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Harbachsichord
Barbara Harbach, Harpsichord

Notes for “Harbachsichord” by Rick Sowash

Barbara Harbach is a modern American woman with a passionate commitment to an archaic European musical instrument. I wrote my harpsichord suite in C very specifically for her to play and with her personality in mind. It seemed the perfect opportunity to explore the connections and relationships between Baroque music and American popular music.

The piece opens with a prelude displaying the variety-within- repetition found in Bach’s preludes but with distinct echoes of the Blues. Then comes the opposite: unity-in-variety in a theme-and- variations movement. The variations are cast, at first exclusively, in the traditional dance forms of the baroque suite -- Allemande, Courante, Minuet, etc. As the variations progress, however, there are an increasing number of surprising “interruptions” or “outbursts” in traditional American musical forms: a Sousa-esque circus march, outright Blues, a square dance, ragtime-like gestures and angular Coplandesque canons. The final variation is again, like the Prelude, a balanced blend of baroque and American elements, with the very last measure being the same as that which opened the piece.

In addition to cyclical architectural unity, there is also a unifying motif in the disparate movements and variations -- a descending C - Bflat - G - Fsharp -- an ambiguous and richly pregant figure which, in itself, blends American and European musical traditions, suggesting as it does the flatted seventh so familiar in many American folk songs and in early jazz (the Bflat) as well as the Classical trick of pointing to the dominant key through the introduction of a raised fourth (the Fsharp).

The faint Blues echo persists throughout the whole piece, unifying it and giving it a piquant contemporary feeling -- a feeling I also get from Barbara Harbach herself.

“Suite in C” seemed a pale name for such a piece. Then it occurred to me to name the piece for Barbara herself: “Harbachsichord.” It’s a rich mix of puns. Like the suite itself, the title brings together “Harbach” and “harpsichord.” Also like the suite itself, the title is “harpsichord” with “Bach” inserted. It can be read as “Harbach’s chord” which refers to the contemporary Blues echo that pervades the piece. And it’s not far from “Hard Bach’s chord” referring to tough old J.S.B. himself and evoking the virtuosity necessary to mastery of the instrument.

Barbara’s reaction? She was amused by the title and she liked the piece enough to premiere it and record it. What more can a composer ask?

 

 

   

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