“[…] When a student upon the keyed instruments has vanquished all difficulties to be found in the lessons of Handel, Scarlatti, Schobert, Eckart, and C.P.E. Bach; and, like Alexander, laments that nothing more remains to conquer, I would recommend to him, as an exercise for patience and perseverance, the compositions of Müthel; which are so full of novelty, taste, grace, and contrivance, that I should not hesitate to rank them among the greatest productions of the present age. Extraordinary as are the genius and performance of this musician, he is but little known in Germany […]” (Charles Burney, 1773)
Johann Gottfried Müthel was born near Hamburg in 1728 in the town of Mölln, where legend has it that Til Eulenspiegel stayed in the 14th century. As the son of an organist, Müthel was soon exposed to music and played the violin and flute as well as the clavier. At the age of 19, he entered service with Duke Christian Ludwig II (1683-1756) at the court of Mecklenburg in Schwerin. Three years later, in 1750, the young court organist was given a year’s paid leave to study with the great Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig. However, only three months after Müthel’s arrival, the old master died and Bach’s last pupil took on some of his master’s tasks for a few weeks. Müthel decided to embark on a musical journey instead of staying for his planned year of study in Leipzig. During this journey, that took him to several German cities, Müthel met many prominent musicians, including Johann Adolf Hasse in Dresden, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in Berlin and Georg Philipp Telemann in Hamburg, who in turn brought him into contact with the most modern musical trends in Europe.
After his return to Schwerin, the situation at court did not offer many prospects for work. In 1753, Müthel decided to move to Riga, the capital of what is now Latvia, where his brother had already found employment. So the 25-year-old clavier player now became organist in the city where the philosopher and theologist Johann Gottfried Herder also lived from 1764 to 1769 and who praised Müthel as a Kenner der Tonkunst. In the 18th century, Riga was a modern and cosmopolitan city with a flourishing cultural life. At its heart was Baron Otto Hermann von Vietinghoff (1722 – 1792) who had no less than 24 musicians in his employ.
Müthel was not to leave Riga again and, as he grew old, he became an increasingly eccentric figure. For instance, J.C. Brandes, a theatre manager who worked in Riga for several years, wrote in his memoirs: “Also found here was an excellent clavierist named Müthel who, however, had his peculiar whims. One of them was that he would never perform other than in winter time when deep snow covered the streets, in order – as he said – not to be disturbed by the chatter of carriages passing by.” Müthel died unmarried and without children in 1788, leaving a small yet extremely valuable musical oeuvre.
The III Sonates et II Ariosi avec XII Variations pour le Clavessin are the first printed works by Johann Gottfried Müthel. They were published in 1756 in Nuremberg by Johann Ulrich Haffner and dedicated to the previously mentioned Baron von Vietinghoff. These avant-garde compositions are very specifically written for the clavichord, with their open arrangement, transparent texture and refined ornamentation. No other keyboard is so obviously able to bring to life this capricious rococo and such an opulence of figuration and decoration. Müthel’s palette of effects – from contrasting drama to cheerful melancholy and gallant Empfindsamkeit – flourishes on this very softest of keyboard instruments most of all.
The word Clavessin (French for ‘harpsichord) in the title of these works should be regarded as a translation of the German Clavier which was mainly used to describe keyboard instruments in general. In the course of the 18th century, Clavier was increasingly used to refer specifically to the clavichord, as in the expression “mein geliebtes Clavier”, which can be found in many clavichord poems and songs.
The clavichord, an invention from the late Gothic era, was regarded for centuries as the fundamental keyboard instrument (Michael Praetorius, 1619). Its simple construction and modest size made it one of the cheapest and most practical instruments for household use. For novice keyboard players, the simple yet sensible and revealing touch was very useful for learning. In the course of the 18th century, the very quiet clavichord became increasingly valued for its expressive possibilities.Through the keys and the tangent (a brass plate that is pressed against the string), the player has direct contact with the string. As a result, it is possible to evoke much greater dynamic differences than on an organ or a harpsichord. A clavichord is even capable of making a vibrato, a technique called Bebung (a German term).
By the mid-18th century, the clavichord was the most important instrument for solo keyboard music in the German-language world. In his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (1753), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach preferred it above the harpsichord, which was regarded as suitable for starcke Musick (when playing with other instruments), and the fortepiano, which was still only in development.
Menno van Delft
Translation: Martin Cleaver
Large 5-octave clavichord by J.A. Hass, Hamburg, 1763
Russell Collection, Edinburgh, Catalogue Nr. C2-JH1763.22
Very little is known of the Hass family. Hieronymus Albrecht Hass, who was Johann Adolph’s father, was born in 1689, and married in 1711. The only information that we have about Johann Adolph Hass is that he acquired Hamburg citizenship and was married in 1746, and that he was dead by 1776. It therefore seems likely that he was born in the period between 1712 to 1715.
J.A. Hass was one of the finest clavichord and harpsichord builders of all time. His instruments are carefully and beautifully designed and laid out, and the quality of his workmanship is of the highest order. Aside from the painstaking craftmanship, many of his instruments are sumptuously decorated. Indeed, this clavichord has one of the finest decorative schemes of any of the extant Hass clavichords. The outside of the lid and case have a silver-coloured chinoiserie decoration on a vermilion ground. The inside of the case is veneered with olive wood and kingwood. The toolbox lid is finely decorated with incised mother of pearl and tortoise shell; the incised decoration is filled with red vermilion paint. The lid painting is a rural scene with houses, a river with boats, and figures in a neo-Chinese style, and this is surrounded with a silver-coloured chinoiserie border. The soundboard is decorated with large flowers, painted in a rather stiff and slightly naïve style, almost certainly by the same decorator who painted the 1764 harpsichord in the Russell Collection also by Johann Adolph Hass. The natural keys are topped with turtoise shell, the sharps with mother of pearl and the natural keyfronts have arcades of ivory. The present stand is not original but is in general keeping with the style of the rest of the instrument.
This clavichord is a typical late-eighteenth century instrument with a compass of 5 octaves from F’ to f’’’. There is the usual bichord stringing throughout with an extra set of 4’ strings from the lowest F’ to B (19 notes). Bach is said to have disliked this feature in the bass because, to him, he heard the parallel octaves in the bass which stopped at B. This clavichord, like most of those by Hass, has the gauge numbers of the strings which Hass intended to string it marked near each of the tuning pins. The instrument has been strung using strings with diameters based on recent research into the gauge-diameter equivalents of these numbers. We can therefore be quite certain that the sound and playing properties of this instrument are very similar to those which would have been experienced by Hass’s client who purchased the instrument in 1763. This is one of the few instruments in the Russell Collection for which we are fairly certain of the first owner. In this case it was a wealthy Amsterdam merchant named Jan Six. The Russell Collection archives contain a number of documents claiming that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played this clavichord when he and his father visited Jan Six in Amsterdam in 1767. There seems little reason to doubt these claims and so it is quite possible that Mozart did, indeed, play this instrument!
Curator, The Russell Collection
MENNO VAN DELFT was born in Amsterdam in 1963. He studied harpsichord, organ and musicology with Gustav Leonhardt, Bob van Asperen, Piet Kee, Jacques van Oortmerssen and Willem Elders, in 1988 winning the clavichord prize at the C. Ph. E. Bach Competition in Hamburg. He has given concerts and masterclasses throughout Europe and the U.S.A., made numerous recordings for radio and television, and performs with many soloists and ensembles including Pieter Wispelwey, Johannette Zomer, Ensemble Schönbrunn, Nederlandse Opera, Al Ayre Español, Cantus Cölln, Nederlandse Bachvereniging.
Van Delft’s discography includes J.S. Bach’s six violin sonatas (with Johannes Leertouwer), Musical Offering (with Ensemble Schönbrunn), Art of Fugue and Toccatas, and keyboard works by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.
Menno van Delft teaches harpsichord, clavichord and basso continuo at the Amsterdam Conservatoire.