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Lurch was the first time I ever heard of a harpsichord, too, but the instrument on the old Addams Family television show always sounded more like an organ to me than a harpsichord.

And I don’t much like organs or organ music.

If you put Gustav Leonhardt into the search at YouTube, I think there are a couple of clips of him playing. 

It’s an eighteenth century keyboard instrument–maybe seventeenth for the first examples of it–one in the line from virginals to clavicord to harpsichords to pianos.

But, unlike the piano, it’s a string instrument, not a percussion.

And I’ve never particularly liked the sound of the piano. 

Oh, there are particular people I like who play it–Thelonius Monk being the biggie. 

But I find it nearly impossible to listen to Chopin because so much of what he wrote he wrote for the piano. 

For me, anyway, music is a far more idiosyncrantic and random thing than painting or literature.   I can give you good reasons why I think a work of fiction or poetry is good, and fair reasons for why I like what I like in painting.

But with music, I’m all over the map. 

I like a lot of jazz, and I like a lot of what I later was informed was “progressive” jazz.  I just picked up CDs when I liked what I heard–lots of Charles Mingus, including the Town Hall concert, lots of Coltrane and late Miles Davis, anything by Charlie Parker, the aforementioned Mr. Monk.

I like a lot of Baroque chamber music.  That’s where the harpsichords come in.   I tend to go for strings and horns, although I kind of like the sound of the oboe. 


So there’s Bach and Domenico Scarlatti and Telemann and Pachebel and Handel and I’m now walking around Frescobaldi.

I don’t like a lot of symphonic stuff.  I do like Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, and Beethoven’s third (the Eroica).   Most of Brahms bores me. 

Then there gets to be this big gap, and everything goes to hell. 

The Rolling Stones.  Trace Adkins.  Jesse Winchester.  Joni Mitchell.  The Gaitlin brothers.  George Gershwin.  Koko Taylor.  Dave Van Ronk.

One of the reasons I don’t write about music much is that I can’t see any rationale for the way I respond to it.

Maybe Plato was right, and music responds to something nonrational in us.  Or at least in me.

I wrote a book once called Somebody Else’s Music.  It’s my favorite out of every book I’ve written, but it’s the title that matters here. 

The title comes from the fact that I tend to use music as sort of a sound track to whatever else is going on in my head.  I use it to disappear into the emotional a lot.

The title came from the fact that every once in a while mylife has seemed to run on somebody else’s sound track than my own.

Plato thought that music and poetry would be banned in a well ordered society, because they tended to jump the barrier of the mind and appeal directly to the passions.

I can’t say that poetry does that to me–unless you count lyrics as poetry–but music definitely does. 

I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, in my case.  I tend to be a very controlled person, in many ways.  Maybe it’s a good one.

But it does get me back to what the Humanities are for, which is a harder question to answer than I used to think.

The Humanities humanize us, Matthew Arnold said–he meant not that the Humanities would make us good people, but that they would make us better people than we would have been without them. 

This is, as somebody said, probably impossible to test, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be true.

I do think, though, that we do lots of art not to make ourselves more “humanized”–what Arnold actually meant was civilized–but to tap into all kinds of emotional things, some of which are civilized and some of which are not.


The term is starting, and I’m plotting a mystery set on the campus of a small town university…

Written by janeh

August 30th, 2010 at 7:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Harpsichords'

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  1. I’m the other way around with music. I like a lot of different things, including organ music and piano music. I had eight years of piano lessons when I was young and while I don’t have a piano now, I would like to have one at some point when I have time to play.

    I think you’re right, though. Music evokes an emotional response – you can be more or less informed about the structure of what you’re listening to, but when it comes down to it no one listens to Bach’s fugues because of the structure. At least I’d be surprised if they do.

    When I was in school I played bassoon and still love the double-reed instruments – bassoon, oboe, English horn.


    30 Aug 10 at 9:48 am

  2. Hmm. Plato strikes me as a boring old geezer who probably yelled at kids to get off his lawn.

    Music is about the most subjective of the arts. We like music and musicians even when they’re not of highest technical quality, as in Bob Dylan. He can’t sing a lick, yet he can be wonderful to listen to. That emotional component, I guess.

    I like Baroque and earlier. Lots of madrigals and early Church music. Bach. Handel. Mozart, much of it. Not the operas so much, I generally dislike opera, though I like choral music. Perhaps because I was in the chorus in high school and those are *very* good memories. Our choir director used to yell at us to “shut up and sing!” ;)

    I also love Peter Gabriel, the Dixie Chicks, and a long list of other contemporary artists. Beatles. Rolling Stones. REM. Janis Joplin. Simon & Garfunkle.

    I think I’m going to love reading about who you murder on campus. This ought to be good, after the events of last term…


    30 Aug 10 at 11:40 am

  3. I do love music–everything from Baroque to jazz to funk to hip-hop to alt rock. (I used to think my tastes were eclectic until I met Mike Fisher ;) .) But I love Baroque, especially on period instruments. Thanks for the introduction to Frescobaldi.

    For me, it’s almost entirely emotional. I choose what to listen to in order to change my mood or focus me for what I need to work on. Mostly instrumentals, because I am often writing while I listen.

    Sadly, I am completely hopeless at making music.



    30 Aug 10 at 11:55 am

  4. Do you play? I took piano lessons as a child, but they didn’t stick – or I didn’t stick at them long. I’d love to be able to play, and sing properly.

    I loved country and western (which drove my poor mother crazy), then some of the very early rock and roll, and folk; lots and lots of folk. I adore Gilbert and Sullivan, but avoided ‘serious’ opera like the plague, until very recently, but now (thanks to the Met in the movie theatres) am beginning to expand my horizons, and getting a feeling about a whole new world I have barely begun to explored and don’t even know the language of – I never know quite what to say aside from ‘Great!’ to ‘What did you think of the famous aria?”. Like Lymaree, I picked up a liking for Baroque and earlier. In broad general terms, I prefer vocal – and particularly choral – music to purely instrumental…although I do listen to instrumental sometimes – and earlier to later. And melody over rhythm, although you do need both. I’ve adored choral music since I bawled out all those Victorian hymns in church when I was a child. I got at least one comment on the volume – not the quality, you note! – of my singing. I still love singing something I know well among a congregation that also knows it with the organ thundering away covering up (one hopes!)any mistakes!

    What I don’t like much is jazz, and just about all modern rock (and related types of music). I went to my first rock concert at age 15, and the volume and the vibrations made me want to vomit. I never got over that initial physical distaste – and I’m sure there was a physical cause, though I’ve never heard of anyone else who reacts to very loud music that way.

    Music does hit the emotions, of course, but it’s more and less than that. It’s a kind of soothing background noise. It’s something that FITS somehow, as when you are listening and a particular combination of sounds is just right, it couldn’t possibly be any other way, and you feel like you can almost touch something sublime. It’s invigorating. Obsessive, even – one of my sisters was travelling by car with me after I’d just discovered Dire Straits. I think she got quite enough of the one cassette I had during that trip!


    30 Aug 10 at 12:11 pm

  5. Oh, and for early music through the earphones while working at the computer? Try:


    They also do a different choral evensong every week, although sometimes they have modern music.


    30 Aug 10 at 12:13 pm

  6. Various clusters for me: lots of folk–Limeliters, Kingston Trio and others–a bunch of pop music from the British Invasion period (no Beetles) through to something short of Woodstock, Celtic–Clannad, McKennet & Co–and strays–the Roches Christmas album, for instance.

    For symphonic, I go heretical. (I also go brass & drums.) There is respected classical music I’d pay not to listen to, but my “Classical Thunder” CDs are parked right next to my Tiomkin, Goldsmith, Newman and Williams. It always seems silly to me to insist that Wagner, Holst, Rossini and Beethoven belong with Sibelius, but that Rozsa and Poledouris were doing something else. I have the same problem in painting and literature.

    And of course it’s emotional. So is painting and sculpture. To appeal to reason, you have to have words–and not always then.


    30 Aug 10 at 5:15 pm

  7. I grew up in a musical house: mother, brother and sister all better than average classical pianists. My sister was particularly good, and equally as good a violist. I started piano lessons but was too easily distracted to stick with the necessary practice.

    Perhaps in revolt to the family tradition, I didn’t much like classical music but eventually grew to appreciate it just about the time I went too deaf to hear it. My favourites during my hearing years were the usual 40s/50s/60s pop, country, folk and from my early 20s, jazz including those mentioned by Jane, eg Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk and, of course, soul and blues with Ray Charles right up there. I particularly enjoyed the big bands. But eventually my real favourites became guitarists like Charlie Byrd, Barney Kessel, Laurindo Almeida and the like. These days, the small range of frequencies I can hear limits me pretty much to simple stuff so country is back in favour, but I can listen to the likes of Diana Krall and Nora Jones all day. With any luck, a planned cochlear implant for my other ear will improve my ability to appreciate music. Hasten the day.


    30 Aug 10 at 7:35 pm

  8. And should have said: a lot of the incidental music on the old Addams Family was organ or close to, but there are also scenes with Lurch playing “his” harpsicord, and the music is definitley different. Real harpsicord? I’m not the one to judge, but certainly not organ.


    31 Aug 10 at 3:54 pm

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