A History of Harpsichord Touch in France:

Performance Practice from the Periphery

Saraswathi Shukla
Lillian Gordis

In the preface to L’Art de toucher le clavecin, François Couperin explains his motivations for writing and publishing his treatise:

The sounds of the harpsichord being decided individually and…unable to be increased or diminished, it has appeared a nearly indefensible position until the present that one could impart soul on this instrument: nevertheless…I will attempt to explain how I have learned to obtain the happiness of touching the people of taste who have done me the honor to listen to me (Couperin 1717, 15-16).

The technical vocabulary he presents and the accompanying preludes provide the first steps for amateurs to learn how to “impart soul” on the harpsichord in order to move their listeners. For Couperin, whose understanding of anatomy was decidedly Cartesian, the mechanics of the human body and harpsichord technique were inseparable: to be an effective harpsichordist required flexible nerves and “spirits in motion” (Couperin, 10).

Only a few decades later, philosophers began using the harpsichord to debunk Cartesian anatomy. Writers like La Mettrie and Diderot suggested that the act of playing the harpsichord could be used to model the links between mind and body, and even human perception: activating a key, hearing its resonances, and interpreting it was seen as analogous to acting, sensing, and perceiving in everyday life. And for many philosophers, this very capacity to sense and to interpret sensation characterized humankind.

This presentation explores the possibility that, for musicians in the eighteenth century, the art of playing a harpsichord was one way of expressing one’s humanity.