harpsichord accompaniment in G. F. Handel’s continuo cantatas

Last summer I was invited by Christian Kjos to take part in his research project at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, setting out to clarify the role of the harpsichordist in Handel’s early Italian cantatas.  In the course of our work together I was asked to reflect on the subject from the singer’s perspective.

The starting point for the harpsichordist has to be a deep understanding of the demands placed upon the singer by any given repertoire and the subsequent desire to use all musical devices necessary to support the singer’s art.  What these musical devices will be will vary from piece to piece and indeed from moment to moment.   Suffice it to say, the more knowledgeable, technically accomplished and creatively inventive a player is, the more rewarding this work will be.

CPE Bach in his Essay on the true art of playing keyboard instruments goes into some detail to describe how this might practically be achieved in recitative. 

“Some recitatives, in which the bass and perhaps other instruments express a definite theme or a continuous motion which does not participate in a singer’s pauses, must be performed strictly in time for the sake of good order.  Others are declaimed now slowly, now rapidly, according to the context, regardless of the metre, even though their notation be barred.  In both cases, especially the latter, an accompanist must be watchful.  He must listen constantly to the principle performer, and when there is action, watch him as well, so that his accompaniment will always be ready; he must never desert the singer.”  (My italics.)

It is clear from this passage that there is a natural hierarchy at work in the singer/harpsichordist relationship.  The singer is the principle performer and this responsibility stems from the singer’s responsibility for the utterance of the spoken word.  There is text to be delivered and this text is imbued with meaning.  Within the bounds of musical grammar the singer should feel able to deliver the text as freely as possible.  The harpsichordist’s job is to create the musical context in which this work can take shape.

CPE Bach again:

“It can be seen in accompanied recitatives that tempo and metre must frequently be changed in order to rouse and still the rapidly alternating effects.  Hence the metric signature is in many such cases more a convention of notation than a binding factor in performance.  It is a distinct merit of the fantasia that, unhampered by such trappings, (ie barlines), it can accomplish the aims of the recitative at the keyboard in complete, unmeasured freedom.”

The recitative is then the inspiration for the instrumental fantasia and vice versa.  The ideal striven for is a stream of intelligible consciousness which flows organically enough to appear spontaneously improvised.  Music as emotional speech. 

Tosi in Observations on the Florid Song pleads passionately for the singer to be as full of expression as possible and to give a meaningful, dramatic rendition of a sung text.  The singer must study expression, learn how to act and become a singing actor “knowing how to distinguish the lively from the pathetic, or the vehement from the tender”.  If not, they risk looking “ridiculous on stage” and “senseless in a chamber”. 

These two observations are instructive.  On stage a singer must make dramatic sense.  In chamber music the singer has also to make sense on an intellectual and emotional level.  It is important here to stress that the style of delivery for church, chamber and theatre be sufficiently differentiated. 

Interestingly Tosi uses the adjective “effeminate” to describe the theatrical style and “manly” for sacred music.  Sacred music is to be presented more austerely, “without affection, with tasteful ornaments and swiftly defined divisions at cadenzas.” Arias for the theatre should be “lively and various”, for the church “moving and grave” and for the chamber “delicate and finished”.  He considered chamber music the most sophisticated art form of the three, probably because it deals in subtleties rather than the immediately obvious. 

The harpsichordist needs to develop discerning judgement, know the difference in styles and play accordingly.  The cultivation of good taste is imperative for players and singers alike and it is not acquired by chance but rather by painstaking work.  In addition to playing, it is developed by listening to the best players and singers and studying the finest compositions and learning from them.  After much application “the taste in time becomes Art and Art Nature.” (Tosi).

If Tosi demands that singers have a firm grasp of counterpoint, then a harpsichordist most definitely should.  The harpsichordist has the technical means to realise it.

“One who knows how to compose can account for what he does, and he who has not the same light works in the dark” (Tosi).  For singer and player alike, knowledge is power.

A fine harpsichordist should do everything in his or her power to support the singer’s quest to rend his or her singing eloquent, create a suitable musical and emotional context and with dexterity and invention enter into a fluid musical conversation.  What this actually sounds like in practise depends on the content, which brings us back again to the primacy of the text.  Content is everything.  It gives us all the clues we need to realise a meaningful interpretation. 

I believe that the search for an ideal dynamic level, loud versus soft, is actually a red herring.  Each piece will demand a different musical response from the harpsichordist.  The clues are all in the text and the musical interpretation already offered by the composer.  Our job as performers is to encrypt the score armed with knowledge and insight and bring it to life with great imagination.  The issue is surely rather, how to release the creative potential lying latent in every composition with all the means at our disposal.  The harpsichordist needs to understand what technical means are available and develop the skills to apply them discerningly.  It may mean the player plays one minute incredibly delicately and sparsely and the next minute with great rhythmical vigour and bravura or add fully extemporised counterpoint.  Sometimes the player leads, almost pulling the singer along, at other times it is the singer who determines the pacing.  These decisions should all come out of an insightful reading of the whole work, the text, its musical realisation and the particular qualities of the singer.  The goal of the performer is to illuminate.  It should be a continual process of revelation.


Timing is everything.  But what do we mean by that exactly?  If I had to name the most crucial element in the singer/harpsichordist relationship it would be a highly tuned sensitivity to the dynamics of rhythmical flow.  This is much more than the ability to play and sing in time.

There are many exhortations in literature of the period for singers to keep good time.  Tosi again:

The “best singers regulate themselves to the bass”. 

They should sing the “finest graces to the most exact time of the movement of the bass.”

“I cannot sufficiently recommend to a student the exact keeping of time…even among the professors of the first rank, there are few but what are almost insensibly deceived into an irregularity or hastening of time, and often of both.”

But this is the starting point, not the end game.  There is an inherent tension between stability of pulse and musical flow and there may be a number of competing sensations of flow at any given moment. 

For example, the musical pulse of a motor rhythm in the harpsichord can be experienced as a comfortable “groove” within which the vocal line can unfold, a driving force pushing the singer forward to the point of discomfort or outright danger.  Equally, the singer can sing with a feeling of “drag” against this stable motor rhythm to induce a sensation of heaviness and effort.  This pushing or pulling against the pulse often gives a whole aria its particular, overall character and should be determined by the text and the emotional state we desire to emulate.  There is an inherent tension between the vertical and the horizontal.  Musical flow and emotional flow are not always one and the same thing and emotional flow can also be in conflict with logical thought, for example within a broader plot or story.  There are many interlocking organising principles at work and the performers can choose to suppress some aspects and accentuate others.  The balancing of these varying elements in real time music making is what constitutes the heart of the singer/harpsichordist relationship. 

Rubato is probably the most neglected skill in performances of this literature today and the most highly prized in Tosi’s time.

Tosi: “the greatest difficulty and the whole beauty of the profession consists in….that art which teaches to anticipate the time, knowing where to lose it again; and (which is still more charming) to know how to lose it in order to recover it again.”

In addition to the interplay between singer and harpsichordist there is also an element of improvisation at play in the relationship between singer and audience which cannot be prepared for in advance of a concert.  The harpsichordist must allow for this added element of unpredictability and react accordingly.  It is not good enough to present a well rehearsed piece.  The audience and singer are face to face and the singer must hold their attention. 

Tosi once more:

If the singer is required to improvise ornaments “which his skill inspires him with unpreditatively” and singers must “deceive the audience with agreeable surprises” then the accompanying instruments must be ready to respond immediately. 


 “when the audience grows indolent (the singer should) rouse them that instant with a grace….When they are again awake, he will…return to his feigned (my emphasis) simplicity, though it will no more be in his power to delude those that hear him (for with an impatient curiosity they already expect a second and so on).”

 Of course, the larger the ensemble, the more difficult this becomes.  Its intimate form makes the solo chamber cantata the perfect vehicle within which to explore of this aspect of music making.  The player and singer are able to respond immediately to each other and to the audience, without having to take the time factor in a mass of other players in this very rapid decision making process.

Finally, we need to cultivate the ability to judge when less is more.  On discussing the art of performing recitative Tosi asserts:  “Let truth prevail – where passion speaks all shakes, all divisions and graces ought to be silent, leaving it to the sole force of a beautiful expression to persuade.”

For the singer this is a clear call for honest emotion and it should guide the harpsichordist’s judgement too.

“when the heart sings, you cannot dissemble nor has truth a greater power of persuading”. –Tosi


Deborah York.  November 2016, Munich.