Biber Fever

As you will probably realise, I do not refer to the pint-sized, baby-faced Canadian singer – in fact, I am pretty sure I’ve never heard him sing (or indeed recite poetry or give us his Lear). He’s not big on any of Radio 3, Radio 4 or 6Music. No, I refer to the man with the incredible name of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern. With a name like that, I would rule the world, but in fact Biber was only a Bohemian-Austrian composer of the later 17th Century.

It is term-time again here on the Cam (Lent since you ask), which means my Tuesday early afternoons are much improved by the Cambridge University Lunchtime Concerts (CULC). My enjoyment is always tinged with jealousy as the performers are all young enough to be my children and are far more talented than I will ever be.

Last Tuesday was my first exposure to the work of Herr Biber (one of his Mystery Sonatas) – and very pleasing it was too, much enhanced by the presence of a viola da gamba (so much better than a mere ‘cello).

The gig (or gigue) ended with Corelli – and no sign of a military rank or mandolin. His La Follia sonata which was absolutely amazing – despite the gamba being replaced by a ‘cello.

The pieces also used a harpsichord – what an incredible instrument! The mechanics of the two keyboards and their linking was fascinating (I think it must have been a double manual). I now want a double manual harpsichord (forget the iPhone – where’s the visible engineering for the true geek to enjoy) – though I am little worried about (a) how much space it will need and (b) how often it would need tuning. It would also seem that they cost about the same as quite a large family car – but with a much more pleasing sound and a smaller carbon footprint (but less help when bringing a wardrobe home from B&Q or transporting four children to football practise – but you can have furniture delivered and my policy of abstinence reduces the need to transport my issue to sports training). I think it should also be a fairly neighbour-friendly instrument – much quieter than a baby grand. The only downside is that it is not (currently) perceived as cool – you don’t often get invited to jam with a harpsichord and the current indie music scene has only a rather limited role for continuo. However, I think I will make it my mission to change this position.

So, a harpsichord it is!


4 thoughts on “Biber Fever

    • Stuart Ffoulkes says:

      I view the harpsichord as augmenting my musical capacities, rather than a replacement for my existing (silent) upright. I quite fancy a wind instrument as well – I do have a descant recorder, but that hardly counts as a serious bit of woodwind.

  1. matathew says:


    I became progressively more concerned about you as I read through this post. I knew by the time I reached “So, a harpsichord it is!” that you were suffering from an unfortunate affliction, or possibly a more serious chronic delusion, in which the patient thinks he or she is hearing a beautiful sound coming from an instrument which is actually making a feeble tinny tinkling noise. I liken the sound to an electric guitar without the amplifier.

    Before you rush to dismiss this view, I should add that at one time I was a fellow sufferer. Whilst at school, I adopted a small harpsichord which someone had donated to the school music department and I remember spending lunchtimes practising Byrd’s Earle of Salisbury pavane. And I can still remember the Head of Music’s violently anti-harpsichord reaction when I told him that my piano teacher would be suggesting to him that I performed said piece on said instrument at the next end-of-term concert. Thus, over time, thankfully, I was cured of my harpsichord delusion.

    I wonder whether a possible cure might be listening four times a day to Bach’s Concerto for four harpsichords four times over until the symptoms disappear?

    But in the meantime, I have some harpsichord music for you to listen to. It’s Martinu’s harpsichord concerto, written in 1935, for a chamber orchestra which curiously includes a piano. I heard it yesterday on Radio 3 whilst driving and decided it was quite fun, and harmless enough, but that was before I had read your post.

    (It is available on listen again starting 2h 12m into the programme but only until Tues 15 Feb.)

    If you still want a harpsichord, you could start cheaply enough with MIDI. I could show you sometime how to get your laptop and hi-fi to re-synthesise sampled sounds from real harpsichords, using your MIDI piano keyboard.

    And if you want the true ping-ing touch and feel of a real harpsichord keyboard, Barry has a small one for sale (of the kit-built type) which has had only one careful owner but “needs a bit of work doing”.


    • Stuart Ffoulkes says:

      I suppose I was sitting quite close to the instrument which may have helped its acoustic properties. Perhaps, I was also more taken with the engineering than the sound – but I shall try out the Martinu and see if GarageBand (the Mac’s gift to the budding – but instrument-free – musician) can simulate the harpsichord with any degree of verisimilitude before I take my craving any further.

      If the Polish composer had been born a little earlier, I might wonder if Barry had only used his instrument for Chopin, but I’m fairly sure George Sand’s paramour had access to a true piano (apologies to Messers Stilgoe and Skellern for recycling that particular joke).

Feel free to continue the lunacy...

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