pieces in the book – titled Prelude for the Fingering – is a bit of a mystery to someone coming new to the harpsichord, because the fingering Purcell gives seems counter-intuitive, or just plain wrong! 

Finally, when did you start learning the harpsichord yourself?

I started playing the harpsichord seriously in about 1976, only a year before I came across the book – and which of course is why I found it so interesting.  Before that I had completed a degree in piano performance at Victoria University, where the Music Department owns a wonderful original English harpsichord from the mid-18th century. I was able to play it, and realized that the music I loved most, by Bach, Purcell and Scarlatti, made much more sense played on the instrument it was written for, rather than one that was not invented till a century later.

The Harpsichord concert on Thursday 23 August is part of Auckland Libraries Spring Heritage concerts where libraries collaborate with musicians to celebrate the heritage nature of our collections.

Find out more about The Harpsichord Master here.