Silbermann’s silvery clavichord sounds

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach – People and Places

C. P. E. Bach began his musical career as harpsichord player of the court. Before the introduction of the pianoforte in the 1740’s, the harpsichord was considered the main key instrument for chamber music. Its disadvantage, though, was that it did not allow for dynamic differentiation. Already the name of its successor insinuated the technical innovation it contained: piano-forte (low-loud). C. P. E. Bach even made this historical development within music his subject in 1788 when he wrote a double concerto for harpsichord, pianoforte and orchestra (Wq 47) unique in the history of music.

Clavichord from the workshop of organ builder Gottfried Silbermann (c. 1750). (Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum Markneukirchen)

But already in the medieval ages had there existed a key instrument that also allowed for dynamic tone differentiation, the clavichord. Its especially fine, silvery sound was regaining popularity in the era of sensitivity. Instruments produced in the manufactory of Gottfried Silbermann (1683–1753), a member of this famous family of organ builders. C. P. E. Bach also owned one, probably even before his time at the Prussian court. C. P. E. Bach’s highly praised improvisation abilities, which also impressed music theoretician Dr. Charles Burney visiting Bach in Hamburg 1772, may largely have rooted in his masterly technical command of the clavichord. It appears all the more surprising that Bach donated his beloved clavichord to a young nobleman from Kurland in 1781, just a few years before his death, yet not without writing a rondo as a musical memorial to the instrument: Farewell to my Silbermann Clavichord (Wq 66).

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