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Articulation on early keyboard instruments

All early keyboard students have learnt that articulation is an essential part of harpsichord playing; every student expects that in a lesson the teacher will refer to articulation, and the articulation will sometimes be carefully written in. The request to "articulate this note" is effected by making the previous note shorter (and generally not changing the "articulated" note). Fingering is often chosen because of its articulation possibilities and historical fingering is recommended, or at least discussed, because of its implications for "articulation".

Why is then, that historical sources about keyboard playing NEVER appear to discuss articulation in this modern sense? Why is fingering not discussed as a means of articulation? Is it possible that we now place an importance on an aspect of playing which was then not seen as an issue? Have we misunderstood some of the most essential elements of harpsichord playing? Here is an ongoing attempt to collect in one place as many historical sources as possible which refer to this aspect of early keyboard playing. They are ordered chronologically and will sometimes include a short discussion of what they possibly tell us. It will continue to be updated as I find new references.

Perhaps one of the first authoritative sources for keyboard technique is Thomas de Santa Maria's Libro llamado Arte de Tañer Fantasia (Valladolid: Francisco Fernandez, 1565). I include here two slightly differing English translations. 1  Chapter XV concerns "the Manner of Striking the Keys and his last paragraph [f 38r] reads


The sixth point is that once the keys have been struck do not lean on them with the fingers (because apart from sharpening the notes and making them out of tune, the hands are weakened as if they are tied) and do not relax the fingers so that the notes dies away, but keep the fingers on the keys without pressing too much nor relaxing nor raising them until they are needed to strike other keys. In this way the notes will retain their fullness of tone.2


The sixth requirement is that after striking the keys, the fingers should neither press them too much (for not only do the tones go out of tune through a rise in pitch, but the hands tire as though they were bound), nor should the fingers relax so the tones are faint; but rather the fingers should remain on [the keys] neither pressing too strongly or weakly, nor lifting until the time they must strike other keys; and thus will the tones always maintain a uniform quality of sound.3

The next paragraph however, the first paragraph of chapter XVI  [Del tañer con limpienza y distinction de bozes] "On playing cleanly and distinctly" (Sachs/Ife) "Concerning the Method of Playing with Purity and Distinctness of Tones"(Howell/Hultberg) [38.v] apparently contradicts this:


As far as playing cleanly and distinctly - the fourth requirement - is concerned, it should be notes that two things are needed. The first and most important is that as the fingers strike the keys, the finger which plays first should be raised before the one immediately following it plays, both ascending and descending. Always proceed in this way, for otherwise one finger would catch up the next, and when one finger catches up it follows that one note overlaps and obscures the next, which is like playing seconds, ad when one note overlaps and obscures the next, it follows that the performance is messy and ragged and is without clarity of distinction.4


As regards playing with purity and distinctness of tones, which is the fourth condition, two requirements should be observed. The first and principal one is that in striking of the fingers on the keys, one should always lift the finger that has first struck before striking with the one immediately following, both ascending and descending. And one should always proceed thus, for otherwise the fingers will overtake one another, and with this overtaking of the fingers, the tones will overlap and cover one another as if one were striking 2nds. From such overlapping and covering up of one tone by another, it follows that whatever one plays will be muddy and slovenly, and neither purity nor distinctness of tones is achieved.

The second requirement is to raise the finger slightly upward after striking the key. And it should under no circumstance be drawn away from the keys, nor should it be contracted nor bent under, for this would produce a great amount of noise on the keys. An exception [occurs] with redobles and quiebros, to be dealt with in their proper place.5

In 1593 Girolamo Diruta published the first part of his work Il Transilvano (Venice). Again there are two English translations included for comparison.6 In the chapter "How to carry the hand loosely and lightly" (Sachs/Ife)/ "Manner of Holding the Hand Relaxed and Light" (Soehnlein) he writes:


[Diruta:] And now, to describe how you must keep the hand light and supple over the keyboard, I will give you an example. When one gives a slap in anger, great force is used. But when you wish to caress and pet, as we do in fondling a child, one keeps the hand light, without using force.7


[Diruta:] And now, to demonstrate how you must keep the hand light and relaxed on the keyboard, I'll give you and example. When you strike someone in anger, you use force. But when you wish to caress and fondle, you never apply force. Rather, you keep the hand light and relaxed in the manner of foldling a child.8

[Il per dirui, come domete tener la mano leggiera, e molle sopra la tastura vi darò un essempio. Quando si dà una guanciata in collera, se gli adopra gran forza. Ma quando se vol far carezze, e vezzi, non vi si adopra forza, ma si tiene la mano leggiera, in quella guisa che foglamo accarezza un fanciullo.[ref]f 5r.[/ref]]

and continues with "Effect of pressing and striking the key" (Sachs/Ife)/ "The Effect of Pressing the Key and Striking it" (Soehnlein):


Dir[uta]: The effect is this, that when the keys are pressed the harmony is smooth, whereas when struck it is choppy, as in the example below, of a singer who takes a breath for every note, in particular for minims and crotchets ... making a crotchet rest between one not and the next.

[ref 1]Sach, Barbara and Ife, Barry, Anthology of Early Keyboard Methods, Cambridge: Gamut, 1982 and Howell. JR., A.C. and Hultberg, W.E.,The Art of Playing the Fantasia  (Latin American Literary Review Press, 1991)[/ref]

[ref 2]p.11[/ref]

[ref 3]La sexta cosa es, que después de heridas las teclas, ni se aprieten tanto los dedos sobre ellas (porque demas de salir las bozos de tono subiendo de boz, se entorpescé las manos, como si las atasen) ni tampoco se afloxé los dedos, de manera que las bozes desmayan, sino que los dedos se esten sobre ellas, sin apretarlos demasiado, ni afloxarlos, ni levantarlos, hasta el punto que ayan de herir otras teclas, Desuerte que las bozes tengan siempre un mesmo ser de tono.[/ref]

[ref 4]p.11[/ref]

[ref 5]Quanto al tañer con lipieza y distinction de bozes, que es la quartz condition, sea de notar, que para esto se requieren dos cosas. La primera y principal, es sue al herir de los dedos en las teclas, siempre el redo q hiriere primero se leuante antes que hiera el otro que immediatamente se si guiere fats el, assi al subir como al baxar, Y desta man era simper procediendo, porque de otra maner se alcançaria y ataparse una boz a otra, sue es como herir segundas, y de alcançarse y ataparse una boza a otra se sigue yr fuzio y estropajoso lo q se tañe, y no lleuantar lipienza ni distinct de bozes.

La segunda cosa que se requiere, es levantar un poquito en alto cada dedo despues de aver herido la tecla , y en ninguna manera sacarle suera de las teclas, excepto en los redobles y quiebros, como en su lugar setractara.[/ref]

[ref 6]Sach, Barbara and Ife, Barry, Anthology of Early Keyboard Methods, Cambridge: Gamut, 1982 and Soehnlein, Edward John, Diruta on the Art of Keyboard-playing: An annotated translation [...]" University of Michigan Ph.D., 1975[/ref]

[ref 7]p.36[/ref]

[ref 8]p.128[/ref]

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