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In this corner, the “Elephant in the Room Piano,” in a match-up with the Harpsichord

Why does it have to come to this? A pianist, with an esteemed reputation, does a rope-a-dope– then verbally assaults the harpsichord to aggrandize the piano.

Did Bach see this coming?

Andras Schiff took the defensive when asked to explain playing J.S. on the pianoforte. (The event took place in New York City under the lights)


Schiff could have made his case on its own merits, but instead, went quickly on the OFFENSIVE, taking jabs at the harpsichord, crowding the poor thing into a corner.

More rope-a-dope.

Bach would have been astonished to hear falsehoods proliferated about the sacred family of keyboard members. Why would the “greatest composer of all times” favor the clavichord (miniature) over the more developed harpsichord?

Wait! The Heavyweight made no bones about the harpsichord being weak on crescendos. For heaven’s sakes “it couldn’t even resolve appoggiaturas gracefully without a clunk, or a Baltic delay.” (The latter sounded like an elephant)

Enter Elaine Comparone, world-renowned harpsichordist, who refusing to be pinned to the ropes, mustered the strength of Sampson to put this one away!


“OK, I’ve stood by long enough…The elephant in the room has obviously not spent much time with a harpsichord, and why should it? It has enough clout to make it on its own!

“Now a couple of bad calls need correction!!! (She eyed the referee with suspicion)

“The clavichord was NOT JS’s ‘favorite instrument.’ It was CPE’s favorite. (Ref’s decision: Round One goes to the Harpsichord!)

“No source anywhere attests to the clavichord being JS’s favorite. Burney says the clavichord was Bach’s favorite, but he was talking about CPE whom he heard play.”

Is this a TKO? The Elephant never forgets. How could this fudge of names happen so early in the match?

“And by the way, the Elephant talks about pedal harpsichords as if they were all around—just one of the garden variety keyboards that people had hanging around. No. They were practice instruments for organists when you didn’t want to heat up a whole church or get a bellows boy. They don’t work very well as instruments sonically, even when you get somebody who pushes the idea and plays the thing in public. Maybe you can get away with it on a recording, but in person, the feet and all that plucking action drowns out the rest of the instrument.”

Amen to that. The Elephant had miss-characterized PEDAL harpsichords without justification!

“Oh and the Elephant in the room talks about the distortion that a lot of harpsichordists engage in to create the illusion of diminuendo on the second note of an appoggiatura.

“His demonstration was really exaggerated, but OK, in his defense, I’ve heard ungodly distortions from harpsichordists, so I’ll concede the second round to the elephant!

“But for those of us who play the thing, we know we have to create illusions of crescendo, diminuendo because the harpsichord can’t do it. But that much exaggeration is not necessary to create the illusion.”

She put it squarely back in the elephant’s corner! But he was slipping now.

Third round went to the Harpsichord!

“HE thinks that by not using pedal he’s being more authentic, I guess, or is he trying to use what he thinks the harpsichordist has at his/her disposal?”

Referee rules the elephant was impersonating the harpsichord and called a foul. Whoa! He’s breaking up the two. They’re in a clench.

“Look, he’s chosen the piano! It can do just about everything. And those of us who have a genuine appreciation of the harpsichord, it’s the quality of sound that the thing gets that we love. It’s an acoustical phenomenon that’s very different from the elephant in the room. He’s using an all-purpose instrument that’s very serviceable. He’s never even tried to create the illusions that a harpsichordist works on. It’s one of the most fun, challenging things about it.. Truly, we discover, there are other things besides crescendo and diminuendo. Really!!”

THAT DID IT. The Elephant couldn’t take another round of perfectly timed, well-placed body blows.

It was a KNOCK-OUT! The Ref called it a night!

Bach’s Music flowed from inspired words!

And Brandenburg 5 followed!


Important Links RE: Elaine Comparone and the Harpsichord


The Harpsichord has a new lease on life!



5 thoughts on “In this corner, the “Elephant in the Room Piano,” in a match-up with the Harpsichord”

  1. The elephant, let’s make clear, is not Schiff (the implications flatter the author, nor Comparone (whether it is she doing the talking or not) not at all). Are the “quoted” rebuttals all from Comparone? If so, it would be preferential to make this clear so that there is no confusion about who is talking.

    Let’s address, also, a few points made in the above commentary. For starters, Forkel, states quite clearly that the clavichord was Bach’s favorite instrument. This isn’t, as the quote here claims, a single instance that belongs to Charles Burney.

    It’s nice that you include a bit about pedal harpsichords, but in Schiff’s defense he does mention pedal harpsichords just after he mentions the organ and I don’t feel he’s made it seem as if the instrument were something of the garden variety.

    Clearly, by the speaker’s own admission with the usage of the phrase, “I guess”, the argument is not “won” in regard to pedal usage in Bach. Schiff, says nothing of a desire for authenticity in this regard. The speaker here further admits to guessing with the phrase “he thinks”, since one cannot truly know another person’s thoughts unless that person makes said thoughts available, but again Schiff says nothing of authenticity with regard to the pedal. He DOES, however, state his desire for clarity and it is clear that he feels usage of the pedal will do more harm to the line than anything else.

    In regard to the illusions that need be made when playing the harpsichord, Comparone (?) admits that it is a necessity… a fact that anyone familiar with the harpsichord knows. The example given by Schiff, is, yes, a bit of overkill, but when demonstrating things it’s often best to go to extremes to make a point so that said point is clear in your audience’s mind (not to mention the fact that you actually have to work at replicating a “harpsichordian appoggiatura” on the piano).

    All in all, quite obviously a slanted article that includes several surprising arguments, which are surprising because of their lack of substance (especially, if the arguments, as it seems to me, come from such a highly esteemed musician as Comparone).


    1. The “elephant in the room” was lifted from the moderator’s characterization of the piano, when he addressed the matter of playing Bach on the pianoforte with Andras Schiff. The latter, then provided a discourse on keyboard instruments and how Bach would have embraced the modern day piano based upon his relationship to the clavichord and harpsichord, pedal harpsichord, etc. That discussion invited comments. I would be in interested in the historical validity of the discussion, as for example was the clavichord JS Bach’s favored instrument, etc.


      1. and whether appoggiature have to be compromised to the exaggerated extent Schiff demonstrated, using the elephant in the room, so to speak, as his medium of communication. So far, I have not obtained enough proof of his statements about the harpsichord so I wanted another opinion. He did appear to be on the defensive in his discussion, and then he made numerous declarations that again invited comments as to their historic and musical validity. I’ve now listened to many harpsichordists of note play appoggiature and I’m not convinced of Schiff’s viewpoint.


  2. Do you play the harpsichord at all? To shape an appoggiatura, or even taper a phrase dynamically is quite impossible. It is only through use of exaggerated agogic that harpsichordists are able to give the illusion of these kinds of things. Try it for yourself.
    If you read Johann Forkel’s biography of Bach, you’ll find that he also states the clavichord to be Bach’s instrument of preference. I believe you ought to be able to find this on the internet, in fact.
    By the way, the “elephant” is the piano. I’m sure you’re aware of that, but I found it somewhat offensive that Schiff, seemed to be the elephant at times in the blog.


    1. I refer you to the execution of appoggiature in Comparone’s performance as follows: (Interlude between Presto sections–with the meter change)

      no exaggeration of any kind.. and I will find other examples, I’m sure.

      Today, I listened to Landowska on her Pleyel. Her playing speaks volumes (pun intended about the capabilities of the harpsichord, through pure artistry)

      From what I understand Schiff commented on 72 minutes of Harpsichord playing as being too much. And another poster, turned that statement around.


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