Clavichord made in 1999 by Keith Hill Opus 333 after the 1748 Frederici
Over the last 43 years, I have made 57 clavichords. Yet, of all the keyboard instruments I have made, it was the search for how to make a good clavichord that was the most elusive. One would think all you have to do is make a rectangular box, insert a keyboard, soundboard and strings, then add the tangents and you have a clavichord. Its a nice thought as long as you don't care a whit how the result sounds or plays. When I play the antique clavichords, I am struck by how sophisticated they sound and play, especially the "Bauerninstrumenten", clavichords made in the winter by farmers to keep themselves occupied. The same cannot be said of most clavichords made since 1900 as their effect is decidedly underwhelming. They either sound like a box of rubber bands and feel squishy, like playing on sponges, or they sound like a bad harpsichord with almost no sound and what sound there is has no dynamic properties.
At their very best, clavichords should have the sound of thought. If this idea is new to you, focus for a while on your own thoughts and calculate how "loud" they are. Thought sounds extremely intense when empassioned with meaning. Thought ranges in volume from the faintest whisper to the loudest conceivable energy level. It is a paradox because the clavichord is almost dismissively soft even when played loudly...but then, as you will have concluded from your brief experience with thinking this way, only we alone can hear our own thoughts. Thought changes in affect according to what is being thought about, and sings irrepressibly when moved by love or enchantment. It is for this reason that I place the quality of being enchanting as foremost of all qualities that a clavichord should have. Though not always an obvious quality, enchantment has the power to make us want to play the instrument every time we come near the instrument...like a subtle compulsion.
The touch on the best clavichords I have played feels to the fingers like molding stiff yet flexible modeling clay...it yields to the fingers by assuming the shape one molds according to the gestures intended by pushing gently but firmly. The key, not to make a pun, is the word intended. The clavichord, in my view, is an intention training instrument. The problem with most pianos, harpsichords and organs, whether mechanical or electronic, is that the sound emitted is prefabricated, which almost always encourages a kind of mindlessness in the people who play them...a sort of "let your fingers to the walking" unintentional "note punching" behavior. The effect of such note-punching is not at all musical, but forced, insensitive, crass, and cretinous.
The clavichord, it seems, is the only remedy against the tendency towards "diarrhea of the fingers" because as soon as you unintentionally touch a note on a superior clavichord, the clavichord spits that note back at you in no uncertain terms. That spitting or chucking only occurs on the best instruments. Avoiding that effect requires total attention to and intention to have the note, and only the note, you want to sound without the spit-back. Allow your mind to wander even for a second and the clavichord spits your unintended note back at you. This is the reason why the clavichord was essential for training keyboardists, for longer than the piano has been an established fact. It behooves us to remember that some the greatest composers from 1600 to about 1820 got their initiation into the realm of musical thought by learning to play on clavichords as children.
Clavichord made in 2015 by Keith Hill Opus 473 after HUbert
If the touch is too squishy, because the instrument is either understrung or the keys are improperly balanced, the sound wanders wildly out of tune. If the touch is too firm because the tangents are contacting the string too close to the hitchpins, or the balance points are too far forward, or the string tension is too high, then the notes can't be played without "chucking" or "spitting". This kind of touch is very off-putting. The ideal touch is one that trains the mind into a condition of total attentiveness and intentionality...however, if the player fails to intend every single note played, the keys should "chuck" or "spit" the sound back into the finger, but if the player diligently attends to and intends every note, then the keys need never spit or chuck. This is the reason why a good clavichord is the ideal instrument for learning to improvise...one's total state of mind is reflected back to the player. Thus, every keyboard player who has not mastered the craft of playing a real clavichord ought not consider oneself as a master keyboardist, however competently one has learned to note punch on other keyboard instruments, unless of course the business of intending and singing every note has been mastered without the benefit of such a clavichord, which sometimes though rarely happens.
I have focused on the issue of touch because the purpose of the clavichord and its touch are inextricably linked. The other half of the purpose is the sound. The most serious problem related to creating the sound is to maximize the tone whilst minimizing the impact noise of the clavichord tangent when it hits the string. The impact noise can in many instances overpower the tone of each note. Once you solve the problem of impact noise, the next problem to solve is how to get each and every note have a focused, singing, blooming, and deeply resonant sound. If the sound is too focused it turns thin and bright. If the sound isn't focused enough the pitch becomes indistinct and dull. A singing tone is an essential quality in the sound of a clavichord, but too sustained a sound turns mushy in fast passage work and a too dry sound doesn't feel like the instrument is singing. Bloom in a musical instrument is the same thing as inflection in human speech. Clavichords devoid of bloom sound like so much useless furniture. Finally, resonance is the culprit behind impact noise. The more deeply resonant the sound is the louder the impact noise tends to be. The trick is knowing how to optimize the depth and resonance of the sound and minimize the impact noise at the same time.
The central problem with making clavichords is that they require as much time to make properly as it takes to build a single manual harpsichord, but most players are unwilling to pay for a clavichord what they willingly will spend for a single manual harpsichord. The rationale being that you can use a harpsichord for playing continuo that can mean paid work, while the clavichord is mainly for the solitary player. The result is that makers who build clavichords rarely are properly compensated for the work of making one. Because my acoustical technology students are now making clavichords, I suggest that anyone interested in having a clavichord such as I might make for them instead order instruments from them.
Anyone interested to commission a clavichord from me should email me for the particulars at: firstname.lastname@example.org or may call me in the late afternoon to my cell phone: 734-395-8708