Welcoming a Robert Duffy Harpsichord
Donor broadens spectrum of early music study and performance by funding new harpsichord
Students of 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century music at Michigan State University will have increased opportunity to hear, perform, and study early music as it was intended thanks to a gift by a longtime professor.
Taylor Johnston, MSU professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, donated funds last spring to support the College of Music’s acquisition of a new harpsichord. Built by the Indiana-based Robert Duffy Harpsichords, the instrument models 17th-century Flemish harpsichords popular in Flanders around the same period.
College of Music Professor David Rayl says having the instrument on campus opens up countless possibilities for the performance of historically informed repertoire by students, ensembles, and faculty across multiple departments.
“Before, if a student or faculty member was performing a sonata by a Baroque composer like Handel, the options were to use a piano or our electronic harpsichord,” says Rayl who also directs the College’s choral programs. “Clearly having an instrument of this caliber is a step forward and fills the gaps in the types of music for harpsichord we can do.”
A harpsichord is a keyboard instrument with horizontal strings that looks similar to a small grand piano. While both instruments produce sound when a key is pressed, a harpsichord plucks the strings with quills while a piano strikes the strings with hammers.
That difference, says harpsichord player and Associate Professor of Musicology Kevin Bartig, gives the harpsichord a distinctive tone, and contributes to the instrument’s unique rhythmic presence in ensembles.
“The harpsichord challenged me to think about the keyboard in different ways,” says Bartig. “It’s important for our students, too, to play with a period instrument occasionally for a well-rounded music education.”
Johnston felt a similar way and jumped at the opportunity to make a high-quality period instrument available to MSU students. As a Baroque vocalist, Johnston is also an accomplished performer on a variety of early music wind instruments, specializing in recorders. He appreciates the levels of expression that a skilled harpsichord player can achieve.
“It's sweet music,” says Johnston. “While the harpsichord can’t change its dynamics, you can change the expressiveness through different playing techniques.”
Johnston was invited to play the recorder at the dedication performance for the new harpsichord in November. College of Music faculty Kevin Bartig and Michael Callahan also joined University of Michigan guest harpsichordist Edward Parmentier in a performance of Baroque music. Students included cellist Mark Dupere; vocalists Meredith Bowen, Leah Brzyski, Elizabeth Hermanson, and Katharine Nunn; and recorder player Alex Kindel.
“Having the opportunity to play with the harpsichord is an essential part of our musical education,” says Mark Dupere who played cello at the event. “It’s fantastic for students because the instrument is such an integral part of at least three centuries of music up to the time of Mozart.”
Callahan agrees, having had the chance to study and play the harpsichord at various points in his graduate studies and professional career.
“My hope is that more of MSU’s piano students will become interested in learning the intricacies of harpsichord playing,” says Callahan. “More generally, I hope more students will perform Baroque music now that a high-quality instrument is available on which to do so.”
John Bull: Galliard in A minor