Tangents

Terence Charlston’s new CD of 16th and 17th century French keyboard music combines delight and illumination to an uncommon degree. Both the music and the instrument are “reconstructions” to greater or lesser extent, intended to a fill a large gap in the historical record. Although there is ample documentary evidence of clavichords built or owned in France, no indisputably French clavichords have survived from this period.

A most important contemporary document was provided by the well-known polymath Marin Mersenne (1588-1648). In his “Harmonie Universelle” of 1636 (and Latin abridgement “Harmonicorum Libri XII”), Mersenne provides a lengthy description and a detailed drawing of a “manichordion”: his instrument has a keyboard of four octaves, chromatic C-c”‘, with strings parallel to the long side of the case, and five separate soundboard bridges at right angles to the strings, of different heights, decreasing from bass to treble. Other distinctive features include an angled bridge to the left of the tangents, and a deep case, resulting in unusually long tangents.

Mersenne’s description was long considered by organologists to be untrustworthy as a record of an actual contemporary French clavichord. The consensus was that the in­strument is more likely Italian than French, and more likely 16th than 17th century. Most importantly, the drawing was considered to be not to scale, hence useless for precise study or reconstruction, and possibly imaginary.

This last objection was decisively refuted by Maria Boxall in 2001; she showed that the drawing is indeed to scale, using a form of isometric projection, and that it therefore provides exact proportions.

Peter Bavington took up the challenge in 2010, and began construction of a clavichord according to Mersenne’s description. The result was exhibited at the 10th International Clavichord Symposium in Magnano, Italy in September, 2011. Bavington’s report describes his step by step deduction of dimensions and proportions, and provides original French and Latin text from Mersenne, with translations into English.

Bavington concluded that that the instrument described by Mersenne, although perhaps a late example of an earlier design (Mersenne makes note of more recent single bridge designs), and possibly showing some Italian influence, was nevertheless a real and satisfactory musical instrument directly known to Mersenne, and a suitable vehicle for a broad range of French keyboard music of the period.

The plausibility of this conclusion is decisively reinforced by Terence Charlston’s new recording. Charlston presents a survey of music from the early 16th to the late 17th century, from dances to motet transcriptions, from preludes to complex polyphony. Charles Raquet’s monumental Fantasie anchors the selection, and provides a link to other examples from Flemish sources. The latest pieces are drawn from the organ and harpsichord repertoire.

In Charlston’s capable hands, Mersenne’s clavichord shows itself to be a versatile instrument, a fitting vehicle for the transmission of earlier lute repertoire and playing style to later French keyboard music. Charlston’s playing is sure and vivacious throughout; the recorded sound is detailed and warm. The liner notes are unusually generous, including extensive essays by Charlston on the music and by Bavington on the instrument, each with copious references.

Highly recommended!

—Paul Rabin