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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Anacrusis, Bebung, Clavicytherium

Basil Bunting on English metre: ‘There will always be subfamilies threatening to bud off the main rhythmic branches. The question is not whether these families can be said to exist at all; nor even whether they would conflict with others that are more prominent (such conflict is a component in musical interest, as basic to it as the conflict between bar division and melodic contour in Scarlatti)…’

Anacrusis. I’m surprised there isn’t a journal of post-avant poetics of that name; maybe there should be. Listening to Scarlatti’s sonata in D major, K. 96: his dithering over finishing it off, like Pozzo in Waiting for Godot wondering if he should sit down twice or not, but not dithering in that overexcited Romantic way (kick a perfect cadence a dozen times and it’s sure to lie down – it’s all your fault Beethoven), but in his unique, wobbling, 2-into-3, 3-into-2 Scarlattian way. It’s something he does all the time, not just at the end, as though he had musical cardiac arrhythmia.

Should Scarlatti be played on the piano? Maybe not, but Bach didn’t even use a harpsichord. He preferred the clavichord, for its capacity to alter the volume of a note even after it has been struck. The pitch of a note can be altered on a clavichord too, through a technique called ‘Bebung’, a word that crops up in the score of Chopin’s mazurkas.

Anyone familiar with Seán Ó Riada’s late harpsichord recordings should know that the instrument he used was in fact a clavicytherium, an upright harpsichord. The example he used is in Luggala, at the home of his good friend Garech de Bruin. Luggala, I remember you well. One can also be seen in Charles Jervas’s Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu with a Clavicytherium in the National Gallery in Dublin. And don’t ask me why the portrait of her, by him, in Dublin, that comes up on google has no vertical harpsichord in sight. Because it’s damn well there.

Scarlatti was a pioneer of cross-hand playing, a technique I believe he developed as his paunch ballooned at the Portuguese court, and rather than reach over it he sat an infanta on his knee and told her to play the high notes. Or at least that’s what he said to social services.

Someone once told me that Geoffrey Hill refused to give a first to an otherwise exceptional on Bunting's Briggflatts because it didn't contain any reference to the Scarlatti sonatas on the old LP of Bunting reading the poem. And quite right too.

Anacrusis. Bebung. Clavicytherium. Ah, the joys of the word hoard.

1 comment:

John said...

Do you make all this stuff up? It's genius!