Mathematician delights with revival of baroque harpsichord

Last Sunday afternoon, students of the College and members of the community filled the auditorium of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute for what was perhaps one of the most unusual musical events of the year:

Victor Hill
Victor Hill, emeritus professor of mathematics, brilliantly showcased the range and beauty of a long-forgotten instrument – the 16th-century harpsichord.

a harpsichord concert given by talented performer Victor Hill, emeritus professor of mathematics at the College. Hill also served as the director of Griffin Hall concerts for 41 years. Dressed in a shockingly purple suit jacket and tie over a yellow shirt, Hill both educated and amused his audience with his diverse selection of music from composers such as Couperin, Bach and Scarlatti, as well as his wry, upbeat sense of humor.

Many people are unaware of what a harpsichord sounds or even looks like, and with good reason – though the instrument reached the height of its popularity between the 16th and first half of the 18th centuries, it gradually faded from popularity in the second half of the 18th century, to be replaced by the much-beloved and now ubiquitous piano. In form, Hill’s harpsichord did look much like a piano – however, there are several crucial differences between the two instruments. First, while a piano creates sound using mallets that pound against strings, the harpsichord generates sound by plucking, resulting in a lighter, more metallic sound.  Second, while a piano has just one row of keys, the harpsichord has two, placed one above the other. As the audience members took their seats, most chose to pack tightly into the left side of the auditorium in order to see Hill’s hands at work on this unconventional keyboard.

Hill began the concert with a piece entitled Tombeau de M. de Chambonnieres, which was performed in memory of his recently deceased harpsichord instructor Gustav Leonhardt. A photograph of his teacher and a large vase of flowers were placed on stage for the duration of the concert. A slow, melancholy song, the work introduced the audience to the unique tone and style of the harpsichord (a slightly hollow sound and a style heavily laced with trills), as well as revealing its somewhat subdued, modest range.

The next piece, entitled Order 8 in B Minor by Francois Couperin, was much more upbeat. Composed for the French courts of Louis XIV and XV, the titles of the movements are filled with the court’s inside jokes. Referring to the fact that a tiny jig is tacked onto the end of the piece after a much longer movement, Hill joked, “When we all get to heaven, I’m going to ask Couperin why he did it!” The engaging piece seemed to test the limits of the harpsichord’s range, with movements alternating from light to heavy, fast to slow, even stumbling along at times. At one point in the movement entitled “Gavotte,” Hill even surprised the audience by altering the instrument so that the metallic buzzing behind the notes vanished and the harpsichord instead generated a hollow plucking sound, like that of a harp or other string instrument.

Next came two shorter pieces, Sonata in C Major by Domenico Scarlatti, followed after the intermission by Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. The sonata began rather sedately before suddenly transitioning into a quick melody while the chords pounded out an enthusiastic beat. The piece rose to a frenzied climax of speed and sound in which the melody was almost barely distinguishable (Hill described this section as depicting people dancing and spinning around) before its cheerful conclusion. Although the Bach piece was played with equal enthusiasm, the tone of the piece was vastly different: Darker and more flowing, the rippling piece came the closest of any Hill performed to the sound of a piano.

Hill prefaced the final two pieces of the night (Sonata in A Major and Sonata in  C Minor, both by Scarlatti) with a touch of humor, recounting how Scarlatti had worked for the princess of Portugal. A talented harpsichordist, the princess “liked to show off with these pieces, which are from [Scarlatti’s] ‘flamboyant period.’” Thus the pieces were filled with hand-leaps and other showy tricks, which Hill jokingly referred to as “either diabolical or acrobatic.” As Hill performed these final two works, therefore, those who chose to cram into the left side of the theater were rewarded: In the quick, measured pieces, Hill’s left hand frequently leapt over his right, crossing above to reach stray notes in the upper register.

The long cold walk to the Clark at the tail end of winter is never inviting, and with so much else scheduled, it may be hard for many College students or faculty to find the time (or the motivation) to make the trip. But for unique and engaging concerts like this one, it’s worth the extra effort.