Thomas Goff and his Clavichords

BCS day at Magdalene College, Cambridge, 27 November 1999

The clavichords of Thomas Goff (1898-1975) have not been in fashion in the decades since his death, when keyboard players and makers have generally preferred instruments more closely based on historical models. But in his lifetime Goff's clavichords were highly valued, both by musicians, such as Violet Gordon Woodhouse, Ruth Dyson and Thurston Dart, and by fellow instrument makers, many of whom were his pupils. The aim of this study day was to attempt an unbiased evaluation of Goff clavichords, and to recapture, if possible, some of the pleasure they gave to contemporaries.

Report by Peter Bavington:

Edmund Handy began the day with a talk on the technical aspects of Goff's clavichords. There were two basic designs, both unfretted: a rectangular double-strung type and a pentagonal single-strung one, both normally made with a compass of four octaves and a tone, C-d3. Both had high, heavy bridges like those of square pianos, heavily weighted keys, and brass stringing with a rather short scale, typically about 75 per cent of breaking stress.

The sources of the designs are a matter for debate; but what is beyond doubt is that these clavichords were quite unlike those produced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This would not have bothered Tom Goff, whose aim seems to have been to produce a kind of ideal musical medium, rather than to reconstruct what composers of the past would have known. In some ways this attitude can be compared to that of the early pioneers of the harpsichord, who were also concerned with achieving a sustained tone. There is, however, one difference: the sound of Goff clavichords is extraordinarily beautiful, indeed almost too exquisite, whereas early and mid-twentieth-century harpsichords, even in their own time, were criticised for wiry, clattery, unattractive sound.

There are indications that Goff developed his design over the years, the aim being to increase further the sweetness and sustaining power. Certainly the extraordinary sustain of his clavichords, in which the sound actually seems to swell for a while after the note has been struck, is their most obvious musical characteristic.

This was demonstrated in the recital by Derek Adlam which followed. Derek had selected two kinds of repertoire for which Goff is known to have had an affinity: English keyboard music of the seventeenth century, and works by J. S. Bach. Some pieces, for example the E minor prelude in the version composed for the young Wilhelm Friedemann, suited the instrument quite well: in others, particularly the more contrapuntal ones, the utmost skill was required to present the music with intelligible clarity. Derek's playing transcended any such limitations to create moving and effective performances, notably in the great Fantasia on the 3rd tone by Orlando Gibbons, from Parthenia.

The long sustain of Goff clavichords is achieved at some sacrifice of overall volume of sound; nonetheless, in the tranquil surroundings and favourable acoustic of Magdalene College Hall audibility was surprisingly good. The rapt silence of the audience helped.

The afternoon session began with a recital by Rex Muffett, using a clavichord made by one of Goff's disciples, the distinguished ex-diplomat Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh, which is in every way typical of the Goff design in its final phase. The programme was designed to illustrate the wide variety of styles which could be interpreted on the instrument. Interestingly, Rex chose several transcriptions, including guitar preludes by Carulli and Ponce. Music for the Spanish guitar often makes use of a stylistic device whereby harmonies are built up through the use of an arabesque of overlapping notes. This works supremely well on the Goff-type clavichord. Another interesting transcription was of two movements from Bach's 6th cello suite, played by Rex with feeling and discretion. Chords which can sound rather blunt-edged on a historical clavichord here bloomed much as they would have done under the cello's sweeping bow: the slowness of speech typical of a Goff instrument was here actually an advantage.. However, when Rex played three pieces by Bartok, one would perhaps have relished the vigorous attack of a more historical type of clavichord, although the playing was musical and idiomatic.

Rex followed his recital with a short talk. He knew Goff in the 1960s, and gave us some intriguing glimpses of his life at that time: the paradoxical relationship with his cabinet-maker J. C. Cobby, always clearly regarded as an employee, but nonetheless scrupulously acknowledged as collaborator on the nameboard of every instrument; the white-gloved butler serving supper; the friendship with the Queen Mother; the disciples and assistants, some from wealthy and aristocratic circles.

This led naturally to Richard Luckett's discussion of the literary echoes of the English clavichord revival. Clavichord owners in the first half of the twentieth century included Robert Bridges, George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound, the composer Lord Berners, and the artist Raoul Dufy; and the instrument is mentioned in poems by Bridges, Hardy, and (famously) Walter de la Mare.

The discussion which followed benefited from the contributions of a number of people who knew Goff and his working methods. Here we were fortunate to hear from Peter Owen, a clavichord maker who worked with Goff and who has, uniquely and rather bravely, continued to make clavichords in the Goff tradition, against the trend of fashion. Peter is an advocate of single-stringing, which in his opinion produces a purer sound than conventional double-stringing. He had brought with him an exquisite example of his work, a polygonal clavichord decorated with marbling and ebony veneer, which certainly demonstrated the possibilities of this design; remarkably, in a test, it was probably as loud as the double-strung instruments and was clearly audible at the back of the hall.

The final recital of the day was given by Virginia Pleasants whose programme included some music actually inspired by and written for the Goff clavichord: three pieces by Herbert Howells, and the Ten Pieces for Clavichord, inspired by Armenian folk songs and dances, by BCS member Haward Clarke (who died last year). Here the music came alive as it does not when, as so often, these works are performed on the piano: a sustained golden harmonic warmth, like the glow of Goff's Fireside, echoed the candles which, by that time, were the only available illumination in the body of Magdalene Hall. Virginia's recital included a touching performance of J.S. Bach's Lament from the Capriccio BWV 992.

Can we, then, achieve any kind of evaluation of Goff's clavichords? Certainly, pieces written for them - a small but not insignificant repertoire - work best on them, and occasionally they can illuminate old music in a new and startling way, bringing a dreamy romanticism to certain pieces of J.S. Bach, for example. However, their range is small: in vigorous or contrapuntal pieces - and not only those of past centuries - one might prefer a more historically oriented instrument.

This is a personal view from one member of the audience. What do you think? If you were there and want to add your own views, let us know [click here to e-mail].

We'd also like to hear from you if you have any information or opinions about Goff and his clavichords.

A fuller version of this report was published in the February 2000 issue of the British Clavichord Society Newsletter (available from BCS Shop, price £1.20 plus post and packing). And, as well as posting reports on this site, we're planning a publication on Goff clavichords and are collecting material for our archives. For more information, write to Judith Wardman (BCS), 26A Church Lane, London N8 7BU, or click here to send an e-mail.

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updated 20 February 2009