The Clavichords of Haydn and C.P.E. Bach


Dr Charles Burney paid a visit to C.P.E. Bach and his family on the 12th October 1772.  Burney's description of Bach's clavichord playing on this occasion is well-known, but it will do no harm to quote from it here:


          M. Bach was so obliging as to sit down to his Silbermann clavichord and favourite instrument, upon which he played three or four of his choicest and most difficult compositions... In the pathetic and slow movements, whenever he had a long note to express, he absolutely contrived to produce, from his instrument, a cry of sorrow and complaint, such as can only be effected on the clavichord, and perhaps by himself.


          After dinner... I prevailed upon him to sit down again to a clavichord, and he played, with little intermission, till near eleven o'clock at night. During this time, he grew so animated and possessed, that he not only played, but looked like one inspired.  His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance. He said, if he were to be set to work frequently, in this manner, he should grow young again 


In another passage, Burney refers to the maker of this favourite clavichord:


          His great knowledge of mechanics, his originality and adequate means whereby he is enabled to maintain a permanent stock of good old timber, mean that all his instruments are extraordinarily beautifully and carefully made. The Hamburg Bach possesses one of the master's clavichords, which displays, besides its other per­fections, three virtues to be met with, perhaps, in no other clavichord in the world. First, it does not rattle, notwithstanding that it is almost thirty years old and that its owner has played myriads of notes upon it; second, it requires scarcely any tuning; and thirdly, its construction is such, that its tone sustains considerably longer than that of other clavichords, and all possible gradations of forte and piano may be performed upon it, and portamento and Bebung distinctly executed without extraneous noise.



Although this passage has the ring of authentic Burney, it apparently occurs only in the contemporary German edition, and may have been added by the translator, Christophe Daniel Ebeling who, as a Hamburg resident and friend of Bach, would have known the instrument well.


Burney is not the only writer to admire the Silbermann clavichord and Bach's performance on it. This is from Johann Friedrich Reichardt:


          Herr Bach plays not only a quite slow, singing adagio with the most touching expression... he also sustains in such a slow movement a note of the duration of six semiquavers with all the varying degrees of loudness and softness, and this in the bass as well as in the treble. This, however, is only possible on his very beautiful Silbermann clavichord for which he has especially written some particular sonatas in which long notes must be sustained. The same is true of the extraordinary loudness which Herr Bach occasionally produces; it is the utmost fortissimo; another clavichord would fall to pieces; and it is again the same with the finest pianissimo which another clavichord could not produce at all. It is a pity that we have so few such outstanding instruments and that the organ and instrument makers of today are not equal to the art of that skilful man [at this point I should make it clear, I think, that I am still quoting the words of Johann Friedrich Reichardt]. The newly invented instruments with six and twelve stops are only cobblers' patches and children's toys when compared to a Silbermann clavichord.


This Silbermann clavichord must have been something of a phenomenon in its day.  Apparently it had, to a high degree, certain tonal qualities which were sought-after in a clavichord:  sustaining power, allied to a wide dynamic range.  By implication, many other instruments fell short of this ideal.


Now, there are a number of questions about this celebrated instrument which call for an answer:


          – Which member of the Silbermann family was the maker?


          – What was the instrument like? Was it, for example, fretted or unfretted? What was its compass?


          – And why did Bach sell it in 1781 – nine years after Burney's visit and seven years before his own death – to Dietrich Ewald von Grotthuss? – a transaction which inspired the beautiful 'farewell' rondo.


As far as we know, only two members of the Silbermann family made clavichords. Firstly, there is Gottfried Silbermann of Freiburg in Saxony, famous throughout Germany as an organ builder, and also as the inventor of the cembal d'amour and a pioneer of the early pianoforte. The other possible candidate is his nephew Johann Heinrich Silbermann, who studied with his uncle before setting up as an instrument maker in Strasbourg.  These two are frequently confused, I'm sorry to say, by makers and buyers of clavichords, but it's worth remembering that they were of quite different generations.  Gottfried was almost an exact contemporary of Bach's father, J.S. Bach, whereas Johann Heinrich was 44 years his junior, and younger, in fact, than C.P.E. Bach himself.


Now, if the clavichord had been in Bach's possession for "almost thirty years" as Burney states – and this is confirmed by a note made by Grotthuss when he received the clavichord from Bach – it could not have been made any later than the mid-1740's.  At that time Johann Heinrich would have been a young man of only 18 or so: rather early in life for him to have become established as an independent instrument maker.  Moreover Reichardt, in the passage I quoted a moment ago, clearly implies that the maker of Bach's clavichord was of an earlier generation, not a contemporary like Johann Heinrich.  It seems almost certain, therefore, that the maker of Bach's instrument was Gottfried Silbermann.


It is, of course, surprising that Burney speaks of him in the present tense, since at the time of his German tour Gottfried had been dead for 19 years, and Ebeling, if not Burney himself, would surely have been aware of this: but news travelled slowly in the eighteenth century, and perhaps even then there was a tendency to confuse the identities of these two Silbermanns.


Having established that Gottfried was the likely maker, how wonderful it would be if we could refer to clavichords made by him, to establish the compass and other technical features of Bach's instrument. Sadly, none survive, at any rate no genuine ones.  There are at least six surviving clavichords attributed to Johann Heinrich Silbermann: these cannot tell us directly about the nature of Bach's instrument, but they may represent a later stage in the tradition which produced it.  I'll come back to this is a moment.


In the absence of actual instruments, what other clues do we have as to the nature of Bach's clavichord?  It is often assumed that it must have been a big five-octave unfretted one, but this is not necessarily so. Such instruments were indeed made in the 1740's, but fretted clavichords with a smaller compass would have been far more common. C.P.E. Bach himself says in his Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments – the famous Versuch – that "in addition to a lasting, caressing tone" (note that emphasis, once again, on sustaining power) "[a clavichord should have] the proper number of keys, extending at the very least from the great octave C to the three-lined e". 


Admittedly, this was published in 1753, nearly twenty years before the date of Burney's visit: but in fact much of Bach's solo keyboard music will fit into this C–e3 range.  The "Farewell" Rondo – which was presumably meant to be played on the clavichord which inspired it – appears to be an exception, since it requires one semitone lower, namely BB natural: however, since neither C natural or C# are required, either of these notes could be tuned down in order to play the rondo.  And Grotthuss's cheerful companion piece, Joy on receiving the Silbermann clavichord, does seem to have been intended for a clavichord with a compass of C–e3, limits which it touches several times but does not exceed.


What about fretting?  In his prescriptions in the Versuch, Bach does not mention it.  It is a remarkable fact that, despite its adventurous modulations and extreme chromaticism, there is nothing in the Rondo or Grotthuss's response which cannot be realised on a clavichord which is diatonically fretted on the usual German system. I have not been able to examine all Bach's keyboard works, but my impression is that the same applies to most of them.


It is therefore at least possible that Bach's famous Silbermann clavichord was a diatonically-fretted instrument of modest size, with a compass of four octaves and a major third.

In this case, though, how to explain those pieces which are undoubtedly clavichord music, but which go below bottom C?  An example is the well-known Free Fantasy in F# minor, the Empfindungen fantasy. 


Well, the Silbermann was not Bach's only clavichord.  From the inventory prepared by his widow, it appears that he owned two clavichords at the time of his death: one by Christian Ernst Friederici and one by Heinrich Wilhelm Jungcurth.  The likelihood is that these were five-octave unfretted instruments, like the fine example by Friederici in the Leipzig museum, and that he possessed at least one of them in 1781 when he disposed of the Silbermann.


Bach expressed his admiration of Friederici clavichords in a letter to Johann Nikolaus Forkel dated November 1773 – roughly a year after Burney's visit.  He said:


          I greatly prefer Friederici clavichords to those of Fritz and Hass because of their construction and the absence of octave strings in the bass, a thing I cannot bear.


Barthold Fritz and the Hass family were local Hamburg makers, whereas Friederici's workshop was at Gera in Saxony.  Those of you who have grown old with the BCS, so to speak, may remember one of our earliest meetings when John Barnes compared the clavichords of the Saxon makers with those made in Hamburg.  These are two distinct schools.  Some of the more obvious differences between them are listed on your handouts:  the Saxon instruments, for example, have plain wood cases with soundboard roses, whereas the Hamburg ones are painted and gilded and without roses.  More significantly, octave strings – which we know Bach disliked – are used on the Hamburg clavichords but never in the Saxon ones.  The most celebrated exponent – perhaps the creator – of the Saxon style, the man who trained Friederici, was Gottfried Silbermann himself. 


Now C.P.E. Bach, remember, was brought up in Saxony – in Leipzig – and it seems to me that he remained faithful to the Saxon type of clavichord all his life, disdaining the Hamburg product despite his long residence in that city.  His ownership of a clavichord by Jungcurth seems, at first sight, to contradict this, since Jungcurth was registered as a harpsichord maker in Hamburg: however, he was a Saxon by birth and (probably) by training, so I suggest that he may well have brought the Saxon style with him to Hamburg, where it would be natural for him to seek the friendship and patronage of his illustrious musical compatriot.  (Incidentally, a clavichord by this maker dated 1760 survived until 1885 when it was shown at The International Inventions exhibition in London, but it has – most frustratingly – never been heard of since)


The only thing that is slightly surprising about this conclusion that Bach's instrument was of Saxon type is the emphasis which the contemporary observers place on its sustaining powers.  John Barnes, in the discussion following his talk, suggested that the Saxon instruments were characterised by their quick response, whereas it was the Hamburg ones which had a really long-sustained tone.  Modern Hass copies – such as the one which will be used later today in Derek Adlam's recital – certainly don't seem lacking in sustaining power, or in any of the other qualities needed to perform Bach's music effectively.  It is interesting that most of the artists in Francis's survey of recordings – coming after this – chose Hamburg-style instruments.


Before I pass on to Haydn, what about the other question we posed earlier: why did Bach sell his beloved Silbermann in 1781?  We do not know; but maybe it was because the compass which seemed adequate in the 1750's, when the Versuch was published, was out of date by 1781. If Bach possessed other fine instruments of the type he admired (such as the Friederici) with a larger compass, he might have decided thetime had come to let his Silbermann go – to a suitably good home, of course.


Now to Haydn.  In the early 1750's, when Bach was writing his Versuch, Haydn, in his early twenties, was a freelance musician in Vienna.  Years later he recalled for his biographer Georg August Griesinger his unheated, leaky room and exiguous wardrobe, but declared:


          Sitting at my old worm-eaten clavichord, I did not envy any king his luck.


When later he entered the service of the Esterhazy court, at least two clavichords were at his disposal, and he must have used them during that great period of experimentation when he developed his keyboard idiom.  He certainly used a clavichord in his final, great composing period, after leaving full-time employment with the Esterhazys in 1790.


The clavichord of this late period has actually survived, and I shall describe it in a moment.  We know nothing about the early worm-eaten instrument, but it is most likely to have been a humble four-octave fretted one: commonplace, cheap and going out of fashion, the only kind of instrument which an impoverished musician could afford.


It is harder to be certain about the kind of clavichord Haydn would have used during his middle period at Esterhazy.  If we assume that it was a local product (rather than one imported from Saxony, Berlin or Hamburg) then we may get some clues from an anonymous clavichord which was sold here in London at Sotheby's auction rooms in 1993, which is one of the rare examples of a surviving Viennese clavichord of the mid-eighteenth century.  It is fretted diatonically, and for its compass, FF to f3 it is remarkably small: only just over 4 feet in length (which compares, for example, with the Leipzig Friederici which is 5 foot 8 inches long).  In part this is achieved by the use of the so-called 'Viennese' short and broken bass octave.  This arrangement of keys is found on harpsichords and pianos, as well as clavichords, made in Vienna before about 1775: your handouts have a diagram.  It saves a good deal of space because the lowest octave occupies the width of only four naturals rather than seven.  Haydn must have been familiar with the arrangement, since there are left-hand stretches in some keyboard works which cannot be played on any other keyboard: an example occurs, for example, in the Acht Sauschneider variations (no doubt Derek will cope with it admirably on a conventional keyboard). 


Interestingly, this clavichord has a scale which suggests the use of iron strings in the treble.  A description and photograph can be found in Richard Maunder's recent book Keyboard Instruments in Eighteenth-Century Vienna.

Unfortunately I cannot say anything about its tonal qualities:  the original is unplayable, and as far as I know no copies have yet been attempted. 


One clavichord almost certainly owned by Haydn has survived: this is the instrument dated 1794 by Johann Bohak in the Royal College of Music Museum here in London.  An interesting description and history of this instrument by John Barnes is contained in De  Clavicordio III.  It is an unfretted instrument with a full five octaves from FF–f3: no short-octave complications this time, but at 4 foot 10 inches long it is still quite compact for a five-octave instrument.  Once again, iron treble strings seem to have been intended: at least one other surviving Viennese clavichord had them, and so this may have been a distinctive feature of Viennese clavichords, compared with the Hamburg and Saxon ones which always seem to have had brass strings.


Unfortunately the Bohak clavichord underwent a drastic modernisation in the 1830's, so that it is impossible to be absolutely certain about some features of its original design.  In the circumstances, it was thought best not to attempt to restore it, so it remains unstrung and therefore unheard.  To judge from modern reconstructions, it might have had a sweet, quite long-sustained but not very strong sound.


I would suggest, though, that it is probably wrong to think of it as the one ideal medium for interpreting Haydn's clavichord music, as the Haydn clavichord.  He acquired it very late in his career, when his keyboard works were undoubtedly created with the English or Viennese fortepiano in mind.  The early days of feverish experimentation at the Clavier were over.  A clue to the way he used the clavichord at this time is given by his reported words on presenting the instrument – as a gift – to the young Demetrius Lichtenthal in 1803:


          Here I make you a present of this instrument for your boy... in case when he is older he should care to learn upon it. I have composed the greater part of my Creation upon it.


No doubt Haydn continued to play and improvise on the clavichord as he had done all his life, but I suggest the main use he had for it at this late date was as an aid to composing large works for voices and orchestra.  We must accept, I think, that by the 1790's the clavichord was no longer at the cutting edge of musical advance, as it had been at the time of C.P.E. Bach. 


How interesting it would be, though, to hear Haydn's keyboard music on a mid-eighteenth-century Viennese clavichord, like the one sold at Sotheby's in 1993.  So far as I am aware, no-one has yet tried to copy this kind of instrument.  I very much hope one of the 'instrument makers of today' will soon rise to this challenge.




Talk given by Peter Bavington to the British Clavichord Society meeting in London, 21 November 1998.