In a stirring noontime pop-up concert on a recent Wednesday, Christa Rakich performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s French Suite #5 in G, BWV 816 on the harpsichord as part of Music at the Red Door, a series of online performances hosted by St. John’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, CT.
Rakich, a masterful interpreter of J. S. Bach’s work on a variety of keyboard instruments, has a lifetime of experience performing this piece. Rakich first learned it as a high school student.
“It is a very old and very dear friend,” Rakich says. “Having grown up with it, it has revealed itself to me. Having it in my fingers, then not, then re-learning it again… I’ve discovered new things as time goes on. You can say Bach’s music is rational, perfect. But when you get to know a piece, it’s like getting to know a person.”
The study of Bach led Rakich to his works for organ, and she went on to earn degrees in Organ and German at Oberlin College. Later as a Fulbright scholar, Rakich studied in Germany with Anton Heiller, an icon in the field of Bach study. “Heiller had a mystical connection with Bach,” Rakich said. “His approach was intuitive.”
While Bach’s religiously-themed organ works were performed on a grander scale, much of his music was originally performed in small settings. Chamber music was played in rooms within private homes, or in music apartments of court palaces.
In composing for the harpsichord, Rakich says Bach found a means for a small-scale, personal “Empfindsamkeit,” a word roughly translated as expression or sensitivity.
At Wednesday’s Music at the Red Door performance, Rakich treated her online audience to an expressive salon event. Rakich performed in her music study, on her personal harpsichord. Viewed with an up-close camera, Rakich’s two hands moved as self-motivated and coordinated entities on the keyboard, in a relaxed and expressive dance. It was a seasoned, nuanced performance.
In this intimate setting, the harpsichord emerges as a sort of rock star. While a small instrument — like a petite organ or piano — it has a bold sound, something distantly akin to a resonator guitar, with a take-no-compromises metallic quality.
Harpsichord was the most widely-used chamber keyboard instrument during Bach’s lifetime and a sound he knew well. In composing for it, he set one hand moving in intricate dialogue with the other. In doing so, he laid bare note against note — like wheel cogs within clock-workings — creating interwoven melody lines that join and part in ever-orderly fashion.
French Suite #5 takes the form of a series of dances. The gorgeous Allemande, mildly paced, eases the ear into contrapuntal listening. The Courante races relentlessly, sending fingers into fast action. The indolent Sarabande is respite. The Gavotte and Bouree amp the pace back up. The Loure is a “slow jig” with a bit of a swing to it. The Gigue finishes with a blaze of cumulative virtuosity. The work is succinct and packed with information.
Bach was a turbulent creative personality as well as a rational master in counterpoint. In the amazing size and complexity of his output, he was driven to try innovative contrapuntal tone combinations. “He was pushing at the limits of tonality,” Rakich says.
Harpsichord players of Bach’s time were often well-known improvisers. In substantial passages of composed music, sequences would be open for in-the-moment individual explorations. Bach did not play to his audience, either. Bach’s church congregations did not appreciate the liberties he took, in both composing and improvising, with unusual and spiritually terrifying tonal combinations.
The harpsichord is a fascinating instrument. The French double harpsichord Rakich played, built by Willard Martin of Bethlehem PA in 1980, was modeled in the style of 17th/18th-century harpsichord-maker Nicholas Blanchet, who designed harpsichords for King Louis XIV of France, a great music patron and dancer.
The body of the instrument is elaborately painted with colorful images colors, like a full-body tattoo. On the keyboard itself, the color scheme scrambles the contemporary eye – the black keys are white and the white keys are black. By a slight adjustment of the top keyboard, a player can choose to play different combinations of keys and strings of slightly different timbre.
A harpsichord sounds different from a piano because the tone is made differently. On a piano, as each key is depressed, a corresponding tone is struck with a small hammer on the metal string. A string can be struck loudly or softly. Thus the piano-forte, meaning “soft-loud,” was just coming into vogue in Bach’s lifetime because it was an innovation where the player could control the volume.
But on a harpsichord, the strings are actually plucked, with a jack – a form of plectrum originally made of crow quills. The sound is strident, insistent – a little crow’s call, a little heavy metal. But with skill and sensitivity, a player can amply render a composer’s originality and “Empfindsamkeit.” As well as her own.
Rakich released a new album of organ performance in 2019, A Tribute to Yuko Hayashi: Richards-Fowkes Opus 14 at Duke University, which is dedicated to her teacher and mentor in graduate work at The New England Conservatory. “Heiller taught me Bach. But Yuko taught me Christa,” she says.
Rakich’s Music at the Red Door pop-up concert was dedicated to David Boe, an organist and long-time teacher at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, who passed away due to complications from COVID-19 on April 28, 2019.
Clare Byrne is a dancer-and-choreographer-turned-songwriter who has performed and taught in New York City and environs, Burlington, VT, and around the world. In addition to songwriting via guitar, harmonica and piano, her multi-art projects have included Weekly Rites, an improvisational dance blog, and The Poor Sister Clares Traveling Dancing Monk Show, an experiment in gospel dance and gardening in Vermont.