Gavin Black, head of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center, has a collection of close to a dozen instruments — including harpsichords and clavichords — that have met stringent standards.
Since Black demands both an inherently pleasing sound and expressive possibilities, he says hundreds of instruments have failed to qualify.
But he also says he has a favorite: a 17th-century Italian harpsichord of uncertain origin by an anonymous maker. He has selected that instrument for a performance of early baroque music on Friday, January 23, at 8 p.m. in Princeton’s Christ Congregation Church on Walnut Lane. The event is the second of a series of five Friday night concerts. Remaining concerts take place in February, April, and May.
In concert Black prefers a 17th-century instrument for 17th-century music. “Using an appropriate instrument is important to me historically. The music doesn’t necessarily sound bad on a later instrument, but to me, it is like a transcription,” he says.
The January program focuses on music by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1563-1643) and Bernardo Storace, who flourished a generation after Frescobaldi’s death. Black, a devotee of paradox, says, “the two make an interesting contrast. Frescobaldi was the undisputed leading keyboard composer of the 17th century. He was a rock star. About Storace little is known. Only one volume of his work is extant. It was published in 1664.”
The single source of Storace information is the title page of his only known publication, which came out in Venice. It mentions his serving the court of Messina, in Sicily. Unfortunately, earthquakes devastated Messina twice, and archival research is out of the question.
“I find Storace’s music as worthwhile as Frescobaldi’s,” Black says. “It is interesting to meditate about the contrast between fame and intrinsically musical qualities. People who hear Storace’s pieces are manifestly impressed.”
Black talks about performance in the current home of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center at Christ Congregation Church, a square room that measures about 13 feet on each side. Fitted into the space are five instruments: three harpsichords and two clavichords. They are either period instruments or copies of period instruments.
Black’s additional instruments are on loan to students or in storage rooms, some of which are climate-controlled. “Harpsichords are robust instruments,” Black says. “Some have lasted in the equivalent of a garage for 300 years. But it’s not desirable to store them in outdoors-like spaces.”
The range of the instruments at the Early Keyboard Center varies, covering in the neighborhood of four octaves. Standardization was not a priority when these instruments first came into existence.
Two of the instruments — one harpsichord and one clavichord — have decorated cases. The others are painted in solid colors. The decoration of old keyboard instruments, Black says, is a separate field of interest. We do not pursue it.
Instead, Black furnishes the reasoning that led several experts to identify the unsigned, undated instrument that is Black’s favorite. “The style is typical of Italian instruments of the 17th century. The construction and the layout of strings match what they did at the time. The decorative case might be 20th century. We could pull off a chip, and analyze it to determine the paint that was used, but we don’t want to pull off anything that hasn’t fallen off,” he says.
“This instrument becomes everybody’s favorite once they hear it,” Black says, as he plays brief musical passages. The sound rivets my attention. It is authoritative and compelling, rich in resonance. It lingers in the ear after Black stops playing. “I think that there are things about harpsichord sounds that are independent of the music and that have an emotional impact on the listener,” he says.
“Perhaps this specific harpsichord has more impact than others. If an instrument has an intrinsic built-in emotional sound, its nature and the emotional content of the music must line up with each other and help each other. All the instruments I have sound suitable for what they play. But if I could have only one instrument, this is the one I’d choose.” The sound makes the small space in which we meet seem irrelevant.
For sonic contrast Black plays the first harpsichord he acquired, a copy of a Flemish instrument from about 1600. Compared to the anonymous Italian instrument, it sounds restrained and somewhat professorial, bringing to mind the difference between having dinner with a lover and dining with one’s grandfather.
The Early Keyboard Center moved to Christ Congregation Church in May. “The honest story is that we moved because we needed to save on rent,” Black says. “I don’t want to conceal anything. I’m proud of doing a lot on a little money. We’re saving about $1,000 a month.”
Gavin is pleased with the new quarters. “When we look through the picture window here, we can see squirrels and rabbits,” he says. “We casually see people in the church. They’re glad to have us here.” The Keyboard Center has had two previous locations, both in Princeton. For 14 years it was located on Witherspoon Street. Originally its home was a third-floor apartment on Nassau Street in the private house of owners who cared about early instruments.
Black was born in 1957 in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of two Yale law professors.
“At eight in New Haven I started piano lessons. For reasons I don’t remember and can’t reconstruct, I was drawn to baroque music. The husband of my piano teacher built a harpsichord from a kit. It was a big, elaborate-looking instrument that sat in the dining room. No one was allowed to touch it. I never heard it. It was enticing. I spent the next 50 years overcoming its unavailability.”
Black’s path to mastering the harpsichord began with learning to play a tracker organ at age 11 and formal organ lessons starting at 15. “Tracker organs and harpsichords are similar in touch, responsiveness, and musical results,” he says. Tracker organs respond immediately when a key is depressed, in contrast to electro-pneumatic organs, where there is a delay between key depression and the resulting sound.
“Through high school I knew that I wanted to play harpsichord,” Black says. “My parents were willing to get one. We drove all over Connecticut looking, but I never found one with the sonority and emotional capacity that I dreamed of. My idea of how a harpsichord should sound was based on the Yale collection of baroque instruments and listening to records.”
Enrolled at Princeton, Black took off 15 months between his sophomore and junior years to practice organ and investigate harpsichords. After his return he heard a harpsichord made by Michigan-based instrument maker Keith Hill and acquired by a Princeton friend. “When I heard it in his dorm room I knew that it had the sound that I was looking for,” he says. Black ordered his own instrument from Hill. It is one of the undecorated instruments presently housed at Christ Congregation Church.
“The first day we had the harpsichord in my house was during the summer vacation when I was 21, and I hired a grad student from Yale to tune the instrument. I paid $35 and realized that I had to learn to tune the harpsichord and how to take care of it.”
“There’s no such thing as not being able to tune a harpsichord,” Black says. “You have to know how to listen for the beats of an untuned note. It takes 5 to 15 minutes to learn. When the beats disappear, the note is in tune.”
I master this quickly.
I have brought to the interview a copy of the Bach Toccata in D Minor (BWV 913) that I have been working on using a Steinway piano. Black lets me try it out on the Hill harpsichord, and I am struck by the feeble increase in volume that occurs in places where I can produce a sizable crescendo on the piano. He plays the same chunks of the toccata and achieves a solid crescendo. Black knows the toccata well, having played it on the Hill instrument in 1980 in the first harpsichord recital he gave.
He goes on to talk about interpretation on the harpsichord, where timing is the equivalent of an increase in loudness at the piano. A pause of the right length at the harpsichord makes a note sound louder than the preceding note. However, getting the nuances right for the harpsichord requires meticulous listening and careful judgment.
“There’s such an intense relationship between expressiveness and sonority on the harpsichord that I can’t decide how I’m going to play until I hear what happened,” he says. “Sound has a shape to it. There’s a crisp attack, a note grows, and then decays. You have to listen for implications of that shape for the music you’re playing. Instead of a diminuendo on descending sequences, for instance, you get successively slower on the harpsichord. It’s subjective. If your playing sounds disruptive to the listener, you’re doing too much.”
Black offers all those interested in trying his instruments to contact him by E-mail: email@example.com.
Friday Night Concert Series:
Music of Frescobaldi, Storace, and other early Baroque composers, Christ Congregation Church, 50 Walnut Lane, Princeton, January 23, 8 p.m., Free.
Music of Sweelinck, English virginalists and other northern European composers, Christ Congregation Church, 50 Walnut Lane, Princeton, February 27, 8 p.m., Free.
Clavichord music from several countries, Christ Congregation Church, 50 Walnut Lane, Princeton, April 10, 8 p.m., Free.
Music of Bach, Froberger, Kuhnau, and other German composers of the high Baroque, Christ Congregation Church, 50 Walnut Lane, Princeton, May 8, 8 p.m. Free. 732-599-0392 or www.pekc.org.