Harpsichords: Keys to the baroque

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By Birdie Jaworski

A boy of 14 spent his allowance on a round of pressed vinyl with an unusual name, Switched on Bach. He set a record player’s needle into the album’s grooves. Synthesized sounds catapulted from the player, 18th- century meter and rhyme wrapped in an electronic ribbon. The boy knew his life would change.

“I didn’t know what a harpsichord was,” reminisces composer and instrument maker Daniel Jencka. “I never heard of Baroque music, but it captured my attention and imagination. I went to the library and checked out a book on harpsichords. I bought a record with Bach and Vivaldi compositions. I fell in love with it.”

First created in the 15th century, the harpsichord is a large keyboard instrument with wire strings made of brass, bronze, and iron. The sound is produced by a plectra, a tiny carved device that plucks a string each time a key is pressed. The instrument enjoyed great popularity for over three centuries, and was a favorite of J.S. Bach, Handel, Scarlatti as well as thousands of other composers and musicians.

Desperate to learn how to play the old world instrument, Jencka soon discovered that harpsichords were expensive. His parents purchased an instrument kit through the mail, and by the time he turned 16, his creation was finished.

“I had been taking piano lessons to prepare myself for the harpsichord. A kit can produce a beautiful instrument, but it still takes two to three hundred hours of labor. I started exploring all the harpsichord music I could find, and eventually learned about a player in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who took me on as a student.”

Jencka studied under accomplished harpsichordist Penelope Crawford, then turned his hand to composing while a student at Oakland University where he studied music and philosophy.

“I studied with Stanley Hollingsworth. He was a student of composer Samuel Barber as well as Giancarlo Menotti,” explains Jencka. “Hollingsworth was a very fine composer and a wonderful teacher who really emphasized good counterpoint and melodies and interesting orchestration. I’ve composed music for solo piano and solo harpsichord, and ensemble pieces as well as vocal works with instruments of various kinds.”

As both a solo artist as well as a member of various ensembles, Jencka has performed all over the country, including venues such as the Detroit Art Institute, Henry Ford Museum, Detroit’s Symphony Hall, and Bloomington University. His compositions have been played by ensembles in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Bloomington, Santa Barbara, and at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. As an instrument maker, his elegant creations grace both private homes and public collections.

Jencka is known for his attention to 18th-century performance practice as well as his technical and emotional interpretation of Baroque compositions. During concerts, he will pause between selections in order to describe life in the 18th century, from the powdered wigs to the way musicians traveled from country to country, bringing liberal ideas about culture and music with them. Jencka’s concerts are a sort of time travel, an immersion into the golden age of reason, when people still spoke with each other face-to-face, when music could only be heard live, when we were not so overwhelmed by media and constant noise, when we still had the ability to hear the smallest changes in tone and color.

“Playing the harpsichord isn’t like playing the piano. Even though the keyboard looks the same, to really play it in the 18th century style, you have to use the fingerings that were used at that time.” Jencka extends his fingers as he speaks, flexes thumb and index finger in illustration. “It’s not a piano, it doesn’t have a sustain pedal. You need to make the instrument speak using natural articulations the way the human voice or the call of a bird sings. The instrument has a lot of varieties of mood. In order to recreate the way the music sounded at the time, you need to use the 18th century method of tuning, or temperament. The colors change as you move from key to key. Modern piano doesn’t have this ability to change moods.”

A new resident of Las Vegas, Jencka recently performed during the Children’s Dance Theater’s holiday show. He plans to perform a solo harpsichord concert in January featuring Spanish composers.

“I like Las Vegas because the town has roots,” says Jencka. “I love the outdoor country here. The plains and the mountains are so beautiful. I also like the fact that Las Vegans appreciate music and art.”

To hear some of Daniel’s compositions, and to download his musical scores, please visit his composer’s site at: