An Interview with Clavichordist Richard Troeger
(reproduced from CLAVICHORD INTERNATIONAL, November 1999):


Koen Vermeij: What was your musical training?

Richard Troeger: The whole route, from childhood lessons to a doctorate in music, with a lot of performance experience and musicological study along the way. I was largely self-taught on the harpsichord from age 12 until University (I left my piano teacher at 11), and I have never had a clavichord teacher. These were my primary keyboard instruments from very early on; in my twenties I added the fortepiano.

KV: When and how did you first meet the clavichord?

RT: I learned of the clavichord when I was ten years old and exploring early keyboard music. I built myself an instrument shortly afterward from parts supplied by a California builder and obtained a much better instrument from Ron Haas about two years later--and he's built me several since. So I have been playing the clavichord nearly all of my life.

KV: What does the clavichord mean for your musical life?

RT: I would say it is fundamental. I perform on the clavichord, harpsichord, and fortepiano. Earlier in my life I gave more harpsichord recitals than anything else, although I have always cultivated the three instruments side-by-side. In the last fifteen years I have given even more stress to the clavichord, although I have always offered it in recitals whenever possible. Presenters often opt instead for the harpsichord, of course. One of my earliest public performances, in school at age 16, was on the clavichord. I played an all-Bach program--a French Suite, the 15 Inventions, a Fantasia. I'm glad to say my classmates were very responsive! In programs I like sometimes to play the clavichord with harpsichord or fortepiano. When presenting the complete WTC 2 I have sometimes played the second of three programs on the clavichord; more recently, I've offered the whole work on the clavichord.

KV: What are your favorite clavichord types?

RT: It is my impression that there may be more varieties of clavichord than of any other keyboard instrument. Basically, I prefer each to itself, and in its own function. I like many kinds of clavichord and do not have an inherent preference for fretted or unfretted designs. Whatever the design, I like a clavichord that allows a wide range of effects. One can play the clavichord like a harpsichordist, mainly in terms of articulation and the basic tonal clarity. But what I think fascinated the players of bygone times was the incredible variety of expression allowed by the natural clarity combined with many variations of dynamics and color. An interpretation can build up in so many layers of shading, coloring, and effect (all with pellucid textural clarity) that a pianist would be envious.

What I look for is a tone that allows varied coloring and articulation and what I call "layering" of dynamic levels: to be able to inflect within each of several different overall levels. I like an easy touch, but my own instruments generally have a demanding action--the price for the kind of sensitivity I'm looking for, I suppose. I am not interested in a fundamentally dry sound, but a clear tone that can be manipulated, especially with a vocal, "liquid" quality: something sustaining and with a rhapsodic element. Those ecstatic descriptions we have from the later eighteenth century seem to suggest that kind of quality and there's no other instrument that can provide it. Models from the early eighteenth century and before can have this quality as well, of course. It is nice when a clavichord is loud, especially for public concerts, but for me it is more important to have a wide dynamic palette within whatever the "absolute" limits are. Some clavichords only resonate well in the middle of their ostensible dynamic range. Naturally, carrying power is more important than volume. I listened to my wife (organist Paulette Grundeen) play an original Hass on the stage of a small auditorium. Standing back, I found that it had a much wider range of timbral effects than up close: the soundwaves did strange and wondrous things across twenty feet or so, in addition to carrying extremely well. I should mention also a fine Friederici copy by Paul Irvin (Chicago) that I played in recital a few years ago. It filled a large, crowded room and carried all the way to the back, I'm told. Certainly it sounded loud and full up close, but it had such integrity to the sound that it reached out very well. That is what is important.

To answer, in part, more particularly--I am very fond of the short-octave German and Swedish seventeenth/early eighteenth-century clavichords; the mellow-toned Iberian instruments are also fascinating. There are many approaches to the seventeenth-century short-octave design, with significant variations in details of bridge, bridge/hitchplank relationship, string sidedraft, ribbing, etc. I'm hoping these varieties (indeed, short-octave clavichords altogether) will get further attention from builders. (I recently examined Clavichord No. 6 in the Leipzig Collection, which is a superb instrument; I hope some makers will start to build on its model.) I like the J.H. Silbermann, Friederici, and Hoffmann unfretted designs. (The famous Dolmetsch/Chickerings of 1906-10 are near-copies of the 1784 Hoffmann at Yale, and quite similar to the other extant Hoffmann at Hatchlands. Some of these "D/Cs" are amazing instruments with a very big, splashy sound that can be lyrical or aggressive. I ended up making a comparative study of the Chickerings, noting the structural and tonal variations of so many instruments, made to the same basic design and over 90 years old. The information has come out in two articles, one of which has appeared in the second Magnano volume.) I've been a little late in coming to the Swedish types, but am enchanted by what the Specken and Lindholm designs can offer. Andrew Lagerquist of San Francisco has a deep interest in the Swedish clavichords and is a brilliantly skilled maker. His clavichord after Specken at the 1997 and '99 Boston Festivals drew a lot of interest, and he's now building clavichords after the 1806 Lindholm/Soderstrom at Finchcocks, one of which is for me. My own instruments are by Ron Haas, also of California, who makes superb harpsichords and clavichords. His clavichords are extremely sensitive and allow the kinds of shading I was trying to describe.

KV: What is your favorite clavichord repertoire?

RT: Like most players, I am in love with whatever I'm playing, medieval through 20th-century music. However, I have to give J.S. Bach first place here, as in music generally. For clavichord music I should also specify Haydn. I'm particularly fond of playing lute music on fretted clavichords of various kinds. Since I'm not a lutenist, this is the next best thing! I feel the two instruments have a great deal in common.

KV: Have you made clavichord recordings?

RT: Lyrichord Discs, in New York, has begun to issue all the major keyboard works of J.S. Bach, recorded by me on two clavichords by Ron Haas--fretted and unfretted instruments. This is of course the first integral Bach recording using the clavichord. It is time for the clavichord to be fully admitted to the Bach repertory and these performances are my statement on the subject. This has been for me a challenge, much work, and a delight. The first issue is the six Partitas, the first time the set has been recorded on the clavichord. The next issue will be of the seven Toccatas, which make wonderful clavichord music. This is not to say I do not also relish them on the harpsichord, of course. The point of the recordings, apart from making music, is to demonstrate that this music works, and very well, on the clavichord. Several colleagues who heard my session tapes shortly after they were made said "It's better than on the harpsichord!" and this of course pleased me enormously, because I often feel that way myself. I should add, perhaps, that the harpsichord-specific works--Parts 2 and 4 of the Clavierubung--I will of course play on the harpsichord.

KV: What are your feelings about the importance of the clavichord as a tutorial instrument?

RT: It cannot be overrated. It is important in many senses, not just for the basics, and its training goes on through a lifetime. However, some students are in love with the harpsichord per se rather than with the clavichord and harpsichord as an intertwined relationship--which is how I myself have always seen them. (That attitude was one of the motivating forces behind my book, Technique and Interpretation on the Harpsichord and Clavichord.) If students are willing, I prefer to begin with the clavichord, or with the two instruments more or less simultaneously. If they insist on the harpsichord, there's no use fighting the preference, but I sometimes can persuade them to the clavichord subsequently. I suppose one of the main points is that, on the clavichord, you have to listen to more in the music, and to what you are doing with it, than any other instrument requires. Also, having more nuances than any other keyboard instrument, it is the greatest spur to the imagination--and allows the most interpretive options. On this count, if nothing else, one can understand why C.P.E. Bach and others felt that the clavichord improves harpsichord playing. If all goes well, you end up communicating more, both to yourself and to the listeners, as a result of the dual experience. The same is of course true for playing the fortepiano in tandem with the clavichord. I played a recital at Cornell's C.P.E. Bach conference last February, and also gave a paper and masterclass and led a panel discussion on the role of the clavichord. In all of these, the relationship of clavichord technique to other instruments--regarding both technical and interpretive issues--came to the fore again and again. It is an utterly natural relationship.

For myself, the clavichord has taught me more about musical utterance than any other musical experience, although I rate singing and the performance of chamber music as crucial, too. One can take very little for granted on the clavichord and the player has to think out every element of the composition or improvisation.

KV: What led you to write the book?

RT: Time out from my dissertation, partly! My doctoral committee was very slow-moving, so I went on and drafted something completely different, which I expanded a little later. (In fact, the book appeared the week before I defended my dissertation!) As I said, it was partly a response to my tendency to see the harpsichord and clavichord as carrying on an important dialogue within the keyboard player's experience. The book is an examination, with references to source readings, of what I find, as objectively as I can, to be involved in expressing one's musical ideas in the terms that these instruments offer. To some degree, it was easier to write about the harpsichord in this way than the clavichord, because the harpsichord cannot juggle as many variables as the clavichord. It cannot add much in the way of touch-sensitive dynamics to the equation, so it can be discussed more thoroughly than the infinitely variable clavichord. I wrote the book years ago and I'm now revisiting that scene, because I'm preparing a new edition--with, I should say, a great deal more comment on clavichord playing than in the first version.

KV: How well-known is the clavichord in the USA?

RT: Probably not as generally well-known as in Europe but there is a core of enthusiasm. It seems to be even less well-known in Canada. I gave some clavichord broadcasts there on CBC Radio (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) when I taught at the University of Alberta. From those and public concerts I got the impression that this was rather new, certainly in western Canada. The response was certainly good. Audience members would come up after a concert on both harpsichord and clavichord and say something like "I came to hear the harpsichord, but the clavichord is so wonderful that it carried me away!" Toronto, in the east, has been fortunate in having Colin Tilney living there.

KV: Can you say there is a revival?

: Oh, certainly. Players and listeners are becoming more aware of the clavichord, that it played a fundamental role in the keyboard experience before (and occasionally after!) 1800. I had a lovely sense of context when I gave a recital on a cembal d'amour by Lyndon Taylor for the American Musical Instrument Society in 1998. Those listeners knew, in effect, what the derivation of this 9 1/2-foot monster is! Perhaps this kind of awareness will broaden.

The Magnano clavichord symposia and the growth of clavichord societies have been influential in America as well as in Europe. We are finally making headway on the point that the harpsichord and piano did not share a monopoly--that the clavichord was often the keyboard instrument of most widespread usage. In another realm: Oscar Peterson has made at least one jazz record using clavichord. A small "modern" instrument, but a clavichord nonetheless. I wish more of this sort of thing would happen.

KV: Do universities and conservatories or the Boston Clavichord Society play a role in the revival?

RT: The BCS is the only North American organization devoted exclusively to the clavichord; and it provides a forum, which is very important. I fear that universities and colleges rarely play much of a role--which is too bad, as the years there of course usually mark the end of formal training. I've heard of organ students being unwilling to practice on a pedal clavichord. The problem, naturally, is that someone wishing to make a career is under pressure to excel in the specifically concert-oriented activities. The clavichord not being primarily a concert instrument (as I often tell myself when walking out to give a clavichord recital), students and professionals are understandably reluctant to undertake study of so demanding an instrument whose direct role in their musical activities is likely to be limited. "Peripheral" study for a more rounded view is not, I feel, nearly so seriously regarded as it was two, three or more generations ago. A pianist like Claudio Arrau or, in a different sense, Donald Tovey, was willing to learn from the clavichord; Tovey owned the Edinburgh Hubert, as I recall. Like so many players, I was drawn to the music and its instruments at the same time because, need I say it, it seems only reasonable to perform on something that at least approximates what the composer would have known. I was astonished to find out later what resistance there is to this in "mainstream" areas. I have encountered many pianists who have no interest in how Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven sounded in their own experiences. In fact, they aren't usually even interested in recordings of early twentieth-century pianists, which I find to be a fascinating legacy.

KV: How has clavichord building developed in the USA?

RT: It has developed notably in the last ten or fifteen years, despite the comparative "slump" in the harpsichord market. Hugh Gough was of course one of the first major figures to work on historical lines. Ron Haas may have been the first American builder to make fretted clavichords. (He built his first fretted instrument in 1972). I think Cliff Boehmer, of Boston, was the first American to specialize in Hubert's style. Now we have a number of serious builders, building in a range of early styles.

KV: As President of the Boston Clavichord Society, what would you like the BCS to be?

RT: It has done wonderfully in its first few years: a newsletter (which includes very good articles, I think; we would welcome subscriptions--and articles--from other countries!), concert series, and a website in addition to many contacts. We would like to reach out further. I think it would be good if all the clavichord societies could establish more complete links, but I'm sure that will come. I love the bond that clavichordist enthusiasts so often feel, that of being united in a cause and in love for a very special musical experience.

Copyright 1999 by Het Nederlands Clavichord Genootschap, Gladiolenlaan 19, NL-2121 SM Bennebroek, The Netherlands

For BCS membership, contact The Boston Clavichord Society, P.O. Box 515, Waltham, MA 02254